Red Sox are Democrats and Yankees are Republicans

Henry Farrell, who over the course of my thesis has become my favorite current academic, wrote an awesome article in last week’s American Prospect outlining the trade-offs between partisanship and participation. There is a commonly held view, amongst intellectuals, politicians and the public, that civic culture is in decline and partisanship is at an all time high. Less people are involved and those who are involved are less likely to talk to each other. Farrell, of late, has been writing journal articles arguing something more sophisticated and contemporary: namely, that partisanship is a boon to participation.

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

This is, I think, the key lesson of online organizing for both theorist concerned about normative issues and activist concerned with mobilizing supporters. Online politics offers an extension of traditional party politics that can provide new tools and opportunities, but does not alter the structure of the electoral system.

There is a tradeoff in online participation between moderation and active participation. My girlfriend offered a useful analogy for Farrell’s argument by likening political partisans to sports fans. (An analogy that compares sports to politics: it should be obvious why I like this girl.) More engaged sports fans are more likely to know more about their team, but also, as a consequence more about the other teams, the league’s schedule, and how the game is played. Those more likely to go to a game, or buy a team hat, are those who care most about their team. Likewise, more partisan citizens are more likely to donate money or volunteer for a political organization, or talk to their friends about politics.

Theorists and media denizens who wish for active citizen interest in politics without partisanship seek to separate the reality of politics as practice from the idea of politics as a deliberative process (David Broder, I’m looking at you). Taking an active rooting interest is a crucial part of enjoying sports – and politics. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be cordial relations between members of parties, or active consultations with members of the opposition. It is most fun as a sports fan to watch the game with other people who care as much as you – whatever team they might be rooting for.

In politics, as in sports, this kind of thing is unacceptable:

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