Why We Won’t Agree

Harvey Mansfield. "Why We Won't Agree," Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2017.


What is a political party? James Campbell explores our politics’ characteristic dividedness in an excellent new book, starkly titled Polarized, that deserves to be read widely and carefully.

Campbell, who teaches political science at the University of Buffalo, is not a theorist, at least not overtly, but to see what is at stake, as well as to appreciate the new (or rather, old) path he opens up, one may begin from the theoretical viewpoint he challenges. Since the 1950s political scientists have worked within a distinction between interests and opinions, and with an emphasis on the former. Interests, they claimed, are mostly economic, hence narrow, hence definable as causes of behavior: you vote as you do because of your interest. By contrast, opinions are political, hence broad, hence vague, hence not definable as causes of the sort that produce effects. Opinions are what people say, whereas interests are the motives that prompt them to act, and also to speak, in order to express or conceal their interests. Political scientists have by and large thought that interests are more reliable, because less deceptive, than opinions. To understand interests one must learn to deprecate, even ignore, opinions, for it is often in your interest to disguise your interest as a high-minded opinion. By focusing on interests, political science as it’s been practiced for the past century has minimized the enthusiasm and zeal of partisans, failing to make real sense of their excited excesses. The study of opinions, however, allows partisans to explain themselves by taking seriously the human desire to rise above one’s selfish interest—taking charge of oneself as a free agent instead of being defined by some outside observer or partisan opponent.

The sensible course would be to say that in politics people are sometimes motivated by principle, sometimes by interest; they are inconsistent. And if this is so, perhaps the difference between interest and principle is not so clear as those who act from either motive believe it to be. Once you start explaining partisan politics with one, it seems arbitrary to shift to the other. My late colleague Richard Neustadt, a canny student of parties, once complained in my hearing of an incident with an exit pollster who questioned him after he had voted. Why had he voted as he did? His response was “Because I’m a Democrat.” The pollster looked at her clipboard for this category of explanation and did not find it. Neustadt in his answer was speaking not only as a professor looking at people’s interests but also as a voter looking to defend himself and dignify his opinion.

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