Our Polarized Parties Dimly Seen

"Our Polarized Parties Dimly Seen," National Affairs, Winter: 2020.


By various measures, America’s political parties now have a high degree, perhaps an excess, of polarization. Mainstream political science has difficulty understanding this condition because political science now tends to begin from the notion that interests, rather than ideas, are the prime cause of political behavior. This premise blinds many scholars to a great deal of what matters about politics — and it may be especially blinding just now.

And yet, political science turns out not quite to believe its own premise. To understand “interest,” one must consider the contrast between opinion (as the expression of ideas) and interest. Opinion is common and ordinary, distinct from scientific knowledge, yet it is also an attempt at knowledge of what is true and what is good. The contrast between opinion and interest can bring us to understand some subtle, implicit concessions that contemporary political science makes to the power of opinion (or ideas) — particularly through the concept of “preferences,” and through a reliance on surveys.

With these concessions, mainstream political science evinces a loss of nerve in its devotion to the scientific project, which it neither fulfils nor forswears. And it opens the door to an even more profound challenge from ambition, a human quality not explicable by interest but which is the outstanding feature of America’s party politics. With partisanship and ambition comes the notion of rule, which is a key to understanding politics but is now covered over and lost to sight under layers of scientific pretensions. By digging out that concept, we might come to understand our situation far more clearly.

National Affairs