Why Most Americans Hate Partisan Politics

A Washington political journalist unashamedly derives pleasure from a national failure.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Obamacare critics who anticipated the law's problems are well within their rights to claim vindication, and they can even be forgiven for a smug I-told-you-so or two. But only a partisan zealot would react like National Review's Jonah Goldberg.

Up front, he notes that it's no laughing matter that anxious Americans are losing their health insurance and living under a flawed law. "But come on, people," he writes. "If you can’t take some joy, some modicum of relief and mirth, in the unprecedentedly spectacular beclowning of the president, his administration, its enablers, and, to no small degree, liberalism itself, then you need to ask yourself why you’re following politics in the first place. Because, frankly, this has been one of the most enjoyable political moments of my lifetime."

This is why normal Americans mistrust partisan political junkies. Generally speaking, partisans like Jonah Goldberg are perfectly kind, upstanding people who treat their friends, family members, and even perfect strangers with goodwill. But get them talking about politics, whether in a column or in the comments of their favorite blog or at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and the loss of perspective is as dramatic as Goofy's when he gets behind the wheel in Motor Mania:

They ask questions like why follow politics if you don't take joy and mirth in the failure of partisan adversaries? Hmm. To stay informed? To participate in the civic process? To improve policy? Goldberg writes as if those motives never occur to him and treats deriving one's joy from political schadenfreude as normal. 

But it is not! For most Americans, politics is a necessary means of making decisions about how we'll be governed, not a source of emotional succor or a dorky analog to a team-sports rivalry. "Ha ha! I told you that your quarterback sucks!"

A person with a healthy attitude toward politics might cite, as their favorite political moment, something that made society more just, efficient or prosperous.

"Frankly," Goldberg writes, "this has been one of the most enjoyable political moments of my lifetime." Really? You've followed U.S. politics closely your whole life, and what you've most enjoyed is a health care web site's failure and people having their insurance cancelled? See, for me, it's the Berlin Wall falling. This would be less awful if Goldberg kept this to himself and felt mildly ashamed. We've all indulged schadenfreude and known that we shouldn't. To argue that there's something wrong with people who don't feel political schadenfreude? That means that you're part of the reason most Americans regard the political class with disgust, as if there is something unsavory about their mindset. 

There is!

President Obama ought to be criticized for misleading Americans about the ability to keep their doctors, for presiding over a historic technology failure, and for many other things besides. But his critics should not participate in politics in the hope that they can experience mirth and joy at national failures when they're carried out by leaders from the political party to which they don't belong. Conservatives are supposed to be on guard against base instincts, not celebrate them.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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