How Partisanship Works

Ross Douthat has an excellent post on how our ideas change when people we like are in power, or out of it:

It manifests itself in changing emphases as much as in explicit changes in position. 

Thus Fallows makes the point, correctly, that most liberals haven't suddenly fallen in love with the anti-terrorism measures -- wiretapping and Guantanamo, drone attacks and assassinations -- that Barack Obama has either accepted or expanded. ("I don't know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama's policy," he writes, "as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.") But what they've done instead -- which many honorable exceptions, obviously -- is downgraded the importance of those issues, in much the same way that conservatives downgraded the importance of being against "big government" when a big-government Republican occupied the Oval Office.

It wasn't that most right-wingers explicitly changed their opinions on the wisdom of, say, expanding Medicare just because George W. Bush was championing a new prescription drug benefit: Conservative journals still editorialized against Medicare Part D, and conservative activists stored away the issue as an example of why Bush fell short of the Reaganite ideal. But if you followed the national political conversation from 2000 through roughly 2006, it was clear that most Republican partisans learned to live with spending and deficits that would have inspired, well, Tea Party-style activism if they had been the work of a Democratic administration. And the same thing has happened with many, many Democrats today: They aren't happy, exactly, that Obama has expanded drone attacks (which are arguably more morally troubling than many "enhanced interrogation" procedures) along the AfPak frontier, but they seem to have downgraded these kind of policies from "grave threat to the very foundation of the republic" to "unfortunate failure that we have to learn to live with, because the Republicans are worse."

The arguments change, but the underlying ideology doesn't.

 This means that while partisan psychology may inspire a liberal and a conservative that argue for the same kind of policy -- the liberal when it's being proposed by a Democrat, the conservative when it's being backed by Republicans -- they'll still often still make ideologically-different arguments to justify that policy. This isn't always true: Sometimes partisan arguments are purely opportunistic as well. (The way Chuck Schumer used the Dubai Ports controversy to attack the Bush administration from the populist right is an obvious recent example.) But usually there's some ideologically consistency to the way arguments are framed, even when partisan psychology is influencing when and how they're made.

So when a liberal like Eugene Robinson defends invasive screenings as integral to airport security, he manages to bring his argument around to impeccably liberal ground by arguing that body scans are the only alternative to the awfulness of racial profiling. (Charles Krauthammer's initially-libertarian argument against the scans does the same trick in reverse.) When conservatives attacked Clinton's wars of choice, they made arguments against nation-building; when liberals attacked Bush's wars of choice, they made arguments about international law. When Republicans run large deficits, conservative partisans make supply-side and starve-the-beast arguments; when Democrats run even larger deficits, liberal partisans defend them by talking about "stimulus" and "investment." (There's a corollary: If your political opponent does something you would normally support on ideological grounds, you'll probably find a way to attack the policy for being poorly-designed and executed. As Ezra Klein recalled yesterday, that's how liberal partisans greeted Medicare Part D, among other Bush administration forays into welfare spending.)

All of these points apply to my own writings and arguments as well.

 This, I hope, goes without saying.  

There's no way to prevent this entirely; our emotions, and what we care about, are what they are, and besides, maybe you're right this time, and were wrong previously.  (I wrote about a somewhat related phenomenon here).  But if we recognize it, we can at least fight it.