Why We're Voting for the Wrong Reasons

"Negative partisanship" can be cured by positive change.

These three quotes accurately reflect an unsustainable trend in American politics: We're voting for the wrong reasons.

1. "Politics isn't about love. It's about who you fear." —Ezra Klein, Vox

2. "People don't like their own party any more or less than they used to, but they dislike the other party much more." —Dan Balz, The Washington Post

3. "[V]oters form strong loyalties based more on loathing for the opposing party than on the old kind of tribal loyalty." —Jonathan Chait, New York magazine

Klein, Balz, and Chait are summarizing the findings of Emory University's Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, who studied a range of political attitudes to determine what best predicts party loyalty. They concluded that a key motivator of voters is "negative partisanship."

"Regardless of the strength of their attachment to their own party, the more voters dislike the opposing party, the greater probability that they will vote consistently for their own party's candidates," according to the Emory study.

In today's politics, a vote is far more likely to be a force of castigation than a result of inspiration or aspiration. I call it the "least-lousy justification": My side sucks, but not as much as those other guys.

Klein put it this way: "We like the party we belong to a bit less, but we hate the other party much more."

This doesn't bode well for the future of the Democratic and Republican parties, unless they're able to cement their duopoly in a lesser-of-two-evils political system—and in that case, it doesn't bode well for democracy.

Let me explain. Klein argues that the Emory study "attempts to untangle a mystery about modern American politics: How can there be record levels of party loyalty and straight-ticket voting at the same time that fewer Americans than ever before are identifying as Republicans and Democrats?"

The answer, according to Abramowtiz and Webster, is negative partisanship.

I can buy that. But it's only half of the equation: Another explanation for why frustrated voters align with one of the two major parties, despite the fact that they don't feel comfortable in either one, is that they have no other choice.

The Democratic and Republican parties are in a conspiracy of disillusionment. These two antiquated and corrupt institutions cling to the status quo while the rest of the world is undergoing radical transformation and cannibalism.

What if we had an alternative? What if the next campaign cycle or two produced a new congressional party, a credible independent presidential campaign, or radical change from within the GOP or Democratic Party?

In other words, what if people were given something to vote for rather than against? What if the next aspirational election (like 2008) resulted in new ways to campaign and govern that begin to restore the public's faith in politics (unlike 2009-present)?

I suspect negative partisanship would decline, along with the infuence of those professional partisans and pundits who profit from hate and fear.

As I've written before, there is hope that the civic-minded millennial generation will "destroy" the political status quo because they, for the most part, are pragmatic and purpose-driven and are less ideological than their parents or grandparents.

One small example is this email from Alex Torpey, the 27-year-old mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, who I asked to review the Emory study. It is edited for length.

As not just a millennial, and not just a nonaffiliated voter, but also a nonaffiliated elected official, I see the partisanship, which has gone from "Here are two sides working toward the same goals, but provide a check to keep each other honest and elections competitive" to "How do we play the system to make sure our side wins and our organization maintains or gains power." "¦

It's a trap many companies, organizations, and governments fall into: They fail to separate the "institution" from the "concept" or why the institution exists, and rather than find ways to advance the concept (of governance, defined by their values), they find ways to advance the institution. It's easier to do, it produces more tangible "results," and it ensures any one person's survival within the organization because it's ensuring the survival of the organization. "¦

Because so many appear to have lost sight of the larger issues (the concept) and focused on a war of institutions, they've managed to turn an entire generation off from it. I don't see the value of joining a party, because they are showing me no value as a person interested in the concepts. As the organizations continue to operate in "organization world," where the goals of the organization are most important, they lose good talent from folks who don't really care about that and see that it's not the best way to actually accomplish larger goals of social change, of good policymaking, and of justice and progress. The cycle continues, as you see brilliant young people so totally uninspired by government, so resigned of its failure, literally reshaping legal frameworks for how businesses and nonprofits operate to fit them into their passion for social change. 

But, unfortunately, because government does matter so much, the brain drain that exists means the government, mostly many of our legislative bodies, is performing poorly, and we're all suffering because of it. The best way out of this seems to be finding ways to show people, especially young people, that there is tremendous value in participating in a civic space, whether it be in a local school board, by running for mayor, by county or state government, or wherever.

As more people realize this, it will build momentum, and I believe we're already seeing that. I've met dozens of amazing young people at local and state levels of government, some of whom do identify with a party, but above all, they personally identify with their own goals and with the value that the government in this country is a dynamic, experimental institution that is just waiting for people to come in, shake it up, and get it on the right path."

I pray he's right and millennials reinvent politics and government so that people don't feel compelled to hold their nose while voting.