Pundits and analysts seem to agree: Negative partisanship is bad. When voters are motivated by hatred of the other party, rather than by affirmative hope and optimism, democracy, we are assured, suffers. Conservative columnist Damon Linker calls negative partisanship a “magic poison” and bemoans the fact that neither party offers a “compelling positive vision of the country’s future.” Scholar Lee Drutman at Vox warned that negative partisanship encourages “tribal epistemologies” that will create a “doom loop” of mistrust, in which partisans hate each other so much they are no longer willing to abide by the results of elections that go against them. The United States, in Drutman’s view, is sliding towards secession or authoritarianism, and negative partisanship is the cause.
But is negative partisanship really the source of all our woes? Aesthetically, it’s more pleasant to think that people are voting out of joy and hope rather than out of animosity and disgust. But there’s little evidence that outcomes are worse when the latter trumps the former. On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe that negative partisanship makes a positive contribution to the democratic process. Blaming negative partisanship is ultimately just another way to attribute our political breakdown to both sides, when in fact our problem is that one party is unilaterally spiraling into authoritarianism and racist conspiracy mongering.
Partisanship in general has long been looked upon with suspicion in the United States. The founding fathers didn’t envision political parties, and George Washington famously warned against the dangers of “faction” in his farewell address.
But political scientists today generally believe that party affiliation has important benefits. For example, partisanship increases voter turnout, in part by boosting get-out-the-vote efforts. A 2010 study also suggested that partisans are more likely to contribute to public goods—that is, to the preservation or creation of things that contribute to everyone’s welfare non-exclusively, like public parks, lighthouses, or clean air. For a healthy democracy, it’s important for citizens to vote and to participate in public life. If political parties and partisanship motivate people to be more active citizens, that’s a good thing.
Many people argue that only positive partisanship motivates people to participate, and that negative partisanship leads people to turn away from public life in disgust. But that’s not always true, according to a 2015 paper in the Canadian Journal of Political Science. Looking at negative and positive partisanship in Canada, they found that negative partisanship increased voter turnout, just as positive partisanship did. Negative partisanship was also associated with increased likelihood of protest—while positive partisanship was not.