Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 16, 2010

Partisanship is the antithesis of critical thinking

Partisanship — Devoted to or biased in support of a party, group, or cause.” ~ American Heritage Dictionary

During a recent dinner with friends, the conversation turned to the sorry state of extreme partisanship in which Americans find ourselves. A friend related his shock when he heard prominent conservatives decrying a decision to reduce government spending and privatize a government program — weren’t these bedrock principles for most Republicans, he wondered? Yes, of course they are, unless the decision that achieves them is made by a Democrat, in this case, President Barack Obama’s announcement that his budget would not fund any more manned moon missions and to use a private company to take astronauts into low earth orbit.

You’d think that conservatives would be applauding Obama for seeing things “their” way on this issue, but a partisan can’t give any credit to or support the ideas of people who aren’t members of their “team.”

I’m an Obama supporter — I voted for him, volunteered for him, and endorsed him in this column — but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he does or everything the Democratic Party does, or that I refrain from criticizing Obama and the Democratic Party.

For example, I agree with Obama on the need for merit pay for public school teachers but disagree with his opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage. I agree with Obama on the need for health care reform but disagree with his reluctance to prosecute the people who enabled and practiced torture in the last administration.

The problem of partisanship is not limited to the national stage. It’s easy to see that partisanship has crippled the California legislature. Republicans take pledges to not support any new taxes, a naive act at best, a cynical act at worst. Democrats are so beholden to unions that the fat pay and benefits packages that have become the norm for public sector workers threaten to bankrupt this state. Drawing district boundaries after each census became so partisan — with elected state legislators drawing districts to create “safe” seats rather than districts made up of geographically related communities with shared interests — that voters finally took the job away from them.

What’s the cure for partisanship? Critical thinking.

A few years ago, a reader contacted me about a state election ballot with many initiatives. He was overwhelmed by the ballot, confused by the partisan half-truths being spewed by each side about each measure, and decided to vote however I recommended because he liked my column. While at first this reader’s reaction might seem flattering, instead I was  distressed that he was ignoring my oft-repeated exhortations about the importance of critical thinking. I explained why I was voting the way I was on each measure and encouraged the reader to evaluate the measures according to his priorities and come to his own decision on each.

That story illustrates why many people become partisans: It’s easy. The union says it’s bad, it’s bad, no thinking required. The chamber says it’s good, it’s good, no thinking required. The party says jump, you jump, no thinking required.

Critical thinking is hard work. It requires evaluating claims, asking difficult questions, insisting upon clear, truthful answers, identifying and rejecting fallacies and half-truths, and weighing competing priorities. Partisanship is easy. But despite the temptations of partisanship, and no matter how much you like a pundit, politician, party, or organization, it’s important to evaluate claims for yourself.

It’s naive for either side of the equation — supporter or supported — to think that it’s appropriate to agree with any pundit, politician, party or organization all the time. We need to remember that it’s important to criticize a pundit, politician, party or organization when you disagree with them.

Disagreement and criticism are sometimes hard for folks with thin skins stretched around oversize egos to take, but disagreement and criticism are important to finding the best ideas, no matter where they originate.

When we place a higher value on loyalty to a pundit, politician, party or organization than we do on loyalty to critically evaluating ideas, regardless of who posits them, we hurt ourselves, our communities, our state, and our country.

Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.” ~ American Historian James Harvey Robinson

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