June 5, 2004

Partisanship ... and good-bye to Ronald Reagan.

Over breakfast this morning and out of range of the internet, I read David Brooks's op-ed in today's NYT, which dealt with a question I think about a lot: why do people have the party affiliations they do?
Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler argue in their book, "Partisan Hearts and Minds," ... people do not choose parties by comparing platforms and then figuring out where the nation's interests lie. Drawing on a vast range of data, these political scientists argue that party attachment is more like attachment to a religious denomination or a social club. People have stereotypes in their heads about what Democrats are like and what Republicans are like, and they gravitate toward the party made up of people like themselves.

Once they have formed an affiliation, people bend their philosophies and their perceptions of reality so they become more and more aligned with members of their political tribe.

I spent much of the day at the American Museum of Natural History catching glimpses of the tribal ways of the human being. It is sometimes very beautiful and poignant. And yet I have to think that we are born to rise above these attachments and to think rationally and scientifically.

As I walk across Central Park--that rationally constructed imitation of nature--my cell phone rings and it's John telling me of news reports that Reagan is near death. Back at the hotel, I get connected to the internet and begin to download the day's pictures. John calls again to say that Reagan has died, and we both turn on CNN together in time to hear a clip of Reagan's Challenger speech, which seems to refer to his death now. There are shots of Reagan on horseback and striding in the sunlight with Nancy at his side.

I'm struck by how soon after I heard he was dying that I--mired in this partisan world--began to think about the effect his death would have on the Presidential race. It would help Bush--wouldn't it?--to return to the positive images of the Reagan era for the next week. It could only hurt him if he overreaches and uses the occasion for his advantage too noticeably, if he makes what we might call the Wellstone Mistake. I imagine the Kerry camp cursing their bad luck or contemplating how or whether to mix the nice things they must say about Reagan with sideswiping comparisons to Bush. I wish I hadn't even thought about these things. The aged President has died--one ought to think kind thoughts about the dead man and not taint the occasion with politics, but that doesn't seem possible. How I hate partisan politics!

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