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Friday, February 04, 2005
Why partisanship fades

Matthew Yglesias notes the tendency of those on both sides of America's political divide straightforwardly to dislike the Presidents of opposing parties while they are in office, but to come in the following decades to find much to appreciate about them.

[For liberals] this tendency is probably most pronounced with regard to presidents Eisenhower and H.W. Bush, and then to a lesser extent with Nixon and Reagan while as far as I can tell Gerald Ford has generally failed to inspire strong feelings one way or the other. Upon further reflection, you see something rather similar with conservative intellectuals. Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy most notably all turn out to have hidden virtues that their conservative contemporaries were totally unaware of. Franklin Roosevelt is a more complicated but generally similar case. Certainly, almost no one on the mainstream right would today unleash the sort of vitriol against him that was commonplace at the time. Bill Clinton is probably too contemporary for this phenomenon to have worked its way through, but we're seeing the early signs of it already.

It's certainly something I have noticed, too. I remember reading in Margaret Thatcher's memoirs with surprise and some amusement that she was an admirer of Clement Attlee, whose dreadful legacy she helped obliterate. But then I realised myself that I admire Gladstone to the degree that I struggle to prefer Disraeli. I've no doubt it's a common phenomenon, and it certainly shows a distinct lack of empathy for ideological soulmates of earlier ages. It's as if Disraeli is urging fellow conservatives to get some fire in their bellies about the threat the Liberals pose, and their response is simply to shrug their shoulders and say that Gladstone is his problem: we have Tony Blair to worry about.

But while Matthew Yglesias appears rather mystified by why this happens, I think it's rather obvious, and hinted at in his post - as time passes, most of the emotional dislike anyone feels for contemporary opponents dissipates. One goes on disapproving of most of that Prime Minister or President's agenda, but without the intensity of the emotional effect of seeing on the news that person introducing policies one hates, of spending recent years pounding the streets campaigning against him and then seeing the election nonetheless go in his favour. The political disagreement becomes academic and factual with each passing year, as these memories fade and new rivals crop up to drain one's aggression.

Perhaps if we were all more reasonable, it is how we would feel about contemporary foes, too. But then politics would be immeasurably more dull if even in the heat of the moment it never became more exciting than the choice between Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Wilson now seems.

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