Four Problems with Partisan Partitioning

Political analysis tends to run in well-trod pathways, with its thinkers reliant on a set of insufficiently questioned assumptions. Here are four that inflict damage on our collective discourse ……


Traditionally, the partisan population has been sorted into two camps: conservative and liberal. Lately, more sophisticated thinkers have added a third: the libertarians. A few members of the credentialed class then take this trend to its limits by dividing the political world into countless categories of belief (theo-conservative, radical centrist, collectivist, etc.).

Both of these approaches – “too few” and “too many” – lack a clear conception of the partisan landscape. In contrast, a productive worldview accommodates a few foundational groups, plus the precise divisions derived from their complex intersections.

America is not divided in two. Nor in three. Instead, four main groups structure the political playing field. Two are focused on power (centralized versus decentralized). Two are oriented toward values (liberal versus conservative).


It’s so common to define conservatives as “those who follow tradition” that it’s difficult for many folks to consider the right-leaning category within any other framework. But tradition is a derivative quality, not a primary characteristic.

In the case of conservatives, they support certain traditions because western societies were paternally-oriented for centuries. Within other historical spans, however, liberals have established traditions that they’re equally unwilling to part with. Just ask one of them to contemplate the discontinuation of an FDR-era entitlement program, for example.


An assumption is made by most political pundits that the real action is in Washington DC, Brussels, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Wall Street, or a similar seat of centralized power. This causes those thinkers to regard local entities as unimportant backwaters. For example, most state capitals are considered unworthy of attention, unless some governor makes a national play …… or a local tragedy triggers debate on a hot-button national policy initiative.

It’s not inconceivable, however, that the greatest advances in our century will be of the grassroots variety. Agricultural movements like permaculture, organic farming, and local sourcing hold the keys to several current problems, including those affecting the environment. These efforts are joined by other incrementalist approaches – like crowdsourcing, new urbanism, and micro-lending – that could change our society’s trajectory. Citizen-empowering approaches are worthy of more attention.


The phrase, “talking heads” gets at the assumption behind excessive wordsmithing: sophisticated, well-dressed pundits elucidate voluminous answers to the world’s thorniest issues. And yet, those problems rarely get solved …… or they get worse …… or they’re punted to the default solution of ever-increasing power centralization.

But a concept presented in seven syllables is not more productive than a concept expressed with three.

In contrast, spatial explanations are treated, at best, as ingenious little tricks that might communicate some metaphor. More often, they’re regarded as illegitimate. Spatial constructs are rarely treated as foundational analytical tools. Therefore, we fail to make progress against many of the deep problems our society faces.

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