10/10/13: Partisanship ahead of the public good?

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

A STAGGERING 70 percent of those surveyed in a recent poll agree that politicians are more concerned with partisan advantage than the good of Virginia.

When was the last time 70 percent of us agreed on anything?

Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy released the second part of its survey of Virginia voters Wednesday morning. On this particular question, significant majorities of every demographic surveyed — Democrats, Republicans, independents, males, females, whites, blacks — agreed with the statement.

There are few issues on which such a large percentage of voters agree. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of one that has come before our legislature that enjoys such broad support.

The transportation bill that passed? Nope. Lifting the ban on uranium mining? Nope. Redistricting reform? Nope. A two-term governor? Nope.

Which raises the question: Did those voters surveyed see the question as a negative? Has the definition of “what’s good for our state” been amended to mean “what my party says is good for the state”?

In July, Pew Research reported on the increasing polarization of the electorate. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of Democrats and Republicans who identify themselves as moderates has fallen.

While the share of those who identify as independent has grown over that time, there is no “Independent” political party. Those voters generally have to choose between candidates carrying the labels of the two major parties, no doubt part of the reason why our voter participation numbers are shrinking, as they increasingly choose to just stay home.

Guesstimates for turnout for this November’s elections are in the 35 to 40 percent range. With such low numbers, the contest becomes about each party turning out its base of voters. CNU’s survey was of likely voters, those who say right now that they intend to vote.

Base voters tend to hold positions very similar to the party’s positions. Those positions are increasingly shaped by a steady diet of one-sided opinions. They boil down to “my party is right, your party is wrong,” even though no one is always right or always wrong. Heck, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Relying on a single side of an argument makes common knowledge difficult. The leap, then, to define words in the context of partisanship is hardly a big one.

It’s easy to see why the redefinition of “public good” to be “what my party thinks is the public good” could lead such a large percentage to agree.

I suspect what the voters really heard, without realizing it, was “do you agree or disagree that Party A (not your party) politicians are more concerned with partisan advantage than the good of our state (as your party defines it)?”

The concept of public good has no partisan bias. It is inclusive of everyone, regardless of anything that makes each of us different.

If the survey respondents understood that and still agreed with the question posed, then I have just one more question: Why do we repeatedly elect those who put partisanship over what is good for Virginia?