Definition of a Partisan in Politics

Why Blind Loyalty to a Political Party or Candidate Can Be a Bad Thing

Sean Hannity
Sean Hannity of FOX News. Getty Images News

If you're a partisan, it means you adhere firmly to a political party, faction, idea or cause. You likely live in a bright red or dark blue district or state. You exhibit "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance" and never speak ill of another member of your tribe, according to the standard Merriam-Webster definition. Being a partisan is the opposite of being a swing voter or independent in politics.

To put it bluntly, being a partisan isn't a good thing.

So. How can you tell if you're a partisan?

Here are five traits.

1. You Can't Talk Politics Without Getting Angry

If you can't talk politics with people and still stay friends, you're a partisan. There are no two ways about it. If you can't talk politics without the conversation ending in bruised egos and hurt feelings, you're a partisan. If you can't see the other side of an issue and storm off abruptly from the dinner table, you're a partisan. Seek your inner peace. And understand this: You're not right about everything. No one is. A synonym of partisan is ideologue. If you're an ideologue, it means you're an adherent to a rigid ideology. You don't like compromise. And you're probably difficult to talk to. 

2. You Vote the Straight Party Line

If you show up to the voting booth without doing your homework and pull the lever for the straight-party ticket every time, you're a partisan.

In fact, you match the definition of a partisan to the T: someone who exhibits "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance" to a political party. If you don't want to be a partisan, here's a handy guide to everything you need to know to prepare for Election Day. Hint: Vote for the best candidate, not the party.

3. You Watch MSNBC or FOX News

There's nothing wrong with watching MSNBC or FOX News. But let's call it what it is: You're choosing a source of news and information that supports your world view. If you lean lift, you're probably watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. And only MSNBC. If you tilt to the right, you're tuning in to Sean Hannity and FOX, and tuned out the rest. And, yes, if you do this you're a partisan.

4. You Chair a Political Party

OK. To be fair, it is some people's job to be partisan. And those people happen to be working in the political arena. That is, the parties themselves. If you're the chairman of the Republican National Committee or the GOP organization in your hometown, it is function to be a partisan. That's why you have the job: to support your party's candidates and get them elected. Stated President Harry Truman: "There was never a non-partisan in politics. A man cannot be a non-partisan and be effective in a political party. When he's in any party he's partisan. He's got to be." 

5. You Violate the Hatch Act

Let's hope things don't get this bad. But if you're a government employee and you're found to have violated the federal Hatch Act, you're behaving as a partisan would behave.

The Hatch Act of 1939 placed limits on the political activity of executive branch employees of the federal government, District of Columbia government, and some state and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. The law is intended to prohibit taxpayer-supported resources from being used in partisan campaigns; it is also intended to protect civil service employees from partisan pressures from political appointee managers.

What does that mean? Well, let's say you work for an agency that is funding at least in part by the federal government. Under the Hatch Act you can't campaign for office or engage in any similar political behavior. You've got to quit your job first. The federal government doesn't like allocating taxpayer money to agencies whose workers are behaving as partisans.

In Defense of Parties and Partisanship

Partisanship is the fundamental behavior that allows the two-party system to remain in place in the U.S. And the existence of parties, according to some astute political philosophers, are vital. 

The philosopher and political economic John Stuart Mill, writing in "On Liberty," defended partisanship: "A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

The economist Graham Wallas also described parties favorably. "Something is required simpler and more permanent, something which can be loved and trusted, and which can be recognized at successive elections as being the same thing that was loved and trusted before; and a party is such a thing."

And Moisés Naím, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written about the need for "permanent organizations that earn political power and govern, that are forced to articulate disparate interests and viewpoints, that can recruit and develop future government leaders and that monitor those already in power."

Nonpartisan, Bi-Partisan and Post-Partisan Definitions

There are a couple of antonyms to the word partisan, and a relatively new term - post-partisan. What do they all mean?

Nonpartisan: This term describes the behavior of political figures who may belong to disparate factions and parties when they work together on nonpolitical issues, such as raising money for charity or helping with some civic issue in their home state.

Bipartisan: This term describes the behavior of elected officials or citizens who otherwise disagree on policy issues and belong to disparate factions or parties when they work together toward a common political goal. Bipartisanship is rare on major issues in modern American politics.  

Postpartisan: This term, which has come into wide use since President Barack Obama's election in 2008, describes the work of Republicans and Democrats to reach compromise on policy issue without abandoning ties to party or principals. Post-partisanship has its roots in President Thomas Jefferson's inaugural speech: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," he said.

Obama, a Democrat running for president in 2008, promised to deliver such a postpartisan presidency by embracing Republicans and independents. His remarks resonated among the electorate. "I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don't believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of health care, college education, don't believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change," Obama said.

[Edited by Tom Murse]