Donkeys and Elephants

It seems to have become common in political groups to bemoan today’s rising partisanship. Fear of political parties is, of course, nothing new. George Washington, for example, warned of the dangers of factionalism in his farewell address. But, anecdotally, it seems that a large number of people have become convinced that the two-party system has failed and is hurting our politics.

But partisanship is ultimately good for democracy. It provides infrastructure and cues to enhance political participation for everybody.

As a political science student, journalist and someone naturally interested in politics, I pay close attention to the news and research issues carefully. Most of my friends also closely follow the news, and we often discuss politics at length. Coming from that environment, it could be easy to think that everyone will form their own opinions about a variety of issues without partisan cues. But that would be wrong.

Many voters have only vague ideas about politics. A Pew Research Poll from 2012 found that voters often struggled with basic policy questions. The research showed 29% of respondents could not name the GOP as the more conservative party, and 47% did not know the Republican Party wishes to cut the size of the federal government.

More recent studies show similar trends. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll  from 2018 showed 34% of Republican voters and 32.5% of Democratic voters reported not knowing the names of their party’s congressional candidates in their districts. That’s nearly a third of all voters who are ignorant on who’s running in their local elections.  

I am not using these statistics to shame voters. It requires time and energy to gain political knowledge, and many people may not have those resources to meaningfully engage in politics. Therefore, seeing the “D” or the “R” next to candidate names can help expedite the voting process. It’s not the best way to vote, but it gets people to the polls. 

Brittany Bramlett, a lecturer at the University of Georgia Department of Political Science, believes that party affiliation can provide useful mental shortcuts to low-information voters. Bramlett said they can be a helpful heuristic, or mental shortcut. 

“We may not know anything about particular candidates,” Bramlett said. “But their party label gives us a good idea about their political ideology and/or issues they care about.”

Even for highly-invested and engaged voters, it’s hard to learn about every race, especially races for more obscure positions — something I learned first-hand in last year’s elections. 

Despite my high level of political involvement, I must admit that when casting my ballot in Gwinnett, my home county, during the midterm elections, there were many posts I had never heard of. I could only vaguely guess what their role was. 

I certainly did not religiously check and debate the voting records and views of the candidates for, say, solicitor general or board of education. In the absence of partisan cues, I would have been completely lost and unable to vote in those elections.

Similarly, party affiliation offers low-information voters the ability to make reasonable guesses as to how they should vote for any position. Liberals concerned with income inequality or the environment can choose the Democratic candidate without much effort or time investment. Likewise, conservatives worried about government regulation or onerous taxes can vote for Republicans.

Often with little interest in politics, voters need cues on how to vote — something that partisanship offers. Through political party membership, voters can pick candidates and cast their ballots, assured in the knowledge that their voice will be heard.

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