Be A Good Partisan

Partisanship isn’t the problem. Partisanship just means you have your side and I have mine. I’m not mad about the way that you identify with your side, though you’re welcome to join mine, because, of course, I think mine is better. But I won’t begrudge you your loyalty to your side. It’s probably healthier when a collective is divided into competing sides.

But there are better and worse ways to be a partisan, and the difference between being a good or bad partisan is more than manners–it’s consequential for the aims of your side. Bad partisans isolate themselves from their opponents and refuse to listen, much less negotiate. This necessarily diminishes the information bad partisans have to work with and leads to a cycle of short-sighted decision making.

Good partisans recognize when the other side is bringing something of value to the table. They are willing to converse in good faith, because they know the power of relationships outside their tribe.

Here’s the thing about this for leaders: it seems to me that most of the pressure we face to be a bad partisan comes from our own side. This past week I’ve been recollecting my brief time in Northern Ireland in the months following the Good Friday Agreement. The pressure each community’s leaders were under to fight for their own side was crushing, and leaders were under constant threat from their co-partisans should they get to cozy with the enemy. It was a serious impediment to peace.

I’m learning a lot these days from leaders who are speaking hard truths to their own side (which is not my side). Going forward, they’re the ones I want to imitate.

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