I have been thinking a lot lately about partisanship. That’s usually a term that people use negatively, especially with reference to a political commentator or pundit. And it seems to be an effective critique, because political commentators and pundits often (although by no means always) seek to paint their views as objective analysis. Being partisan is a label they seek to avoid.
Is partisanship in political commentary really an issue? Like most things political I think the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no.
Part of the reason I have been thinking about these issues is the beginning of David Cormack’s weekly column in the New Zealand Herald. I think these columns have been excellent – David often has insightful things to say, making me think about political issues in a new way, and his perspective has added some balance to views traditionally given priority in the New Zealand Herald.
Now I don’t know David at all other than what I can glean from stalking him on twitter, but he clearly as a left-leaning outlook on life. You can see this in his latest column, where see assesses the performance of the Leader of the Opposition on several substantive policy matters. I’m a left-leaning kinda guy myself, and you can expect that what David has to say will resonate with me, but I think this is an excellent column for reasons independent of that. It’s actually incredibly fair to the Simon Bridges, giving him credit where (in David’s mind, at least) it’s due. David and Simon are never going to agree on everything because they both start from very different perspectives about what good politics and good policy looks like. But David doesn’t let the fact that Bridges and the National Party will probably never win his vote stop him from identifying the common ground between them.
The reason I think this column is so good is not because it is objective. It’s definitely partisan, but it’s the best kind of partisanship. It’s not political party partisanship. There is no agreeing with someone simply because they’re on your team, or disagreeing with them because they aren’t. Instead, the partisanship is based on substantive policy differences. David has a view about what good government looks like, and he is quite fairly measuring politicians against that view.
I’m pretty sure that’s what healthy political debate looks like, which is why I have been quite surprised to see and hear criticisms (both direct and implied) of David’s columns for being, in a phrase, ‘left wing nonsense’. To be clear, this is certainly intedned as a less than subtle charge of partisanship against David as a political commentator. But why would we want to take the left wing perspective out of politics? Politics, and I include in that term political commentary, is inherently partisan in the sense that it is an ongoing, irresolvable competition (for want of a better phrase) left wing and right wing ideas: equality versus equity; individual versus collective responsibility; conservative versus liberal morality. I want that contest of ideas to continue, and that needs committed members on both sides.
But let me be clear on this: its commitment to your ideas and beliefs that matters, not your commitment to your political party or brand. Blind devotion to a political party, or a faction within a political party, is a certainly a problem because it prevents ideas being debated on their merits. But that’s not what David has been doing – he is consciously and carefully engaging with the substantive merits as he sees them, and our political discourse is richer for it. We shouldn't shun partisanship in our political commentary. Instead, we should demand the best kind of partisanship. David is currently providing that on a much more consistent basis than many other commentators in New Zealand’s mainstream media. I hope he ignores the recent, misplaced criticisms against him and continues to do so.