From the Winter 2020 edition of the Claremont Review of Books.
I don’t find the word “hyperpartisanship” in any dictionary. It’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary (last updated in 2015) or even in the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, usually nimbler with neologisms. But dictionaries, as usual, lag behind usage. A Nexis-Uni search finds the earliest attested use of the term in 1992, and an explosion in its use after 2000. Given the state of U.S. politics since 2000 that is not surprising. Yet one is tempted also to correlate the monstrous coinage with the decline in knowledge of languages other than English among journalists and public intellectuals. The word is technically a barbarism, half Greek and half Italian. “Hyper-” is a Greek prefix. “Partisan” is from partigiano, first attested in the 15th century, via the French partisan, first attested in the 17th; both derive from partes, the Latin for political factions. “Superpartisanship” would have been a less barbarous coinage but also less pretentious, and therefore less attractive to the half-educated. “Hyperstasis” would be a sound coinage but incomprehensible as well as pretentious. But let there be barbarous names for barbarous things.
Diagnosing the Disease
We historians know that new words are signals of wider changes in the world of thought. Something is going on in the culture and new words are needed to describe it. Angelo Codevilla’s apt phrase “the Cold Civil War,” only recently applied to U.S. politics, points in the same direction. Partisanship is normal; hyperpartisanship is not. We’ve had partisanship from the very beginning of our republic. The U.S. Constitution was designed in part to restrain its destructive tendencies, though the founders knew that the republican form of government could not subsist without some degree of partisanship. They well understood the lessons of Western political thought. The writers of The Federalist well knew that the “spirit of party” had only been stilled for a moment by the unified sense of purpose that, driven by necessity, had brought to life the American Constitution. Aristotle in antiquity already showed that partisanship is inseparable from free political life. You can have monarchy, a single decision-maker, or you can have power shared among the few or the many. If power is shared, you are going to have parties, groups of men struggling to decide who gets to decide for everyone. The challenge for statesmen is to limit partisan passions or channel them in benign ways.
Partisanship is even more inescapable . . . read more.
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