American politics are more partisan than ever. The American people distrust partisanship more than ever. The conflict between these two forces is as important to the election of 2004 as the contest between Republicans and Democrats.
One of the clearest measures of partisanship is the dollars that candidates can raise. By that measure, the big surprise of this year is that Democrats can be as partisan as Republicans, since John Kerry has surprised those who thought that he would run out of cash long before the Democratic convention. Instead, his party, much like its opponent, is getting its wealthy supporters to put their money where their mouths are.
Party unity is a second indication of partisanship, and here as well the two parties are geared for battle. Republicans have a reputation for discipline, but no Republican has been as single-minded about making his colleagues toe the line as George W. Bush; he even has John McCain appearing in his ads. Yet it is the Democrats who are more unified than ever. Liberal activists by the score are disdaining independent candidate Ralph Nader. The left and right factions within the party are suppressing their differences over gay rights or Iraq to present a common front. Unlike in the days of comedian Will Rogers, a person can now say, "I belong to an organized party; I'm a Democrat."
In addition, the parties have stopped treating each other by Marquess of Queensberry rules. The majority in many state legislatures draws district lines to ensure seats for itself. Time-honored traditions in Congress - such as bipartisan membership on conference committees - have been set aside. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader Tom DeLay do not just dislike each other; each thinks the other a danger to the Republic.
And of course partisanship can be found in the fact that Republicans and Democrats hold different positions on many issues of the day. If you want a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, you're a Republican partisan; if you want to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning Roe v. Wade, you're with the other guys. True, Senator Kerry has been careful not to distance himself too much from President Bush on Iraq. But this is not Tweedledum's and Tweedledee's election.
Yet while the partisans are in full fury, a lot of other Americans do not like politics, and they like partisan politics even less. This is especially true when it comes to the famed wedge issues. The Republicans and the Democrats may disagree zealously over whether the Constitution should be amended to ban gay marriage, but most Americans simply do not think the issue is that important. Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have changed the people's mood far more than Washington's. Wedge issues now seem tawdry and divisive, one reason none of them, including affirmative action and abortion, are all that prominent.
Nor do Americans appreciate the negative campaigning that partisanship fuels. Incumbents, who have a record to run on, usually run on it; it is a sign of our partisan times that the sitting president is attacking his opponent as if the opponent were the one in the White House. Time will tell whether Bush's attempts to define Kerry negatively - or Kerry's efforts to respond - will work. But polls and voting patterns in the past show that Americans want their candidates upbeat and positive, not mean-spirited and divisive.
Then there's all that money. As they proved when they put sufficient pressure on Congress to pass the McCain-Feingold law, Americans find it unseemly when those with access to money can simply buy access to government. Given that both candidates opted out of public financing in the primaries, pressure could build again for new rules, ones that would not only limit spending but also cut down on those annoying TV ads the money buys.
From the standpoint of the contest between the parties, the key question is which one will get more votes. In the struggle between partisanship and nonpartisanship, by contrast, the key question is how many will vote. Americans, particularly younger Americans, already go to the polls in far lower percentages than they did a century ago. It may well be that the intense partisanship we are witnessing will energize each party's base and that it will reverse this decline. Or partisanship could sour the independents and centrists and keep them from voting at all, lowering once again the percentage of those who show up. Partisan myself, I hope for the former outcome. But I would not be surprised if the latter one happened instead.
• Alan Wolfe heads the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. © Los Angeles Times.