Spoilers ahead for the episode “Dewey Wins”.
Another Steven Bomb has exploded, giving Steven Universe fans a series of episodes dealing with the immediate aftermath of Steven’s surrender to and return from Homeworld. The first of these episodes, “Dewey Wins”, has Steven deal with his damaged relationship with Connie, who is mad at him for having surrendered to Homeworld instead of fighting. Steven is perplexed at why Connie was mad: after all, he did it to save her and everyone else, and it turned out alright in the end. No harm no foul, right?
What makes the episode odd in the eye of many viewers, however, is that Steven eventually comes to understand Connie’s feelings through his failed attempt to help Mayor Dewey win re-election. Specifically, after his attempt at trying to take the blame for everything fails, Steven tries to help Dewey in the election against Nanefua Pizza, but when the latter proves a much more inspiring politician, Dewey quits. Steven’s disappointment in Dewey quitting supposedly leads him to gain an understanding of Connie’s feelings, an outcome that had many viewers going “Huh?”
I’m glad to see that, for once, my political science background means I can finally offer some insight on a cartoon that doesn’t involve stuffing utilitarianism into as many things as I possibly can. Specifically, as a person who studies partisan identity, Steven’s behavior and feelings actually don’t surprise me all that much. So, by exploring the concept of partisanship, I argue that Steven learning to understand Connie’s feelings by working on a campaign isn’t as weird as it might seem.
To start things off, what exactly is partisanship? In the simplest terms, partisanship is identification with a political party, such as “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican”. Partisanship, however is more than just a statement that signifies one’s tendency to vote for a certain party. As argued in one of the foundational works of modern political science, The American Voter, partisanship is a social-psychological connection between an individual and a party that serves as a “perceptual screen”. Everything about politics – candidate evaluations, information processing, the emotions during a campaign – is filtered through our identification with a party, usually in a manner to reinforce and maintain a positive view of our chosen political party.
More recent political science has gone a step further, treating partisanship as a group identity in the same way that we may treat class, race, or a religious identity. In other words, identification with a party involves folding in that identity with our perception of ourselves, leading to an intense, emotional attachment to the party. We want to think positively of our party, and we want our party to succeed and win, because as a member of the party, its successes are our successes.
A 2015 paper by Leonie Huddy, Lilliana Mason, & Lene Aaroe demonstrates the point. In a series of experiments, they show that individuals that strongly identify with a party become angry when told their party is likely to lose the upcoming election, regardless of their ideological beliefs. They get particularly mad when it’s members of their own party saying this, as strong partisans also tend to be the most optimistic about their party’s chances of doing well. So when a member of the in-group party is saying just give, well, how dare they! If we just put in a little more effort, we can do anything and beat anyone! To say otherwise is to be a traitor!
So what does this have to deal with Steven and Dewey? The thing about group identities is that they are very quick to form (see anything about minimal group paradigm). While Steven may have decided to help Dewey out of an initial sense of wanting to “fix” something that was “his” fault, once he became Dewey’s campaign manager he became emotionally invested Dewey’s success in the same way a partisan would. It was his fault Dewey was losing his job, and now they’re a team that’s gonna fix it all! So when Dewey decides to quit in the face of a superior candidate, it’s essentially a slap in the face to Steven. They were a team, they were going to win if they just stuck together, so why just give up and not bother fighting?
This partisan anger, by the way, sounds a lot like how Connie felt when Steven gave up and surrendered to Homeworld. She wasn’t a partisan – at least not till she runs for President with Steven as First Man – but she had built up a strong relationship with Steven, one that led them to eventually fuse into Stevonnie. Stevonnie is, essentially, another identity: she represents their relationship and their desire to stay together no matter what in the face of adversity, and it was one Connie had heavily invested herself into. So when Steven just seems to give up without trying to fight, well…
Connie: But what about our training? Stevonnie. Jam buds. I believed in us. We could have done it together.
As I said, the people most invested in the identity are always the most optimistic about success, and the most hurt when it seems another member wants to give up. We can argue about how well Stevonnie might have fought or if Dewey would have won re-election, but Connie and Steven believed their respective teams could succeed even if the odds were against them as long as they fought just a little harder. So, in a weird little way, it really isn’t all that odd that a little failed campaign helped Steven learn about Connie’s feelings.
And hey, now he has some experience for when Connie runs for President in 2040.