The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’

In political theory today, political parties and their partisan supporters are disparaged if not actively despised. They always have been. The canonical history of political thought is a record of relentless opposition to parties as institutions and moral disdain for partisans. Parties do have one classic defender, Edmund Burke. Of whom William Goldsmith wrote in 1774, “Here lies our good Edmund. Who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind. And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship is my analysis of antipartyism and attempt at rehabilitation. I create a typology of the antiparty aversions that recur in the history of political thought: one is that parties are “unwholesome parts” that disfigure what should be a perfectly unified political community; another accepts political pluralism but sees parties as fatally divisive, magnifiers or creators of cleavage and conflict. I also identify rare historical “moments of appreciation” for parties as regulating political rivalry and governing. Only after elections were open to most citizens and run as party contests would parties be descried as “perverters of the democratic spirit,” and I trace the “post-party depression” that accompanied the rise of mass electoral parties. Virtually every contemporary political pathology and scheme for correcting the system by eliminating, circumventing, or containing parties and converting partisans into independents has its roots in the Progressive Era. I show the continuity of progressive antipartyism in American law and in democratic theory up to the present, and I appeal to political science to assess these antiparty claims. Finally, I propose grounds for an appreciation of partisanship in democratic politics today, and I outline an ethic of partisanship. Today I am going to take sides — not between opposing partisans but between partisanship and independence.

Partisanship needs a moment of appreciation. We recognize “partisan” as invective; the barb comes out of improbable mouths, a virtual reflex. While party activists battle one another each claiming they are on side of the angels, critics demonize them all and praise independents as their undisputed moral superiors. Distaste is palpable and widespread. One third of survey respondents agree with the proposition “The truth is we probably don’t need political parties in America anymore,” and a third of voters prefers that “candidates run as individuals without party labels.” Political theorists are no exception. Parties are famously “orphans of political philosophy,” and democratic theorists today continue to ignore or disown them. It is hardly surprising that philosophers vaunt independence. Whether the aspirational perspective is subversive Socratic questioning, Humean impartiality, or a transcendent “view from nowhere,” it is the antithesis of a partisan perspective. More interesting is that contemporary democratic theorists write as if we should have democracy without parties and partisanship. Proponents of democratic deliberation, for example, favor specially created deliberative polls and citizens’ juries removed from conventional political arenas, with participants chosen to represent “lay citizens and nonpartisans.” Sober democratic theorists might concede the minimum: that parties are convenient mechanisms for “reducing the transaction costs” of democracy while still insisting that voters should be nonpartisan. Perhaps they might be brought to say that while partisans are not admirable, some number of them are indispensable to realize the function of parties. But any concession is pragmatic, unexuberant, unphilosophical, grudging.

The commonplace of democratic theory that an “intelligently and progressively democratic” system depends on the ability of its supporters to attain a nonpartisan spirit is exactly wrong. I chip away at the moral high ground claimed by independents, and provide “party id” — ordinary citizens’ identification as a partisan — an iota of dignity. I cast partisanship as the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy.

Consider three points each about independence and partisanship. My focus is on “civilian” partisans sometimes referred to as “the party in the electorate,” though similar arguments apply to partisans in government.

The Luster of Independence

In 1876 Henry Adams described the Republican Party as “an army whose term of enlistment has expired….the field is full of stragglers.” The military metaphor was more resonant after the Civil War than today, but it still works to describe declining party identification. A “no preference” response on a survey of political attitudes is widespread throughout advanced democracies, but the proud self-designation “independent” is unique to the United States. The positive moral resonance of independence here owes to a civic ideal of self-reliance as a virtue in economic and social life. Citizenship requires “men who have been accustomed to independence of action and that breadth of view which only the responsibility of directing their own affairs can produce.” This long-standing civic ideal was later replanted in the soil of electoral politics, where independence was associated with political conduct and meant nonpartisan. In Judith Shklar’s formulation: citizens [must] “be independent persons in both their political and civil roles, who give and withdraw their votes from their representatives and political parties as they see fit.” From early on partisanship was cast as degraded citizenship, as abject dependence rooted in clientelism, capture, or dumb loyalty.

To be clear: the core of independence as a political identity today is antipartisanship rather than antipartyism. Fundamentalist independents reject party systems per se as too rigid to accommodate political judgment, and circumstantial independents regret the current configuration of parties. But the avowal that one is not a partisan is what gives independence its luster. Hence the apt term “closet partisans” with its implication of covertness rooted in shame, applied to independents who end up voting regularly with one party.

“Escape from the Deadly Groove”

Progressives introduced the influential view that where the partisan is seduced or bought, the independent is a free agent. The supporters of party organizations were characterized as ignorant, inert, set in some “deadly groove” and under some affective thrall. The “good people” are herded into parties, Henry Adams wrote, and stupefied with convictions and a name, Republican or Democrat…” Today, the contrast is posed in cognitive as well as moralistic terms. Where partisans are “judgment-impaired,” crippled by perceptual bias, the independent is a nimble “positive empiricist,” “cognitively mobilized.”

These assertions do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. “Far from being more attentive, interested, and informed, independents tend as a group to have somewhat poorer knowledge of the issues, their image of the candidates is fainter, their interest in the campaign is less, their concern over the outcome is relatively slight.” This forty year old assessment still holds. “Pure independents” are the least interested in politics, the most politically ignorant, the lightest voters. This is plausible. Partisans spend more not less time attending to politics and have more hooks for taking in new information. Unanchored, independents’ considerations are more likely to be chaotic and ad hoc than partisans’. They participate less.

Independence begins to lose some of its luster. Nonetheless, several laudatory representations of independence deserve comment. For one, “escape from the deadly groove” does not make the independent bravely Thoreauian, doing in every case “what I think right,” because she is reduced to choosing among courses set by others. There is no warrant for casting independents as Humean impartial observers, either — as judicious umpires inclining victory to this side or that “as they think the interests of the country demand.” Nor is there warrant for viewing independents as peculiarly sensitive to Mill’s “half-truths” and to the dynamic by which every position derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other, so that truth is “a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites… and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” On this account, independents are cast as the beneficiaries and carriers of the corrections that emerge from the clash of objections by “persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.” Humean and Millian characterizations assume independents are uniquely motivated and equipped to judge the nation’s interest.

Have I focused on real-life voters and not grappled with independence as a regulative ideal? What if independents were disinterested deliberators of the public interest? Or impartial observers and correctors of the deficiencies of every party? What if independence described actual voters in contexts contrived to provide balanced information and deliberative decisionmaking? I do not think independence stands up in any case, for even the most admirable independent in a hypothetically reformed system lacks the moral distinctiveness of party id I describe shortly. Moreover, independents are politically detached and weightless.


Partisanship is identification with others in a political association. “We partisans” organize and vote with allies, not alone. If Ignazio Silone is right that the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades,” independents do not make it. Independents are as detached from one another as they are from parties. They are not sending a coordinated message (even if analysts are in the business of interpreting what their votes meant). Independents do not assume responsibility for the institutions that organize public discussion, elections, and government and are not responsible to other like-minded citizens. Atomism is an overworked metaphor, but it applies to independents: atoms of the unorganized public bouncing off the structures of a party system. Teddy Roosevelt warned against “the deification of independence,” and what he called “mere windy anarchy” is the perennial anxiety of those who imagine independents as the hope for democratic reform. These are typically schemes for creating a new “Independent Party,” which typically fail because learning to act “in accordance with a script they don’t write themselves.” is the core of political organizing, and just what independents can’t abide. I’ll give the last word on this point to Edmund Burke, who said it first: “In a connexion, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the publick.”

Now for three notes of appreciation for partisanship, corresponding to the elements of my proposed ethic of partisanship.


The first is the inclusive character of party id, which is characteristic though not unique to partisanship in the United States. At its most basic, partisanship is identification with Democrats from Florida to California and with political competition at every level of government. No other political identity is shared by so many segments of the population as measured by socioeconomic status or religion, and partisans are not clumped tightly together on an ideological spectrum. This is not to say that all partisans have an especially deep moral commitment to inclusiveness — only that they are ambitious to be in the majority. Understand that claiming a majority is more than a matter of strategic necessity required by institutional design. After all, partisans want to win elections, but a plurality can suffice. They want to have their policies enacted, but there are other effective avenues of political advocacy and influence. Rather, partisans want the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of “the great body of the people.” Persuading a majority of the people is a triumph. In this respect, partisan inclusiveness is a conscious democratic value.

Party candidates may have short-term strategic interests or safe seats that allow them to speak only to “the base” or to “activate” only certain voters so that nonvoting is an effect of what is misnamed mobilization, not its antithesis. But ordinary civilian partisans aspire to persuade and mobilize as many as possible to identify with them. Their horizon of political expectation extends beyond a single election cycle, and their disposition is to inclusiveness.


The second element of an ethic of partisanship and ground for appreciation is attachment to others in a group with responsibility for telling a comprehensive public story about the economic, social, and moral changes of the time, and about national security. Of course, partisans sometimes focus on a specific event and their party’s competence to deal with it, and partisans pursue partial interests, though this is not unreconstructed interest group pluralism since they share a complex of concerns and connect particular interests to a more general conception of the public interest. Just as partisanship in government is the condition for more than uncoordinated political decisions, or pure single cases of negotiation or barter, voters’ party id is the condition for a degree of coherence and continuity of some conception of the public good.

It would be overstating the case to say that partisans assume the obligation Rawls articulated: to advance some conception of the public good that is not ad hoc but situated in the most complete conception of political justice we can advance. It would be understating the case to say that in contrast to members of interest and advocacy groups, including self-styled public interest groups, partisans are not single-issue voters. An important result follows from comparative comprehensiveness: ordinary partisans are rarely extremist because adhering single-mindedly to one dominating idea has little appeal.


Inclusiveness and a comprehensive account of what needs to be done are only possible if “we partisans” demonstrate the disposition to compromise. Compromise with fellow partisans acknowledges the larger “we.” We have only to think of political purists to underscore compromisingness as a moral disposition. Purists “cant about principles.” They pledge themselves to ignore facts. They represent intransigence as a virtue. They do not find failure ignominious. (As one Republican sensibly objected, “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical…”)

Of course, compromise can be evidence of abject pandering or raw opportunism. If readers of this blog are partisans, you know for yourselves, I suspect, that working out the bounds of reasonable compromise is part of the severe discipline of partisanship. But unrelieved, self-righteous refusal to compromise excites moral aggression. It is an invitation to a cycle of charges of hypocrisy. In the end, a compromising disposition is protection against stupidity and cruelty.

The Achievement of Partisanship

Inclusiveness, comprehensiveness and compromisingness set the contours for an ethic of partisanship. They enable the distinctive work of partisans: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision. Parties draw politically relevant lines of division, reject elements of the others’ account of projects and promises, and accept regulated rivalry as the form in which they are played out. Party antagonism focuses attention on problems, information and interpretations are brought out, stakes are delineated, points of conflict and commonality are located, the range of possibilities winnowed, and relative competence on different matters is up for judgment. Without party rivalry, “trial by discussion” cannot be meaningful. It will not be if interests and opinions are disorganized and are not brought into opposition, their consequences are not drawn out, argument is evaded. Nor can it be fruitful if the inclusion of interests and opinions is exhaustive and chaotic; parties are about selection and exclusion. Shaping conflict is what parties and partisans do, and what will not be done, certainly not regularly in the way representative democracy requires, without them.

Creating lines of division is the achievement of partisanship, the heart of introducing “power into the political world.” Politically salient positions are unlikely to be cast as Mill’s “serious conflict of opposing reasons” unless partisans do the work of articulating lines of division and advocating on the side of the angels. Great or small, parties are not simply reflections of cleavages “there” in society any more than they adopt fully developed conceptions of justice that exist antecedent to political activity.

Democratic theorists are particularly withholding when it comes to the creative facet of partisanship. Contemporary theorists prize the political inclusion of a “variety of perspectives” but “the clash of political beliefs, and of the interests and attitudes that are likely to influence them,” which Rawls and other political philosophers concede is “a normal condition of human life,” do not spontaneously assume a form amenable to democratic debate and decision. Discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies must be identified, selected, and refined. Party competition is constitutive, then; it creates a system of conflict. It “stages the battle.” That is, partisans do. Attempting to capture this, Maurice Duverger used language that moves back and forth between metaphors of natural and artistic creation: parties crystallize, coagulate, synthesize, smooth down, and mold. Creativity in politics is rarely a subject of political theory, and then it is identified with founding moments or constitutional design, higher law-making or transformative social movements, and not with “normal politics.” Partisanship is the ordinary not (ordinarily) extraordinary locus of political creativity. Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential.

The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’

We know that in political life, partiality and disagreement are inescapable, and so are groups and associations of all kinds organized in opposition to one another. But we tend to forget that political parties and partisanship are not inevitable, and should not be taken for granted. Commitment to political pluralism, to regulated political rivalry, and to shifting responsibility for governing makes party id the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy. While thinking they should speak to everyone, partisans do not imagine they speak for the whole or that their victory is anything but partial and temporary. True, they are on the side of the angels, offering a satisfactory account of what needs to be done. But however ardent and devoid of skepticism, there is this reticence. That is the categorical moral distinctiveness of party id: partisans do not imagine that their party speaks for the whole. Partisans do not represent the opposition as a public enemy. They don’t secede, revolt, or withdraw in defeat, and “elections are not followed by waves of suicide.”

We might think that the vicissitudes of political fortune and the limits of human volition make this existentially true, a felt experience. Or we might say that all citizens in democracy have a part in this, as they do, presumptively, formally. We know however that many citizens see political argument as unnecessary and partisan conflict in particular as illegitimate. Partisanship is the political identity that does not see political pluralism and conflict as a glum concession to the ineradicable “circumstances of politics.” In other social and political contexts the term of power is not periodic and fixed by rules; the conflict is not iterative; the future may disappear from view. Partisans keep the losing side alive, in public view, on the ready not just to alter a particular outcome but to have their party take responsibility for governing. True, “Greatness is made of sterner stuff than successfully facing the exigencies of the electoral cycle.” But for ordinary citizens, partisanship entails the knocks of compromise and defeat.

Skeptics of my appreciation of partisanship can be forgiven today. For several decades, party leaders often appear to want to destroy one another as an effective and legitimate opposition — even to the extent of trying to criminalize political differences. They are hubristic, claiming to represent the nation not a part. Compromise even with fellow partisans is not in their repertoire and even if constructive policy making is thwarted and the public business is not done.

The thrust of my ethic of partisanship, of course, is critical as well as appreciative. In any case, falling off from inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and compromisingness is not a reason to constrain or circumvent parties and partisanship or to prize independence and post-partisanship. That would be a hopeless idealization, and a misguided abandonment of the distinctive political identity of representative democracy. In the recent presidential election, Senators Obama and McCain offered track records of bucking their own party as a qualification for leadership, and promised to rise above partisanship. But nonpartisanship is not a synonym for independent thought: it is navigating without political orientation or organization.

Bipartisanship is not a synonym for reasonable compromise: properly understood, it assumes a temporary consensus, which is appropriately rare and arises mainly at moments of national crisis. It would be better if Congressional leaders and President Obama promised to articulate and abide by an ethic of partisanship rather than concede the moral high ground to those who transcend party.

What we need is not independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship. That is all the more reason for democratic theorists to connect the practice of democratic citizenship with partisanship, and to consider the terms and conditions of better partisanship as seriously as they do impartiality and institutions designed to work without parties or partisans. Political theorists should adopt these orphans of political philosophy and take them in.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Partisanship: Still Half-Empty by Brink Lindsey

    In his response essay, Brink Lindsey reminds us of the shortcomings of American partisanship. Although parties provide information to voters, they do so in an skewed and superficial way. They exact ideological commitments that are hard to justify on their merits, and they constantly present a temptation to groupthink. American parties have changed, however, and for the better: Formerly, they were almost exclusively based on personal loyalty and patronage. Our parties have become ideological, but only imperfectly so, and they still do not present a deliberative space that conduces to rational, impartial citizenship.

  • Partisanship and Extremism by Henry Farrell

    In his response, Henry Farrell brings up the distinction between partisanship and extremism. He notes that although political parties clearly have useful coordinating and compromise-facilitating features, some issues may well not be appropriate matters for compromise. The problem, then – if there is one – would not be that so-called extremists are too partisan. It would be that they are unwilling to compromise. And perhaps on certain issues, they should be. Bloggers and the Democratic netroots movement are cited as illustrative examples, as is the refusal of many in the Democratic Party to compromise on the question of torture.

  • Democracy, Partisanship, and Deliberation by James Fishkin

    James Fishkin offers several models of what democracy is supposed to do. He weighs each in turn and proposes that deliberative democracy – defined as a process that “contain[s] some claim to representativeness with good conditions for deliberation” – is the one most worth having. Partisanship squares badly with it. What we need, he argues, is not more independents among the general voting population, but more independence among partisan voters.

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