Partisanship and Extremism

I applaud Nancy Rosenblum’s effort to rehabilitate partisanship. My major regret is that I didn’t know about her book sooner. I’ve just had an essay published which defends partisanship, and which would have been better if it had been informed by her work.

My response will focus on how Rosenblum’s arguments apply to the role of political blogs. Blogs have a dubious reputation among pundits and political commentators, precisely because of their vigorous and unrelenting partisanship. The historical complaints that Rosenblum documents are all well and alive in the debate over blogs’ depraving influence. David Brooks’ NYTcolumn attacking leftwing blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is an especially striking example:

The Keyboard Kingpin, a.k.a. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

The reader who is able to look past Brooks’ extraordinary metaphors (when confronted with squadrons of rabid, venom-unleashing command-lambs, mere fascist octopi must surely slither away in embarrassment) will see all the traditional tropes of anti-partisanship that Rosenblum identifies — lack of independence, mindlessness, vague intimations of authoritarian control, and corrupt clandestine relationships.

Rosenblum suggests that this broad animus against partisanship descends from early twentieth century Progressives’ detestation for party machines. This led to a vaunting of political “independence” and a corresponding distaste for strong partisanship. She argues that these implicit biases also afflict the arguments of contemporary political theorists such as James Fishkin (also participating in this seminar), who prize political deliberation.

Again, blogs provide an interesting test case. Fishkin harks back to a Madisonian vision of politics that he suggests has been corroded by political parties more interested in winning elections than in thoughtful deliberation. He seeks to structure deliberation so as to minimize what he sees as disruptive partisan extremism and maximize the potential for disinterested discussion. Blogs are anathematic to this vision of politics. Bloggers are typically at least as interested in winning the argument as in discerning the truth. The empirical evidence that political bloggers and blog readers are sharply divided along partisan lines is emphatic.

However, as Rosenblum suggests, partisan argument of the kind that blogs engage in can play a valuable democratic role. They help structure a “system of conflict” in which “discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies” are “identified, selected, and refined.” As I argued a couple of years back in the Boston Review:

Exactly because the blogosphere involves clashes between strongly divergent opinions, it is beginning to affect other spheres of political debate. The blogosphere serves as a crucible in which politically useful and interesting interpretations of important issues are forged and tested. Bloggers’ ability to take up a new political issue, toss different interpretations back and forth among themselves, point out flaws, and arrive at final viewpoints makes them a highly valuable resource for political professionals and commentators in search of novel and salient ways of framing issues.

I could have added, as Jonathan Chait does, that bloggers reshape political debate along specifically partisan lines.

The netroots are scornful of single-issue liberal groups — or, really, any liberals at all who are not wholly dedicated to the cause of Democratic victory … The netroots’ dream is of a liberal army of grassroots activists, pundits, policy wonks, and politicians all marching more or less in lockstep.

Chait is being critical, but from Rosenblum’s perspective, he’s paying bloggers a backhanded class of a compliment. Rosenblum argues that one of the key benefits of partisanship is that it provides a more inclusive and encompassing vision of politics than single issue groups ever could. That said, it may be that he’s paying too much of a compliment. Blogs may not be partisan in exactly the ways that Rosenblum prizes. More on this later.

One could extend Rosenblum’s arguments about the benefits of partisanship for political argument to less directly political fora too. Partisanship may also usefully help mobilize individuals to participate in a broader public sphere of debate and argument. The canonical example of a thriving “public sphere,” according to deliberation theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, was the coffee house society of eighteenth-century London. Yet as historian Brian Cowan has argued, this sphere of purportedly civilized debate was “born out of the practical exigencies of partisan political conflict.” So too the modern political blogosphere, which not only has political consequences, but is also opening up a broader set of conversations about politics. Indeed, today’s bloggers are arguably more “civil” than their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts:

In the course of a heated debate in the Amsterdam Coffeehouse in 1683, the whig provocateur Titus Oates was struck several times over the head with a cane by one of his opponents. Oates could not retaliate in kind, and so he responded by throwing his dish of hot coffee in the eyes of his assailant.

So partisanship is a feature of blogs, not a bug. Furthermore, Rosenblum’s account of partisanship might be extended to criticize parties in a way that isn’t too far removed from leftwing “netroots” bloggers’ critique of the Democratic Party. More specifically, I think Rosenblum’s claims suggest that partisanship can be used as a metric to evaluate the democratic contribution of parties.

Bringing this out explicitly might help elucidate an earlier debate about this book between Rosenblum and Melissa Schwartzberg at Columbia University. Melissa argues that the internal openness of parties to debate and to input from “citizen partisans” is a key factor determining whether partisanship will have the benign effects that Rosenblum argues. Rosenblum, while recognizing that this is a legitimate concern, argues that grassroots participation is not the only means through which partisan deliberation takes place, and seems to imply that lack of openness is only a substantial problem in extreme cases (where parties are captured by small sectional interest groups, or when groups are systematically excluded from participation in politics).

I think that Melissa’s case that parties should be more open to “citizen partisans” is stronger than Rosenblum suggests. If parties are laudable because of their potential for creatively reimagining the disputes that structure politics, than we have a way to evaluate how parties measure up to their partisan role. Parties that refuse to engage in such creativity, and instead accept the system as it is (even if they are systematically disadvantaged by it), are falling down on their job. And there is good reason to believe that party leaders (who are those who have done well in the system as it is) are more likely to be inclined towards this kind of small-c conservatism than are grassroots activists, and thus more likely to be in need of correction.

This, for example, was the basis of the “netroots” leftwing bloggers’ critique of the Democratic Party — that a supine leadership had succumbed to a corrupt form of bipartisanship in which they were simply unwilling to vigorously oppose Republicans and try to build a new partisan coalition. There is good reason to suspect that this critique was for the most part correct.

Of course, this kind of capture is a problem that can never be resolved permanently. As Alessandro Pizzorno argues, the best we can hope for is a cycle in which yesterday’s reformers, if successful, are likely to become tomorrow’s establishment to be challenged in turn again. But relatively “open” parties, precisely because they are more subject to this cycle, are more likely to be ones in which reformers can periodically seize control, and hence to fulfill their democratic vocation than closed ones.

All this said, Rosenblum’s arguments perhaps provide the basis for an interesting critique of political bloggers and blog readers; that they aren’t partisan enough. This would surely be a first in contemporary debate. As I hinted in my discussion of Chait above, bloggers and blog readers may not always be partisan in the ways that Rosenblum describes. Sometimes, they appear more like what she terms “extremists,” whom she criticizes for political hubris. I don’t think that this potential criticism sticks (although I do think that somewhat related kinds of criticism might), because I don’t think that extremism, as Rosenblum defines it, is as normatively objectionable as she suggests it is.

Rosenblum’s critique of extremism is only referred to in passing in her essay, although it is developed at length in her book. She draws a sharp distinction between partisanship and political extremism, arguing that extremism isn’t the opposite of centrism, but rather an absence of the kinds of accommodating democratic values that partisans possess. Extremists “disdain compromise” and are unconcerned with outcomes. They adopt utterly unyielding positions in politics. This is in contrast to partisans, whom Rosenblum sees as being inclined towards inclusiveness, accommodation, and seeking to persuade a majority of the rightness of their position. Rosenblum describes extremism as hubristic, morally reprehensible, tyrannical, and despotic.

I suspect that bloggers and blog readers may sometimes be singleminded in the sense that Rosenblum suggests. While bloggers and blog readers are clearly partisan, recent evidence indicates that they also are much more ideologically coherent than earlier work (including my own) would suggest, and very likely ideologically single minded on a limited number of key issues.

A good example is torture. The Obama administration and Democratic Party leaders are adopting an eminently partisan (in Rosenblum’s sense of the word) position on torture — while seeking to outlaw it, they are also apparently pursuing compromise by failing to pursue indictments for officials and government agents who authorized torture and carried it out in 2000–2008, so as to build a broader political coalition. Many leftwing bloggers, in contrast, are adopting an uncompromising and “extremist” position arguing that compromise on torture is utterly wrong, and that failing to pursue torturers effectively legitimizes political actions that are utterly illegitimate. Leftwing bloggers’ unyieldingness on issues such as torture and the Iraq war goes together with partisan accommodationism on other issues, but isn’t tempered by it. While these bloggers might readily support an economically centrist candidate for a red-state Congressional district, I would be startled if they ever supported an apologist for torture.

So are these “extremist” bloggers morally reprehensible because they aren’t open to compromise on issues such as torture? I would suggest not, for two reasons. One (which I suspect Rosenblum might accept) is that on some fundamental issues, democratic accommodation should take second place to the basic values of a just society. The ethic of partisanship, however beneficial, is surely a second order value rather than a first order one, and may reasonably be violated under some conditions. Here, while liberalism may require us not to hold unconsidered values, I am not at all sure that it requires us to be ready to seek compromise on values or issues that we hold to be foundational for any even marginally decent political system.

The other is that uncompromisingness can sometimes have specifically democratic virtues too, even apart from the underlying values that it represents. Even if it is not intended as an act of persuasion, it may serve to persuade others. The sincerity and tenacity with which people hold to a position, even when it is not politically expedient or carries serious costs, may be a convincing reason for others to consider whether this position, however unpopular, has merit. One woman’s unreasonable obduracy may be another woman’s bearing witness. As Rosenblum herself acknowledges, “extremism” is one of the most serious accusations that one can make against a political actor or set of actors. I personally would prefer if it were only used to refer to actors who are not prepared to accept democratic norms in any meaningful way.

Now of course this isn’t to say that bloggers (or others) shouldn’t be criticized — I think that Max Weber’s account of political responsibility (which is a kissing cousin of Rosenblum’s arguments about the ethic of partisanship) provides a useful basis for critique. But since I am over my word limit, it may be best to leave that to another post or comment.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’ by Nancy Rosenblum

    Lead essayist Nancy Rosenblum argues that political parties need a “moment of appreciation.” Schemes to minimize, frustrate, or avoid party politics, and replace it with bipartisanship or nonpartisanship all seem founded, to her, on misconceptions that date to the Progressive Era. Among these misconceptions are the ideas that nonpartisan decisionmakers are impartial, well-informed, and above the corrupting influence of politics. Parties, meanwhile, serve many useful functions in politics. They reduce transaction costs to new political entrants (at whatever level). They encourage the formation of political communities, and they act to inform and supply coherent narratives about current events. Further, the need to maintain winning coalitions means that political parties actually foster, rather than impede, political compromises.

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.

  • 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.

The Conversation