Responses on Political Theory, Idealism, and Extremism

Partisanship and Political Theory

Most of my thoughtful, empirically well-armed respondents have joined the conversation as social scientists. I will try to say something about the arguments and evidence they marshal in a moment. But first I want to remind readers of Cato Unbound that my turf is political theory. On the Side of the Angels considers anti-partyism and antipartisanship, which have dominated political thought from the ancients to today. I offer a typology and illustrations of these powerful, recurrent aversions. I mention this for readers who may be unaware of the scope of the subject, but also because political theory is not exclusively of the moment. How bad are partisans today, as measured by some criterion of knowledge or civic virtue? That is the subject of several responses, and the question is fairly raised by my essay. But to be clear: it is not the focus of my work. It is certainly not my intention to defend every aspect of contemporary American partisanship. Indeed, my ethic of partisanship provides a critical perspective. Rather, my intent is to provide a deep account — comprising both historical “moments of appreciation” and my own theory — of the contributions of parties and of citizens who are partisans to representative democracy, which cannot exist without them. My focus is on the long history and several faces of antipartyism, and why these positions are wrong, when they are wrong.

The contemporary aspects of On the Side of the Angels address democratic theorists for whom (with rare exceptions, of course) parties and partisanship are outside the pale of consideration. I juxtapose democratic theory’s inattention with political science’s near-obsession, and in the sections on American partisanship today I use what I hope are the best studies by political science colleagues to show that my claims for partisanship are not at odds with what we know; empirical work informs but does not drive the enterprise.

I appreciate partisanship while proposing an ethic that allows us to criticize actual partisans. But the appreciation comes first. For the important democratic part parties play cannot be played by any other group or institution — and this holds for more than organizing elections or mobilizing participation, as important as these are. Moreover, democratic politics cannot be carried on by men and women who take the independent or impartial standpoint democratic theorists typically invoke as most likely to produce good public reasoning and fair outcomes. In Angels, I try to discriminate among the dominant strands: deliberative theory, neo-republicanism, and “epistemic democracy.” These theorists rarely acknowledge parties as institutions, and as I said in my essay, they concede almost nothing to parties when the do. If they allow that parties are a practical necessity for organizing elections and legislatures, partisan citizens are not. I attempt to show that even on their own terms, democratic theorists — particularly deliberative theorists — have something to gain by grappling with the uses and moral distinctiveness of partisanship.

Jim Fishkin offers a typology of democratic theories and asserts that there is a place for parties in truncated, errant versions but not in deliberative democracy. He reiterates the now-standard dichotomy between open-minded, informed deliberation and decisionmaking by partisans. Modern democracies are, of course, “mixed regimes” — all the elements he notes are present and arguably essential (unless we move to democracy by referendum, or officeholding by lot). One interesting question is what contributions do parties and partisanship make besides running candidates for office and encouraging participation? The most interesting question of all is where and how deliberation and elections, participation, etc. come together. One of the main thrusts of Angels is the intersection between partisanship and deliberation — an absolutely crucial question in a “mixed regime.” I argue that parties themselves are arenas for deliberation; the internal workings of parties require it, and I wish Fishkin had given some thought to that. I argue too that when it comes to deliberation on questions that are not resolved by discrete policy decisions (or on national direction) in contrast to single issues like wind power in Texas, citizens would benefit from a mix of deliberation and partisanship. Democracy would be improved by an informed understanding — a demonstration — of how and why parties shape state and national agendas and what well-articulated partisan positions and policies and national visions are. Fishkin notes that “supplementing partisan decisions with deliberative mechanisms can help.” Precisely. And vice versa.

Consider a moderate position that democratic theorists might take. If we understand the value of parties in the Millian sense of shaping lines of political division and staging “trial by discussion” (where does this fit in Fishkin’s typology?), we could assign partisans a modest role. We could reluctantly concede that democracy needs just enough partisans to “man” the parties. Ardent partisans may not personally be deliberative, but at the level of the polity they are the agents of “trial by discussion.” Even this grudging view concedes something important to party leaders and to activists in the electorate. And it is not restricted to electoral competition and campaigns. It goes on in formal and informal settings where partisanship is displayed, and it is inherent in Fishkin’s “collective will formation.” How can it be improved, not circumvented?

Fishkin’s categories are not very helpful in probing our subject, not least because he associates partisanship exclusively with winning elections and getting people to vote. Consider representation, a theme left out of this discussion so far. Modern parties are more than convenient vehicles for conducting elections and organizing governments; they are creative in constructing lines of political division. They don’t just do this for an audience of voters, either. As Nadia Urbinati emphasizes in an earlier response to Angels, ideally parties are stable institutions that create ongoing connections between partisans and representatives. They are communicative forums. They are unique institutions for insuring that representatives are responsive to citizens. Parties create and sustain political relations apart from electoral moments. Of course, this rendering of political partisanship depends on parties that are not ephemeral, or short-term alliances among officials. It emphasizes civilian partisans and parties as membership groups.

Political theorists might balk at the charge that their accounts of democracy are anti- or apolitical, but their democracy is about judgment and justification, the argumentative forms disagreement should ideally take, and how right decisions might emerge. Their models are judicial decisionmaking, or small-group deliberation under conditions of full information, that do not make binding decisions, and where the force of the decision comes solely from the moral authority of popular deliberation based on full information — as in deliberative polls. Deliberative democratic theory has contributed to a more systematic understanding of decisionmaking under stringent conditions, and the grounds of democratic justification. Institutionalist political theorists propose courts or nonpartisan expert commissions to make decisions in certain areas, rather than elected representatives. Districting is a proposed example. Some theorists, like Philip Pettit, propose nonpartisan popular mechanisms to review, contest, and emend egregious democratic political decisions. I probe all this in detail in the chapter “Correcting the System.”

Why are these strands of democratic theory nonpolitical? Leave aside my view that all politics is partisan whether or not there is a formal party system. Leave aside my view that wherever we have pluralism we will have partisanship, again, even if we do not have parties. Suffice it to say, as Fishkin’s response demonstrates, that democratic theory today has little to do with political organization or action. It has little to do with the day-to-day business of building political associations, setting political agendas, choosing comrades, or influencing electoral and policy outcomes. It is unconcerned with empowerment, except in the ideal terms that identify stringent public reason as the only justifiable form of influence. Angels is my attempt to reinsert all this business, to make it respectable for theory.

Cato Unbound respondents have picked up on my juxtaposition of partisanship and independence. In addition, I create another division: between partisanship and other forms of political association — social movements, interest groups, “public-interest” advocacy groups, and voluntary associations in civil society that episodically enter politics. These were my subject in the book Membership and Morals, while this book is an attempt to show what parties can do for democracy that no other form of association can. Of course, many of the criticisms made of parties and partisans apply to all the other forms of political association — social movements, advocacy groups, interest groups (including self-styled public interest groups). The grounds of appreciation for parties emerge clearly in contrast. Partisans take sides on comprehensive matters of national interest. Many partisans are also advocates of particular issues, but as partisans they are more. So zealousness on behalf of a party is different from uncompromising zeal on behalf of guns or consumer protection. Moreover, other forms of political association are limited in their objectives and therefore short-lived. This is obviously the case for randomly selected, issue-oriented, one-time citizen juries or deliberative polls. Democratic theory needs this discussion of comparative forms of association and organization.

One of the important aspects of parties in comparison with other forms of political association is that they are relatively open and changeable: consider the temper, agenda, and constituency of the two major parties today in contrast to two decades ago. Henry Farrell’s fascinating discussion of political blogs is on point — I wish I had written it! His important observation is that for parties to do the work they must in democracy — including the creative work of identifying national directions and shaping the conflict — they must be open to new groups, ideas, and resources. He suggests that in this respect bloggers are potentially constructive resources. In Angels I discuss others: third parties and fusion parties, for example, and grassroots participation. I talk in detail about primary elections and whether they should be open and non-partisan, as progressives want, or whether they are most useful as forums for party-building.

One final thought about political theory and partisanship. As Brink Lindsey insists, historical setting should affect our understanding of parties and our judgment about their importance for democracy. Lindsey believes that partisanship has evolved from concrete, personal political loyalty toward an affiliation based on ideology, and he judges this an improvement. I want to remind readers of the merits of political machines and the way in which “corruption” is not a simple thing. Good progressives like Jane Addams had a sympathetic understanding of “Why the Ward Boss Rules,” and her account of neighborhood organization, patronage, and spoils is crucial to understanding this era. Among other things, parties as membership groups incorporated whole sections of the population into democratic politics and the system of patronage and spoils was important in the evolution of the national political system and the workings of federalism. Parties are still the chief vehicles of political integration of immigrants. (This is more than participation in voting, of course, and extends to acculturation into democratic practices more broadly.) We should also notice that Lindsey’s progressive narrative is distinctively American. After all, the origin of important European parties (socialists, Christian Democrats) was quite different; as a generalization, European parties began as ideological parties and are converging increasingly on American-style umbrella parties. So is he right that American parties today are polarized and ideological? It is a great debate in political science, and considerable evidence distinguishes partisans in national office from ordinary civilian partisans. (Andrew Gelman suggests that partisans today are not lock-step on issues like gun control and climate change, and that ordinary partisans are not ideologically polarized or self-identified as conservative or liberal. That is, they seem to conform to the comprehensive element of my ethic of partisanship and to be compromising.) For now, just notice that Lindsey’s characterization of polarized ideological parties is a slice of time in the moment, and I have tried to anchor the conversation in a broader perspective historically and in recurrent arguments in political theory.

Good Enough vs. Ideal Citizens and Partisans

Brink Lindsey demonstrates that the Progressive strain of anti-partisanship is alive and well; he enacts it. While not a party abolitionist, he echoes the disparagement of partisans on the basis of bias, ignorance, and inattention to the public interest. I’ll address the question of zeal or extremism in the next section. But how many responses from contributors address partisanship specifically, rather than citizens in general who have run amok and are selfish, inattentive to the public interest, lazy, ignorant, or biased? Many criticisms of partisans extend to the general state of knowledge, political engagement, and comprehensive vision of just about every category of citizen — to voters generally to say nothing of nonvoters (the real challenge for contemporary democracy). It is not hard to build up a discouraging list of negatives, summed up by Larry Bartels as “unenlightened self-interest.” (Small surprise that as political psychologists turn to neuroscience research, the first thing they test is the portion of the brain in Democrats and Republicans that respond to partisan cues. “Cold reasoning” sections of the cortex are quiet, it seems; “the process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, with flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected”)

The comparative question is whether partisans are better or worse than others on the score of ignorance, bias, and falling off from virtue. Empirical studies suggest that on every dimension they are better than nonpartisans.

Lindsey brings up perceptual bias: “[their] beliefs …are determined by their political identity”; “they start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works.” Is this true? Recently, political science “revisionists” have challenged the classic account of partisanship as “the unmoved mover.”

The common thrust is that attitudes do shape party id, and that changing political attitudes alter political orientation. Partisanship is active, alive to the connection between preferences or attitudes and party positions. Revisionists have absolved partisans of the arbitrariness of the claim that “partisans are partisan because they think they are partisan.” Whatever deficiencies political scientists uncover, the appeal of revisionism is to tie party id to reflection on experience and responsiveness to events and therefore to undercut “blind partisanship.” Moreover, the deficiencies revealed do not confirm the worst of the negative stereotype of partisans. Partisans do absorb information and revise opinions and don’t reflexively view party leaders or programs in a positive light. The “biased learning” hypothesis is rejected by Green, Palmquist, and Schickler. Democrats and Republicans are not ordinarily polarized in response to new information; their responses move in the same direction; there is “parallel learning.” The thesis of Partisan Hearts and Minds, as the title says, is that “we can expect a disjuncture between what voters think of parties and the degree to which they identify with partisan groups.” As some readers will doubtless recognize from their own experience, partisan hearts and minds are not always in sync.

Lindsey also sees partisanship at odds with “virtue”: “I believe there is an inverse relationship today between one’s commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one’s commitment to partisanship.” Partisans, he says, shade the truth or keep silent to be a team player. Undoubtedly; personal failings and strategic thinking are everywhere and not unique to partisan politics. Are we appalled by all kinds of selectivity and compromise in every political situation? (Independents are — it is part of their moral hubris.) Is this behavior blamable, much less a violation of political morality? When and where? And to what purpose?

We do not have to be Machiavellians to reject the categorical imperative in the normal course of democratic life. The same is true of compromise, and political theory has surprisingly little to say about the general occasions and justifications for compromise, although it remains an essential political act. This is why an ethics of partisanship is necessary.

Put in other terms, the questions for political theory that Lindsey raises about partisan “virtue” are as old as political factions, and were raised by Tocqueville’s distinction between great and small parties and their fit for their time. Only some times and on some matters of constitutional or moral significance do we need or want great parties and principled adherence to them. I imagine that Lindsey does not see every political question as one of moral principle taxing our moral behavior — as something that cannot in conscience be deferred or repressed or deferred or compromised? Today, the enormous number of words and energy spent on parsing and advocating for bipartisan and post-partisan politics might make sense as applied to torture or the parameters of Presidential authority. Even on many constitutional questions partisans are likely to be divided within and among themselves and to accommodate — religious “accommodation” is a perfect example. But for the most part appeals to bipartisanship or postpartisanship are rhetorical: the contours of a stimulus bill are the meat and potatoes of small party politics. Are there principles or policies on which everyone, including partisans, should be up in arms and uncompromising? Yes. Are these rare? Also yes.

Lindsey invites us into a deeper discussion of partisanship versus civic virtue. When he says that partisans are too little concerned with the public interest, he could mean one of at least three things. He could mean that partisans are driven by naked self-interest, disconnected from a picture of larger interests with which their own may or may not be congruent. He could mean that partisans are incapable of an impartial or neutral perspective on what is in the general interest. Or he could mean that good-faith partisan views of the public interest fail to understand or to move us toward the true public interest. This is subject too large to deal with here.

It bears on my extended discussion in Angels of the Humean notion that partisans can be injected with “a small tincture of Pyrrhonism” and hesitation — instants in which they appreciate that the other side is sometimes in the right and assume the pose of the impartial observer. It raises the question whether these partisans are necessary for developing understanding and movement toward the public interest. We are familiar with Mill’s insistence on “the social function of antagonism” and his signature argument about one-sidedness. Truth “is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Mill erected the philosophical framework of progressive antagonism and insisted that this process requires actual advocates, not devil’s advocates or impartial observers.

I argue that more and better partisanship is what we should want for all (or most) citizens. (I am a student of Thoreau and do not disparage disengagement for good reasons.) How good must partisans be? How good can they be? I call for “more and better partisanship,” but Angels is not a reform tract, and I leave recipes for improvement for a future piece. I believe the essential condition is political attention and engagement by citizens in a variety of forums. That, we know, is tied to the excitement of competition with high stakes. Henry Farrell’s response is relevant here. It suggests that the parties and partisanship contain their own resources for correction if they are sufficiently open. Parties, unlike other political associations, have the structure and incentives to be.

Understanding Extremism

Lindsey also brings up zealousness — always a simmering element of anti-partisanship. To begin, notice that just recently we have been hearing charges of overly zealous partisans with biased judgment. We should not allow this concern to trump our concern for the more widespread, enduring, and dangerous phenomenon of apathy and disengagement. People are apt to link the two. One of the most frequently stated but unproven claims is that parties “turn voters off” and provoke retreat from democratic politics. Antipartyism is rampant, but it is not the cause of apathy. Apathy is often part and parcel of revulsion at politics tout court. It is grounded in a recurrent and characteristically American view that pragmatic problem-solving can replace politics. Its familiar expression is a “just fix it” state of mind. It takes the prosaic popular form of impatience with government but is also articulated in expert and elite theory.

One example of this mindset is the faith often seen in the ability of random citizens in nonpolitical contexts to arrive at policy decisions in the public interest. Again, I do not think these are an antidote to democratic apathy, which is at least as much a problem as episodic zeal.

It is good to recall that extremism and polarization are far from constant characteristics of partisanship. In 2007 a political analysis of American parties with the title Off Center was standard fare. The surprise is how swiftly it supplanted titles like Dead Center: the Perils of Moderation, and the disgusted observation: “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Extremism as a normative accusatory does not refer to party positioning and it should not refer to partisans generally, but to the disposition and conduct of some partisans in opposition.

Extremism, I argue, is a deviation from the three elements of my ethics of partisanship. Specifically, extremism refers to failure to take responsibility for mobilizing voters. It signals failure to articulate a comprehensive story about the state of the nation, addressed to the nation as a whole. And it points to boasted intransigence, an avowed rejection of norms of compromise necessary to get the public business done. Each of these deviations from the ethics of partisanship are the result of a kind of single-mindedness that takes one idea or aim to its limit, thereby upending the democratic purposes of parties.

Failure to mobilize voters (and citizens in between elections), failure to identify a comprehensive range of public concerns, and failure to compromise are each the result (the justifiable result in extremists’ eyes) of preoccupation with a single value, issue, or cause. One reason ordinary partisan voters and many officials are not extremist is that for them single-mindedness has no appeal. It is not only that personally and individually they may have the capacity to endure or even enjoy the jockeying of pluralism, or that philosophically they are Millians appreciative of the overall benefits of the trials of ideas. Rather, it inheres in the expectation that in party politics singlemindedness is out of place. It arouses moral aversion. The extremist is one-eyed, monotonic, unwavering, to repeat, singleminded. She is not just right, but right on a matter of such singular urgency that it eclipses all competing matters, suppresses all cautions, and rationalizes unfortunate consequences. There is hubris to extremism, itself an undemocratic vice.

Henry Farrell’s contribution inspires me to say another few words on this score. Note that in the context of American party politics the term extremism does not refer to antidemocratic parties — fascist or communist, for example, parties that do not respect the terms of regulated rivalry, opportunistic groups that exploit the electoral system for hostile or fatally divisive ends. It should be clear, too, that in pointing to partisan extremism I don’t just mean incivility, the demonization of political adversaries, or raw language. We generally understand and accept the ordinary purpose of extremist rhetoric in the context of politics: to generate enthusiasm. Language is calculated to excite political action by evoking palpable threats and naming opponents. Specific political conditions make extremist rhetoric tactically sound. It is reinforced by both apathy and independence. The less that conventional political activity appears to be satisfying, the more strenuously partisans insist on high stakes. A depressed political mood seems to require some electric participatory jolt. So partisans pronounce grievances, exaggerate danger, and arouse resentment. Similarly, where parties are close in an electoral race, one way to try to “escape the purgatory of parity” is to resort to rhetorical extremism. This rhetoric is distinguishable from extremism and has different correctives.

Again, the values or positions that partisan extremists advance are not necessarily outside the mainstream or off-center, as the spatial model would suggest. Extremism is a matter of modality. “Extremism” says that values and programs are advanced in a temper, at a register, and in a mode that is unyielding. I think this goes some way toward distinguishing strong partisanship from its corruption — it sets up the conversation.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.