A Brief Reply to Farrell

Henry argues that my criticisms of partisanship are valid enough, but that the vices I identify (ideological blinkers, differing standards of judgment for comrades and rivals) aren’t specific to party ID. I agree completely! The problems I discuss go to basic aspects of the human condition: namely, confirmation bias on the one hand and ingroup loyalty/outgroup hostility on the other. Partisanship of one kind or another is absolutely inescapable: we are all partisans of the ideas we currently hold to be true and the values we cherish, and we are all more partial to some people than others.

We cannot eliminate this natural human partiality, but we ought to wrestle with it. We ought to care about the truth and entertain a healthy doubt that we are currently in secure possession of it; we ought to be able to step outside our narrow affiliations and take a larger view. As Nancy Rosenblum points out, political parties do push back against partiality — internally. They do facilitate internal deliberation; they do encourage narrow factions to see the larger party interest. But externally, vis à vis other parties, it’s a totally different story. Parties exist to mobilize coalitions in competitions for political power. It is therefore in their DNA to drum up enthusiastic (i.e., uncritical) support for the cause and us-versus-them groupthink. Those are not activities that I find worth celebrating. In particular, when natural human partiality is scaled up to the level of mass action, and when the whole point of that mass action is to grab the levers of coercive power, I don’t see how anyone with liberal instincts can view the resulting spectacle without at least an occasional shudder of revulsion.

I think perhaps Henry misunderstands the nature of my antipartisanship. I don’t oppose the existence of political parties, and I don’t have any alternatives to suggest. I even agree that they have a real upside, as Nancy has so ably demonstrated. But the plain fact is that partisanship is riddled with intellectual and moral vices, and somebody needs to point that out. If there is a necessary and appropriate role for partisans to keep the democratic system chugging along, surely there is also a place for antipartisans to keep political zeal in check by pointing out its squalid and sometimes dangerous excesses.

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.