Rosenblum’s Partisanship: Not Very Partisan?

Nancy Rosenblum seems to have a view of partisanship that is not very partisan. She criticizes me for connecting partisanship with the desire to win elections and to mobilize voters. If partisans are not interested in those things, and if political parties are not focused on winning a Schumpeterian “competitive struggle for the people’s vote,” then I do not see how they deserve the name. In any case, I applaud the notion that parties might become more deliberative. As Rosenblum knows, we have gotten a major political party, PASOK, one of the two main parties in Greece, to begin the official selection of candidates by employing the Deliberative Poll. And in my Democracy and Deliberation, I decried the decline in deliberation in national party conventions, among other venues, and proposed Deliberative Polling for candidate selection (something we are experimenting with in Greece if not the United States).

I think that parties can sponsor deliberative forums, indeed I have worked on organizing such efforts. But ultimately there is a difference between winning and deliberating. In a world of campaign manipulation and misinformation, I am looking for venues where citizens can be thoughtfully empowered. Those concerned with winning look for strategies focused more strictly on mobilization and persuasion.

There are tradeoffs. Parties that are not concerned with winning will not be influential. But societies without sites for deliberation will have very limited capacities for collective will formation. There are strategic opportunities for getting bits of both, and perhaps that is where Rosenblum and I can agree. In fact deliberation can increase legitimacy on selected issues and can even help public officials politically. But few partisans, recognizable in the present world, are open to accepting this prescription. Maybe Rosenblum and I can jointly persuade a few more, if that is an area of agreement.

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.