Partisanship and Deliberation: Can’t Have One Without the Other

I think this dialogue has helped bridge some areas of discussion that rarely intersect — deliberative democracy and partisanship. Actually, the discussion makes clear that each needs the other. Consider two possibilities: deliberation without partisanship and partisanship without deliberation.

In a world of many partisans, deliberation without partisanship would be unrepresentative because it would leave out the many partisans who are a key part of the electorate and the public dialogue. Such a neutered deliberation would also be deprived of the passions which Nancy points out are a key animating factor in political dialogue. It would be deprived of well articulated perspectives that enrich the debate. Deliberations with random samples of the mass public, the form I advocate, aspire to be both representative and balanced. Without partisanship included they are neither. Much of the material for balance would be lost and key portions of the electorate would be left out.

But partisanship without deliberation undermines the possibility of collective will formation in the public interest. If people are not deliberating but singlemindedly pursuing party advantage, then democratic competition is reduced to mobilization and to any sort of persuasion that works, no matter how misleading or manipulative. The desire to win in the hands of modern political consultants leaves little room for deliberation and leaves us all facing a fun house mirror of half truths.

So we need both, both in party institutions (more deliberative candidate selection and party conventions) and in policy making. Hence an agenda of institutional experimentation needs to be combined with modern social science. When Madison idealized deliberative institutions, he lacked a political science (he had to conceive of one that would serve) and he made a crucial mistake in leaving out political parties. He later helped found one himself but the political science of deliberation fell by the wayside. It needs reviving in a modern world where political parties have all the virtues Nancy envisages, but where some of their vices can be avoided.

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.