Partisanship in Everyday Life, and as an Organizing Principle of Democracy

I picked up from correspondence with Jason Kuznicki and several of the comments an interest in pressing the uses and value of partisanship outside of political parties. The term “partisan” refers to advocates and activists in any cause, of course. We see these partisans everywhere. As I suggested earlier, partisans of social movements, activists in interest groups, and so on share many of the failings of “real” party partisans and at the same time lack their distinctive contributions to democracy. What about partisans in other settings familiar to us? Are they vulnerable to the same types of antiparty attack that are leveled at Whigs and Tories, Democrats and Republicans, Christian Democrats and Greens? Of course they are. I recommend the classicist F.M. Cornford’s “Microcosmographia Academica,” which is a biting analysis of informal parties inside universities. Cornford takes swipes at both “Conservative Liberal Obstruction” and “Liberal Conservative Obstruction.” He insists that academic democracy is superior only in lacking highly organized parties: “We thus avoid all the responsibility of party leadership (there are leaders but no one follows them), and the degradation of party compromise.”

Partisanship is everywhere. Can there be institutions and issues that do not generate disagreement, and where some organization to advance one or another side does not arise? Isn’t generic partisanship a requirement of collective action? Of course, there are pure cooperative actions (humanitarian relief efforts, say) that arouse no opposition. There are political institutions where partisanship can fatally undermine function and legitimacy — courts. But for the most part, even if it is faculty arguing for and against the ousting of a university president, or as partisans and foes of General Education (the latest issues to divide and organize the Harvard faculty), the rudiments of partisanship are ineradicable wherever there is freedom of association and the possibility that the internal life of the group is democratic. Political partisanship remains distinct for reasons canvassed in earlier postings, and for the critical role of parties in elections, organizing government, representation, and for their occasional conformity (or approach to) an ethics of comprehensiveness, inclusiveness, and compromisingness.

Jim Fishkin’s gracious reply suggests there are points of convergence between his deliberative experiments and the improvement of partisanship. It would be interesting to explore how the injection of partisan positions and reasons into issue-based deliberation would alter the outcome and effect of these polls, and how the injection of more organized deliberation into party governance, agenda-setting, candidate selection, et cetera might be improving. One question that interests Jim, who organizes as well as theorizes about deliberation, is how nonpartisan deliberative polls can have influence on the public (independents, nonvoters, and partisans) and on partisan officials. How can these results, which Jim believes offers more informed and better quality outcomes, become a persuasive part of the mix of voices that go into political decisionmaking? Others have suggested that “market testing” proposals (for wind power in a state, to take his example) may have more weight legitimizing a policy or troubleshooting opposition if they reflect large numbers and “raw public opinion”; that is just what Jim is battling against. But what if deliberative polls take account of partisan positions? Would their potential impact on the public and on decisionmakers be greater? How much would be lost? This is Jim’s area of expertise — I just wish deliberation were not segregated in political theory from partisan politics.

One more thing about “civilian partisans” — these are the citizens I applaud in the contemporary sections of On the Side of the Angels, and to whom I attribute “moral distinctiveness.” I want to defend them once more from the unremitting charge that they are “stuck in the groove” and dumbly loyal. Andy Gelman spoke to this, and I cited Partisan Hearts and Minds. A recent book by my colleague Sunshine Hillygus and her co-author Todd Shields, The Persuadable Voter, makes the point that swing voters are not independents, as is commonly thought, but cross-pressured partisans. Again, on a number of issues (or values) partisans do not always vote with the party to which they have long been attached — and their book demonstrates how parties that “own” certain issues attract these persuadables.

Where do independents stand, then? Are they simply “closet partisans” or are they true outliers who make case-by-case decisions on candidates and issues? Brink is surely a rare independent bird: thoughtful, public spirited, with a coherent ideology. Does he want to join with others who share the dynamics that make him pivot? There are two sorts of independents. Circumstantial independents are in disagreement with the parties that happen to exist. They are potential partisans, if only the right party arose and recruited them: a party of independents is a recurrent fantasy and occasionally a real effort. On the other hand, philosophical independents think parties are intrinsically too rigid (or lacking in my ethics of inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and compromisingness) to warrant identification. Which is Brink?

I want to return to whether extreme partisanship is our chief danger or whether it is apathy — strong partisan voters or nonvoters? I think that apathy is a fundamental problem, though at the moment it is less salient. The problem is not just the civic concern that large numbers of citizens are detached and disengaged, but who these nonvoters are. They are the poor, and those so estranged from the associations of civil society that they are not recruited into political organizations of any kind — even voting. We have had several decades of increasing economic inequality, and studies like Larry Bartels’ demonstrate the differential preferences of the poor, so that voters are not representative of non-voters. What about the political behavior of non-voters? Parties are blamable here, but I also think that only the excitement of party competition and active recruitment of new partisans can alter it significantly on a large scale. “Inclusiveness” is an element of the ethic of partisanship; there is more deviation from this today than from either “comprehensiveness” or “compromisingness.”

What about that — the daily laments about failed bipartisan compromise? Claims by each side that they are on the side of the angels, that the opposition is driven only by re-election (and winning a useable majority), that the other side is bankrupting our children or irresponsibly sending us into a depression are shrill and inescapable. I repeat that rhetorical extremism is not extremism. The current showdown may be an example of errant uncompromisingness, a deviation from rudimentary partisan ethics. But do we really want down-the-middle policy? Should we idealize non- or post-partisanship? Do we want no strong positions, checks, correctives — no grim warnings? A lot that is valuable and fundamental to democracy is compacted into the charge that Congress is acting “based on politics alone.”

Can we have democracy without parties and partisanship? This is not just a practical question, to which a positive answer generates a charge of utopianism (or of dangerous plebiscitarian democracy). This is a deep question for political theory: don’t the reasons to value pluralism and democracy entail political parties to draw lines of division, provide representation, and organize government? Doesn’t democratic citizenship entail — if only for many citizens and if only episodically — the “moral distinctiveness” of party id?

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.