Deliberation and Dissensus

In principle, I’m happy to see that James Fishkin has found some common ground between advocates of deliberation and advocates of partisanship. This is a significant shift on his part — much of his previous work is not, to put it mildly, laudatory of partisans and partisanship. But in many ways I’m not. I’m not at all convinced that there is a real meeting of minds here, and wonder whether continued strong disagreement mightn’t be more intellectually useful. [1]

Fishkin likes deliberation because he believes that it will allow us to find common ground regarding our shared needs and interests, and thus reach collective agreement. He believes that this common ground has been obscured by modern political consultants who are able to manipulate public debate and manufacture dissensus. Thus his claim that if people engage in collective deliberation and deliberative polls, they might indeed be able to engage in “collective will formation in the public interest” that would benefit the common weal.

But if you really buy this vision of politics (as I’ll explain later, I don’t), then you probably shouldn’t like partisanship. Even if an idealized form of partisanship can be extricated from bad television debates, push-polls and the like, it inevitably produces sharp — and potentially irresolvable cleavages. Partisanship — even in its most laudable form — is associated with forms of politics that are fundamentally riven by conflict and competition. For partisans, stark political differences aren’t the artificial product of political manipulation (even if they can perhaps be exacerbated by it). Instead they are an integral part of politics. The room for common ground and collective will formation is at best highly limited.

Rosenblum’s account of partisanship fits much better, I think, into an agonistic account of politics than a consensual one. Her partisan virtue of accommodationism is a limited one — partisans want to do more than win, but they are nonetheless engaged in a contest with partisans of the other side for votes and for the assent of the majority. Her vision of politics is one in which there are clear winners and losers.

This fits much better, I think, into an understanding of politics as a space where reasonable agreement may very often be impossible to reach. People with clashing values, ideals, and interests may simply be incapable of coming to terms. There may not be a collective will or identifiable public interest out there in the sense that Fishkin implies.

More generally, deliberation theorists get a lot of flak for making ambitious claims about the likelihood that deliberation will produce agreement. Some versions of deliberation theory are (in my view) more realistic. Jack Knight and Jim Johnson, for example, have a forthcoming book where they argue that deliberation will often serve to sharpen disagreement rather than to create consensus, but that it is nonetheless valuable for that. This more limited account of deliberation theory seems to me to be quite compatible with partisanship as Rosenblum explains it. But I am not at all sure that Fishkin’s much more expansive account is compatible in the same way.

[1] Indeed, the normative argument I’m making implies that sharp disagreement will often be more useful than fuzzy disagreement.

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.