February 2009

We all know what the conventional wisdom says about political parties: They’re divisive. They represent special interests. They ignore the general welfare. They corrupt. They tend to produce bribery in practice and hackery in writing. In partisan politics, everyone cheers for their own side, and we all lose. The smarter alternative, says the conventional wisdom, is to be bipartisan or even nonpartisan, to put aside factional differences and do what’s right for everyone. The political independent, we are told, is the ideal voter, because independents stand above the fray of partisanship.

Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum seeks to overturn that conventional wisdom. Rosenblum is the author of the new book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, and she discusses some of the main themes of the book in this month’s lead essay. To her, political parties have been subject to an imperfect critique at best. Political parties serve many useful purposes, she argues: Among other things, they encourage participation, they offer a means of understanding and relating to current events, and they foster compromise where compromise is needed.

Not only is the standard story wrong about parties, says Rosenblum, it’s also wrong about independents. Independent voters tend to be less well-informed and less engaged in civic affairs — not, as we are told, more. Independents’ ideas about politics tend to be “chaotic and ad hoc,” and thus it’s not at all clear why they should be held up as models of democratic participation.

To discuss Rosenblum’s counterintuitive thesis, we’ve invited the Cato Institute’s Vice President for Research — and Cato Unbound Senior Editor – Brink Lindsey; Professor Henry Farrell of George Washington University; and Professor James Fishkin of Stanford University.

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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.

Related at Cato

» Policy AnalysisA Critique of the National Popular Vote” by John Samples

» Policy AnalysisThe Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan

» Policy AnalysisThe Libertarian Vote” by David Boaz and David Kirby