About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’

In political theory today, political parties and their partisan supporters are disparaged if not actively despised. They always have been. The canonical history of political thought is a record of relentless opposition to parties as institutions and moral disdain for partisans. Parties do have one classic defender, Edmund Burke. Of whom William Goldsmith wrote in 1774, “Here lies our good Edmund. Who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind. And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship is my analysis of antipartyism and attempt at rehabilitation. I create a typology of the antiparty aversions that recur in the history of political thought: one is that parties are “unwholesome parts” that disfigure what should be a perfectly unified political community; another accepts political pluralism but sees parties as fatally divisive, magnifiers or creators of cleavage and conflict. I also identify rare historical “moments of appreciation” for parties as regulating political rivalry and governing. Only after elections were open to most citizens and run as party contests would parties be descried as “perverters of the democratic spirit,” and I trace the “post-party depression” that accompanied the rise of mass electoral parties. Virtually every contemporary political pathology and scheme for correcting the system by eliminating, circumventing, or containing parties and converting partisans into independents has its roots in the Progressive Era. I show the continuity of progressive antipartyism in American law and in democratic theory up to the present, and I appeal to political science to assess these antiparty claims. Finally, I propose grounds for an appreciation of partisanship in democratic politics today, and I outline an ethic of partisanship. Today I am going to take sides — not between opposing partisans but between partisanship and independence.

Partisanship needs a moment of appreciation. We recognize “partisan” as invective; the barb comes out of improbable mouths, a virtual reflex. While party activists battle one another each claiming they are on side of the angels, critics demonize them all and praise independents as their undisputed moral superiors. Distaste is palpable and widespread. One third of survey respondents agree with the proposition “The truth is we probably don’t need political parties in America anymore,” and a third of voters prefers that “candidates run as individuals without party labels.” Political theorists are no exception. Parties are famously “orphans of political philosophy,” and democratic theorists today continue to ignore or disown them. It is hardly surprising that philosophers vaunt independence. Whether the aspirational perspective is subversive Socratic questioning, Humean impartiality, or a transcendent “view from nowhere,” it is the antithesis of a partisan perspective. More interesting is that contemporary democratic theorists write as if we should have democracy without parties and partisanship. Proponents of democratic deliberation, for example, favor specially created deliberative polls and citizens’ juries removed from conventional political arenas, with participants chosen to represent “lay citizens and nonpartisans.” Sober democratic theorists might concede the minimum: that parties are convenient mechanisms for “reducing the transaction costs” of democracy while still insisting that voters should be nonpartisan. Perhaps they might be brought to say that while partisans are not admirable, some number of them are indispensable to realize the function of parties. But any concession is pragmatic, unexuberant, unphilosophical, grudging.

The commonplace of democratic theory that an “intelligently and progressively democratic” system depends on the ability of its supporters to attain a nonpartisan spirit is exactly wrong. I chip away at the moral high ground claimed by independents, and provide “party id” — ordinary citizens’ identification as a partisan — an iota of dignity. I cast partisanship as the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy.

Consider three points each about independence and partisanship. My focus is on “civilian” partisans sometimes referred to as “the party in the electorate,” though similar arguments apply to partisans in government.

The Luster of Independence

In 1876 Henry Adams described the Republican Party as “an army whose term of enlistment has expired….the field is full of stragglers.” The military metaphor was more resonant after the Civil War than today, but it still works to describe declining party identification. A “no preference” response on a survey of political attitudes is widespread throughout advanced democracies, but the proud self-designation “independent” is unique to the United States. The positive moral resonance of independence here owes to a civic ideal of self-reliance as a virtue in economic and social life. Citizenship requires “men who have been accustomed to independence of action and that breadth of view which only the responsibility of directing their own affairs can produce.” This long-standing civic ideal was later replanted in the soil of electoral politics, where independence was associated with political conduct and meant nonpartisan. In Judith Shklar’s formulation: citizens [must] “be independent persons in both their political and civil roles, who give and withdraw their votes from their representatives and political parties as they see fit.” From early on partisanship was cast as degraded citizenship, as abject dependence rooted in clientelism, capture, or dumb loyalty.

To be clear: the core of independence as a political identity today is antipartisanship rather than antipartyism. Fundamentalist independents reject party systems per se as too rigid to accommodate political judgment, and circumstantial independents regret the current configuration of parties. But the avowal that one is not a partisan is what gives independence its luster. Hence the apt term “closet partisans” with its implication of covertness rooted in shame, applied to independents who end up voting regularly with one party.

“Escape from the Deadly Groove”

Progressives introduced the influential view that where the partisan is seduced or bought, the independent is a free agent. The supporters of party organizations were characterized as ignorant, inert, set in some “deadly groove” and under some affective thrall. The “good people” are herded into parties, Henry Adams wrote, and stupefied with convictions and a name, Republican or Democrat…” Today, the contrast is posed in cognitive as well as moralistic terms. Where partisans are “judgment-impaired,” crippled by perceptual bias, the independent is a nimble “positive empiricist,” “cognitively mobilized.”

These assertions do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. “Far from being more attentive, interested, and informed, independents tend as a group to have somewhat poorer knowledge of the issues, their image of the candidates is fainter, their interest in the campaign is less, their concern over the outcome is relatively slight.” This forty year old assessment still holds. “Pure independents” are the least interested in politics, the most politically ignorant, the lightest voters. This is plausible. Partisans spend more not less time attending to politics and have more hooks for taking in new information. Unanchored, independents’ considerations are more likely to be chaotic and ad hoc than partisans’. They participate less.

Independence begins to lose some of its luster. Nonetheless, several laudatory representations of independence deserve comment. For one, “escape from the deadly groove” does not make the independent bravely Thoreauian, doing in every case “what I think right,” because she is reduced to choosing among courses set by others. There is no warrant for casting independents as Humean impartial observers, either — as judicious umpires inclining victory to this side or that “as they think the interests of the country demand.” Nor is there warrant for viewing independents as peculiarly sensitive to Mill’s “half-truths” and to the dynamic by which every position derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other, so that truth is “a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites… and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” On this account, independents are cast as the beneficiaries and carriers of the corrections that emerge from the clash of objections by “persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.” Humean and Millian characterizations assume independents are uniquely motivated and equipped to judge the nation’s interest.

Have I focused on real-life voters and not grappled with independence as a regulative ideal? What if independents were disinterested deliberators of the public interest? Or impartial observers and correctors of the deficiencies of every party? What if independence described actual voters in contexts contrived to provide balanced information and deliberative decisionmaking? I do not think independence stands up in any case, for even the most admirable independent in a hypothetically reformed system lacks the moral distinctiveness of party id I describe shortly. Moreover, independents are politically detached and weightless.


Partisanship is identification with others in a political association. “We partisans” organize and vote with allies, not alone. If Ignazio Silone is right that the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades,” independents do not make it. Independents are as detached from one another as they are from parties. They are not sending a coordinated message (even if analysts are in the business of interpreting what their votes meant). Independents do not assume responsibility for the institutions that organize public discussion, elections, and government and are not responsible to other like-minded citizens. Atomism is an overworked metaphor, but it applies to independents: atoms of the unorganized public bouncing off the structures of a party system. Teddy Roosevelt warned against “the deification of independence,” and what he called “mere windy anarchy” is the perennial anxiety of those who imagine independents as the hope for democratic reform. These are typically schemes for creating a new “Independent Party,” which typically fail because learning to act “in accordance with a script they don’t write themselves.” is the core of political organizing, and just what independents can’t abide. I’ll give the last word on this point to Edmund Burke, who said it first: “In a connexion, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the publick.”

Now for three notes of appreciation for partisanship, corresponding to the elements of my proposed ethic of partisanship.


The first is the inclusive character of party id, which is characteristic though not unique to partisanship in the United States. At its most basic, partisanship is identification with Democrats from Florida to California and with political competition at every level of government. No other political identity is shared by so many segments of the population as measured by socioeconomic status or religion, and partisans are not clumped tightly together on an ideological spectrum. This is not to say that all partisans have an especially deep moral commitment to inclusiveness — only that they are ambitious to be in the majority. Understand that claiming a majority is more than a matter of strategic necessity required by institutional design. After all, partisans want to win elections, but a plurality can suffice. They want to have their policies enacted, but there are other effective avenues of political advocacy and influence. Rather, partisans want the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of “the great body of the people.” Persuading a majority of the people is a triumph. In this respect, partisan inclusiveness is a conscious democratic value.

Party candidates may have short-term strategic interests or safe seats that allow them to speak only to “the base” or to “activate” only certain voters so that nonvoting is an effect of what is misnamed mobilization, not its antithesis. But ordinary civilian partisans aspire to persuade and mobilize as many as possible to identify with them. Their horizon of political expectation extends beyond a single election cycle, and their disposition is to inclusiveness.


The second element of an ethic of partisanship and ground for appreciation is attachment to others in a group with responsibility for telling a comprehensive public story about the economic, social, and moral changes of the time, and about national security. Of course, partisans sometimes focus on a specific event and their party’s competence to deal with it, and partisans pursue partial interests, though this is not unreconstructed interest group pluralism since they share a complex of concerns and connect particular interests to a more general conception of the public interest. Just as partisanship in government is the condition for more than uncoordinated political decisions, or pure single cases of negotiation or barter, voters’ party id is the condition for a degree of coherence and continuity of some conception of the public good.

It would be overstating the case to say that partisans assume the obligation Rawls articulated: to advance some conception of the public good that is not ad hoc but situated in the most complete conception of political justice we can advance. It would be understating the case to say that in contrast to members of interest and advocacy groups, including self-styled public interest groups, partisans are not single-issue voters. An important result follows from comparative comprehensiveness: ordinary partisans are rarely extremist because adhering single-mindedly to one dominating idea has little appeal.


Inclusiveness and a comprehensive account of what needs to be done are only possible if “we partisans” demonstrate the disposition to compromise. Compromise with fellow partisans acknowledges the larger “we.” We have only to think of political purists to underscore compromisingness as a moral disposition. Purists “cant about principles.” They pledge themselves to ignore facts. They represent intransigence as a virtue. They do not find failure ignominious. (As one Republican sensibly objected, “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical…”)

Of course, compromise can be evidence of abject pandering or raw opportunism. If readers of this blog are partisans, you know for yourselves, I suspect, that working out the bounds of reasonable compromise is part of the severe discipline of partisanship. But unrelieved, self-righteous refusal to compromise excites moral aggression. It is an invitation to a cycle of charges of hypocrisy. In the end, a compromising disposition is protection against stupidity and cruelty.

The Achievement of Partisanship

Inclusiveness, comprehensiveness and compromisingness set the contours for an ethic of partisanship. They enable the distinctive work of partisans: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision. Parties draw politically relevant lines of division, reject elements of the others’ account of projects and promises, and accept regulated rivalry as the form in which they are played out. Party antagonism focuses attention on problems, information and interpretations are brought out, stakes are delineated, points of conflict and commonality are located, the range of possibilities winnowed, and relative competence on different matters is up for judgment. Without party rivalry, “trial by discussion” cannot be meaningful. It will not be if interests and opinions are disorganized and are not brought into opposition, their consequences are not drawn out, argument is evaded. Nor can it be fruitful if the inclusion of interests and opinions is exhaustive and chaotic; parties are about selection and exclusion. Shaping conflict is what parties and partisans do, and what will not be done, certainly not regularly in the way representative democracy requires, without them.

Creating lines of division is the achievement of partisanship, the heart of introducing “power into the political world.” Politically salient positions are unlikely to be cast as Mill’s “serious conflict of opposing reasons” unless partisans do the work of articulating lines of division and advocating on the side of the angels. Great or small, parties are not simply reflections of cleavages “there” in society any more than they adopt fully developed conceptions of justice that exist antecedent to political activity.

Democratic theorists are particularly withholding when it comes to the creative facet of partisanship. Contemporary theorists prize the political inclusion of a “variety of perspectives” but “the clash of political beliefs, and of the interests and attitudes that are likely to influence them,” which Rawls and other political philosophers concede is “a normal condition of human life,” do not spontaneously assume a form amenable to democratic debate and decision. Discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies must be identified, selected, and refined. Party competition is constitutive, then; it creates a system of conflict. It “stages the battle.” That is, partisans do. Attempting to capture this, Maurice Duverger used language that moves back and forth between metaphors of natural and artistic creation: parties crystallize, coagulate, synthesize, smooth down, and mold. Creativity in politics is rarely a subject of political theory, and then it is identified with founding moments or constitutional design, higher law-making or transformative social movements, and not with “normal politics.” Partisanship is the ordinary not (ordinarily) extraordinary locus of political creativity. Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential.

The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’

We know that in political life, partiality and disagreement are inescapable, and so are groups and associations of all kinds organized in opposition to one another. But we tend to forget that political parties and partisanship are not inevitable, and should not be taken for granted. Commitment to political pluralism, to regulated political rivalry, and to shifting responsibility for governing makes party id the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy. While thinking they should speak to everyone, partisans do not imagine they speak for the whole or that their victory is anything but partial and temporary. True, they are on the side of the angels, offering a satisfactory account of what needs to be done. But however ardent and devoid of skepticism, there is this reticence. That is the categorical moral distinctiveness of party id: partisans do not imagine that their party speaks for the whole. Partisans do not represent the opposition as a public enemy. They don’t secede, revolt, or withdraw in defeat, and “elections are not followed by waves of suicide.”

We might think that the vicissitudes of political fortune and the limits of human volition make this existentially true, a felt experience. Or we might say that all citizens in democracy have a part in this, as they do, presumptively, formally. We know however that many citizens see political argument as unnecessary and partisan conflict in particular as illegitimate. Partisanship is the political identity that does not see political pluralism and conflict as a glum concession to the ineradicable “circumstances of politics.” In other social and political contexts the term of power is not periodic and fixed by rules; the conflict is not iterative; the future may disappear from view. Partisans keep the losing side alive, in public view, on the ready not just to alter a particular outcome but to have their party take responsibility for governing. True, “Greatness is made of sterner stuff than successfully facing the exigencies of the electoral cycle.” But for ordinary citizens, partisanship entails the knocks of compromise and defeat.

Skeptics of my appreciation of partisanship can be forgiven today. For several decades, party leaders often appear to want to destroy one another as an effective and legitimate opposition — even to the extent of trying to criminalize political differences. They are hubristic, claiming to represent the nation not a part. Compromise even with fellow partisans is not in their repertoire and even if constructive policy making is thwarted and the public business is not done.

The thrust of my ethic of partisanship, of course, is critical as well as appreciative. In any case, falling off from inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and compromisingness is not a reason to constrain or circumvent parties and partisanship or to prize independence and post-partisanship. That would be a hopeless idealization, and a misguided abandonment of the distinctive political identity of representative democracy. In the recent presidential election, Senators Obama and McCain offered track records of bucking their own party as a qualification for leadership, and promised to rise above partisanship. But nonpartisanship is not a synonym for independent thought: it is navigating without political orientation or organization.

Bipartisanship is not a synonym for reasonable compromise: properly understood, it assumes a temporary consensus, which is appropriately rare and arises mainly at moments of national crisis. It would be better if Congressional leaders and President Obama promised to articulate and abide by an ethic of partisanship rather than concede the moral high ground to those who transcend party.

What we need is not independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship. That is all the more reason for democratic theorists to connect the practice of democratic citizenship with partisanship, and to consider the terms and conditions of better partisanship as seriously as they do impartiality and institutions designed to work without parties or partisans. Political theorists should adopt these orphans of political philosophy and take them in.

Response Essays

Partisanship: Still Half-Empty

In her essay, and at greater length in her book, Nancy Rosenblum makes a convincing case that American political independents don’t deserve their good press. In particular, she cites findings from the political science literature that independents tend to be less interested in politics, less informed about the issues, and less likely to participate in the process than are their partisan fellow citizens. And by virtue of their “none of the above” political identity, they are “weightless” and “atomized,” free-riding off the agenda-setting and coalition-building efforts of partisans that give political life its substance.

All fair enough. Yet knocking independents down a peg doesn’t change the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess. Notwithstanding Professor Rosenblum’s thoughtful and intellectually elegant efforts at rehabilitation, I remain convinced that, under present circumstances at least, partisan zeal ought to be attacked rather than defended.

For present purposes, I’ll confine my bill of indictment to two charges. First, partisanship undermines clear thinking. Second, it undermines moral integrity. In both cases, the root cause is the same: the conflation of friend and foe with right and wrong.

Consider this pair of poll results cited by Andrew Gelman in his wonderful book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. According to a survey conducted in March 2006, nearly 30 percent of Republicans believed not only that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction, but that the U.S. military had actually found them. Meanwhile, in a May 2007 poll, 35 percent of Democrats expressed the view that President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

It’s not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.

So yes, most partisans are “better informed” than most independents, because they have a political identity that motivates them to have opinions and then tells them which ones to have as well as the reasons for having them. Consequently, partisans may have more information in their heads, but their partisanship ensures that this information is riddled with biases and errors and then shields those biases and errors from scrutiny. This is not a state of affairs worth defending.

Virtue as well as truth is a casualty of partisan zeal. Even when partisans know what the score is, they’re constantly tempted to shade the truth, or at least keep silent, in order to be a good team player. Recall, for example, the fury unleashed this past fall on the handful of conservative commentators who were willing to admit the obvious: Sarah Palin was obviously, embarrassingly unprepared for the office she was seeking. In coalitional psychology, the only thing worse than an infidel is a heretic, and that fact ensures that most partisans keep their heterodox opinions to themselves. Good for the team, perhaps, but bad for the soul — and the republic.

Having established my antipartisan bona fides, let me backtrack a little. I agree with Professor Rosenblum that partisanship of some kind plays a necessary and vital role in political life. Politics is a competition for power, and in a pluralistic mass democracy that competition will inevitably be a team sport. Parties, sustained by partisanship, do lend coherence to both electioneering and governance by offering rival comprehensive visions of what needs doing; they do stimulate wider interest and involvement in the public’s business. Professor Rosenblum is correct that partisanship has its characteristic virtues.

But it has characteristic vices, too, and at present the balance between them is not a favorable one. Not that I’m pining for some lost golden age — far from it. On the contrary, I think that contemporary partisanship is generally preferable to what came before. Unfortunately, it’s still terrible.

Professor Rosenblum doesn’t talk much about the changing nature of political identity, but I believe it’s an important point. In America until relatively recently, and in less developed democracies today, the predominant form of partisanship has been a concrete, personal loyalty to specific leaders and comrades. This is the partisanship of patronage and clientelism — of the Jacksonian spoils system, Tammany Hall, and the Chicago machine. In the twilight of this phase of American democracy, 64-year-old Illinois state legislator John G. Fary won a seat to Congress and made this statement of his plans: “I will go to Washington to help represent Mayor Daley. For twenty-one years, I represented the mayor in the legislature, and he was always right.”

In the newer style of partisanship, which has emerged with a richer and better educated electorate, loyalty has grown more abstract. Now shared allegiance to broad principles of public policy is the defining element of party ID. Parties have grown more ideological, and so have partisans. Polarization is the name we’ve given to this development.

I regard the shift toward a more ideological politics as progress. Broadly speaking, we have been moving away from politics as an amoral struggle between rival gangs and in the direction of politics as a contest of competing values. Because people have differing values, and assign different weights to the values they share, there can never be an end to politics. Accordingly, even in an ideal world where all citizens are completely rational and equally public-spirited, a politics and thus a partisanship of values would still be necessary. Here, then, in the realm of values, is the purest and most durable source of political identity.

That kind of ideal partisanship, though, remains far over the horizon. Today’s ideological mindset is shot through with irrational commitments to dubious empirical propositions as well as parochial commitments to specific interest groups. Ideological politics is thus a mongrel, an unlovely mix of the personal and the principled, the parochial and the public-spirited, the pragmatic and the dogmatic.

Consequently, I believe there is an inverse relationship today between one’s commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one’s commitment to partisanship, whether Republican or Democrat. To put it more bluntly, these days I don’t see how you can be both a good citizen and a zealous partisan. This isn’t to say you can’t lean one way or the other. Without a doubt, it’s possible to reach a fairly stable conclusion that one party ID or the other is a relatively better fit. But it should be an uncomfortable fit. If you can’t see that sometimes, even frequently, your party is dead wrong, and that sometimes the country would be better off if your party lost, then in my book you’ve got a problem. The fact that it’s an extremely common problem only makes it worse.

Professor Rosenblum argues that “what we need is not independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship.” Well, I agree with the last part of the sentence: we certainly do need better partisanship. I’ll even concede that that’s the most we can realistically aspire to. There is no possibility of a pure, “view from nowhere” independence — we are all partisans of one stripe or another.

Yet I must strongly disagree with the first part of the Professor Rosenblum’s sentence. The only way we can get better partisanship is for partisans to become, in critical dimensions at least, more independent-minded. In particular, the resolution of factual questions and the evaluation of interest groups’ claims should be conducted, as far as possible, independent of one’s political identity. Until that happy day arrives, we need more antipartisans — not weightless, atomized independents, but informed, engaged intellectuals and opinion leaders who are willing to proclaim that both houses are pox-ridden.

Partisanship and Extremism

I applaud Nancy Rosenblum’s effort to rehabilitate partisanship. My major regret is that I didn’t know about her book sooner. I’ve just had an essay published which defends partisanship, and which would have been better if it had been informed by her work.

My response will focus on how Rosenblum’s arguments apply to the role of political blogs. Blogs have a dubious reputation among pundits and political commentators, precisely because of their vigorous and unrelenting partisanship. The historical complaints that Rosenblum documents are all well and alive in the debate over blogs’ depraving influence. David Brooks’ NYTcolumn attacking leftwing blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is an especially striking example:

The Keyboard Kingpin, a.k.a. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

The reader who is able to look past Brooks’ extraordinary metaphors (when confronted with squadrons of rabid, venom-unleashing command-lambs, mere fascist octopi must surely slither away in embarrassment) will see all the traditional tropes of anti-partisanship that Rosenblum identifies — lack of independence, mindlessness, vague intimations of authoritarian control, and corrupt clandestine relationships.

Rosenblum suggests that this broad animus against partisanship descends from early twentieth century Progressives’ detestation for party machines. This led to a vaunting of political “independence” and a corresponding distaste for strong partisanship. She argues that these implicit biases also afflict the arguments of contemporary political theorists such as James Fishkin (also participating in this seminar), who prize political deliberation.

Again, blogs provide an interesting test case. Fishkin harks back to a Madisonian vision of politics that he suggests has been corroded by political parties more interested in winning elections than in thoughtful deliberation. He seeks to structure deliberation so as to minimize what he sees as disruptive partisan extremism and maximize the potential for disinterested discussion. Blogs are anathematic to this vision of politics. Bloggers are typically at least as interested in winning the argument as in discerning the truth. The empirical evidence that political bloggers and blog readers are sharply divided along partisan lines is emphatic.

However, as Rosenblum suggests, partisan argument of the kind that blogs engage in can play a valuable democratic role. They help structure a “system of conflict” in which “discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies” are “identified, selected, and refined.” As I argued a couple of years back in the Boston Review:

Exactly because the blogosphere involves clashes between strongly divergent opinions, it is beginning to affect other spheres of political debate. The blogosphere serves as a crucible in which politically useful and interesting interpretations of important issues are forged and tested. Bloggers’ ability to take up a new political issue, toss different interpretations back and forth among themselves, point out flaws, and arrive at final viewpoints makes them a highly valuable resource for political professionals and commentators in search of novel and salient ways of framing issues.

I could have added, as Jonathan Chait does, that bloggers reshape political debate along specifically partisan lines.

The netroots are scornful of single-issue liberal groups — or, really, any liberals at all who are not wholly dedicated to the cause of Democratic victory … The netroots’ dream is of a liberal army of grassroots activists, pundits, policy wonks, and politicians all marching more or less in lockstep.

Chait is being critical, but from Rosenblum’s perspective, he’s paying bloggers a backhanded class of a compliment. Rosenblum argues that one of the key benefits of partisanship is that it provides a more inclusive and encompassing vision of politics than single issue groups ever could. That said, it may be that he’s paying too much of a compliment. Blogs may not be partisan in exactly the ways that Rosenblum prizes. More on this later.

One could extend Rosenblum’s arguments about the benefits of partisanship for political argument to less directly political fora too. Partisanship may also usefully help mobilize individuals to participate in a broader public sphere of debate and argument. The canonical example of a thriving “public sphere,” according to deliberation theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, was the coffee house society of eighteenth-century London. Yet as historian Brian Cowan has argued, this sphere of purportedly civilized debate was “born out of the practical exigencies of partisan political conflict.” So too the modern political blogosphere, which not only has political consequences, but is also opening up a broader set of conversations about politics. Indeed, today’s bloggers are arguably more “civil” than their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts:

In the course of a heated debate in the Amsterdam Coffeehouse in 1683, the whig provocateur Titus Oates was struck several times over the head with a cane by one of his opponents. Oates could not retaliate in kind, and so he responded by throwing his dish of hot coffee in the eyes of his assailant.

So partisanship is a feature of blogs, not a bug. Furthermore, Rosenblum’s account of partisanship might be extended to criticize parties in a way that isn’t too far removed from leftwing “netroots” bloggers’ critique of the Democratic Party. More specifically, I think Rosenblum’s claims suggest that partisanship can be used as a metric to evaluate the democratic contribution of parties.

Bringing this out explicitly might help elucidate an earlier debate about this book between Rosenblum and Melissa Schwartzberg at Columbia University. Melissa argues that the internal openness of parties to debate and to input from “citizen partisans” is a key factor determining whether partisanship will have the benign effects that Rosenblum argues. Rosenblum, while recognizing that this is a legitimate concern, argues that grassroots participation is not the only means through which partisan deliberation takes place, and seems to imply that lack of openness is only a substantial problem in extreme cases (where parties are captured by small sectional interest groups, or when groups are systematically excluded from participation in politics).

I think that Melissa’s case that parties should be more open to “citizen partisans” is stronger than Rosenblum suggests. If parties are laudable because of their potential for creatively reimagining the disputes that structure politics, than we have a way to evaluate how parties measure up to their partisan role. Parties that refuse to engage in such creativity, and instead accept the system as it is (even if they are systematically disadvantaged by it), are falling down on their job. And there is good reason to believe that party leaders (who are those who have done well in the system as it is) are more likely to be inclined towards this kind of small-c conservatism than are grassroots activists, and thus more likely to be in need of correction.

This, for example, was the basis of the “netroots” leftwing bloggers’ critique of the Democratic Party — that a supine leadership had succumbed to a corrupt form of bipartisanship in which they were simply unwilling to vigorously oppose Republicans and try to build a new partisan coalition. There is good reason to suspect that this critique was for the most part correct.

Of course, this kind of capture is a problem that can never be resolved permanently. As Alessandro Pizzorno argues, the best we can hope for is a cycle in which yesterday’s reformers, if successful, are likely to become tomorrow’s establishment to be challenged in turn again. But relatively “open” parties, precisely because they are more subject to this cycle, are more likely to be ones in which reformers can periodically seize control, and hence to fulfill their democratic vocation than closed ones.

All this said, Rosenblum’s arguments perhaps provide the basis for an interesting critique of political bloggers and blog readers; that they aren’t partisan enough. This would surely be a first in contemporary debate. As I hinted in my discussion of Chait above, bloggers and blog readers may not always be partisan in the ways that Rosenblum describes. Sometimes, they appear more like what she terms “extremists,” whom she criticizes for political hubris. I don’t think that this potential criticism sticks (although I do think that somewhat related kinds of criticism might), because I don’t think that extremism, as Rosenblum defines it, is as normatively objectionable as she suggests it is.

Rosenblum’s critique of extremism is only referred to in passing in her essay, although it is developed at length in her book. She draws a sharp distinction between partisanship and political extremism, arguing that extremism isn’t the opposite of centrism, but rather an absence of the kinds of accommodating democratic values that partisans possess. Extremists “disdain compromise” and are unconcerned with outcomes. They adopt utterly unyielding positions in politics. This is in contrast to partisans, whom Rosenblum sees as being inclined towards inclusiveness, accommodation, and seeking to persuade a majority of the rightness of their position. Rosenblum describes extremism as hubristic, morally reprehensible, tyrannical, and despotic.

I suspect that bloggers and blog readers may sometimes be singleminded in the sense that Rosenblum suggests. While bloggers and blog readers are clearly partisan, recent evidence indicates that they also are much more ideologically coherent than earlier work (including my own) would suggest, and very likely ideologically single minded on a limited number of key issues.

A good example is torture. The Obama administration and Democratic Party leaders are adopting an eminently partisan (in Rosenblum’s sense of the word) position on torture — while seeking to outlaw it, they are also apparently pursuing compromise by failing to pursue indictments for officials and government agents who authorized torture and carried it out in 2000–2008, so as to build a broader political coalition. Many leftwing bloggers, in contrast, are adopting an uncompromising and “extremist” position arguing that compromise on torture is utterly wrong, and that failing to pursue torturers effectively legitimizes political actions that are utterly illegitimate. Leftwing bloggers’ unyieldingness on issues such as torture and the Iraq war goes together with partisan accommodationism on other issues, but isn’t tempered by it. While these bloggers might readily support an economically centrist candidate for a red-state Congressional district, I would be startled if they ever supported an apologist for torture.

So are these “extremist” bloggers morally reprehensible because they aren’t open to compromise on issues such as torture? I would suggest not, for two reasons. One (which I suspect Rosenblum might accept) is that on some fundamental issues, democratic accommodation should take second place to the basic values of a just society. The ethic of partisanship, however beneficial, is surely a second order value rather than a first order one, and may reasonably be violated under some conditions. Here, while liberalism may require us not to hold unconsidered values, I am not at all sure that it requires us to be ready to seek compromise on values or issues that we hold to be foundational for any even marginally decent political system.

The other is that uncompromisingness can sometimes have specifically democratic virtues too, even apart from the underlying values that it represents. Even if it is not intended as an act of persuasion, it may serve to persuade others. The sincerity and tenacity with which people hold to a position, even when it is not politically expedient or carries serious costs, may be a convincing reason for others to consider whether this position, however unpopular, has merit. One woman’s unreasonable obduracy may be another woman’s bearing witness. As Rosenblum herself acknowledges, “extremism” is one of the most serious accusations that one can make against a political actor or set of actors. I personally would prefer if it were only used to refer to actors who are not prepared to accept democratic norms in any meaningful way.

Now of course this isn’t to say that bloggers (or others) shouldn’t be criticized — I think that Max Weber’s account of political responsibility (which is a kissing cousin of Rosenblum’s arguments about the ethic of partisanship) provides a useful basis for critique. But since I am over my word limit, it may be best to leave that to another post or comment.

Democracy, Partisanship, and Deliberation

What you think citizens should do depends on what you think democracies are for. One prominent democratic theory, which we might call competitive democracy, holds that the point of democracy is to settle who will govern through “a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Joseph Schumpeter’s famous formulation). Richard Posner, Ian Shapiro and others have explicitly revived the Schumpeterian position combined with skepticism about public will formation. On this view, democracy does not aspire to represent the will of the people, but just to use political competition to settle the question of who is in charge. The virtue of partisanship clearly has a role in this theory of democracy. It is through partisanship that teams of potential office holders compete.

A second influential theory of democracy might be called participatory democracy. Here the point is to get ordinary citizens participating. Political participation offers a kind of token for the collective consent of the governed. Sometimes this participation is also instrumentally valued for its “educative function” but the point is to get people to vote (and to participate more broadly as well.) The virtue of partisanship clearly has a role in this theory of democracy. It is through partisanship that large numbers can best be mobilized to participate.

Nancy Rosenblum mentions these considerations in explaining the virtues she sees in partisanship. The aspects of partisanship she advocates seem to be rationalized on the basis that they will help parties win elections and they will help people get mobilized to participate. She advocates “inclusiveness” because of its connection to competitiveness in elections. “At its most basic, partisanship is identification with Democrats from Florida to California and with political competition at every level of government” (emphasis added). Part of the rationale is that partisans “are ambitious to be in the majority.” Her second element “comprehensiveness” — “telling a comprehensive public story” about what is to be done, would be called “ideology” by some. In any case, it is about having a coherent account of what is to be done that serves both affiliation and mobilization, presumably to win elections. Her third element, “compromisingness” is about building effective coalitions, again a rationale about competitiveness and mobilization.

Democratic theories congenial to partisanship are focused on competitiveness and participation. No doubt, they identify important aspects of the role of citizens. However, they leave out a central element of democratic theory, now widely discussed under the heading of deliberation. On this view, democracies are not just about winning elections or participating in them or feeling a sense of affiliation with one’s political team. They are ultimately about collective will formation. And of the many ways in which collective will formation can take place, some primacy needs to be given to those that permit competing arguments to be considered in a context of good information.

There are two versions of this deliberative democratic theory. The strategy of “indirect filtration” advocated by James Madison in his original design for the constitution focused on representatives who would “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” (Federalist 10).This version, which I would characterize as elite deliberation, was central to Publius’s view of the Senate, the Constitutional and Ratifying Conventions, even the Electoral College in its original form. It was soon challenged by Rhode Island, a hot bed of Anti-Federalist activity, which proposed to consider the Constitution in a referendum, getting views directly from the people. The Federalists challenged the appropriateness of consulting the people in this way on grounds of insufficient deliberation. The battle between elite deliberation approaches and participatory democracy was joined. With the later rise of Progressive reforms, institutional designs such as the referendum, initiative, recall, direct election of Senators, and expansion of the franchise all moved the democratic process in the direction of more direct consultation.

Yet the theoretical possibility of deliberative democracy, practiced not just by representatives but also by the people themselves, was largely inchoate. The modern interest in deliberative democracy has focused on deliberative microcosms of one sort or another. The point of these microcosms is that they combine some claim to representativeness with good conditions for deliberation. My own work has focused on what I call Deliberative Polling, in which scientific random samples are surveyed and then recruited with incentives to participate for an extended period, say a weekend, in both small group discussions and plenary sessions with competing experts and policymakers. These Deliberative Polls have been conducted in a number of countries around the world and have been used to bring wind power to Texas (eight projects there led directly to Texas now being the leading state in wind power), sewage treatment plants to China (where DPs have been used for local decision making, including budgeting), a resolution to a budget crisis in Rome (where a DP was held for the Regione or state government) and new policies toward the Roma in Bulgaria (following a national DP). These projects were not partisan. They were not party-driven and involved representative samples of ordinary citizens making judgments as to what they thought should be done.

Thus far we have mentioned four democratic theories — competitive democracy, participatory democracy, elite deliberation and deliberative democracy (the latter with deliberation by the people themselves rather than just by elites). Elsewhere I have broken these four theories down into component parts and argued that the sixteen theoretically possible positions can usefully be boiled down to these four (see my When the People Speak, Oxford University Press, 2009, forthcoming, which also offers a detailed account of Deliberative Polling). If we take this range of alternatives seriously, why should we be more interested in one of the deliberative possibilities? Why deliberative democracy rather than just the participatory or competitive versions?

We live in a political world that has made the transition from Madison to Madison Avenue, from a concern for thinking about what would be best, to a concern for manipulating and mobilizing public opinion in the interest of winning elections. A great deal of money and sophisticated technology is deployed to present one sided arguments, strategically incomplete information, misinformation and spin-doctored messages all designed to mold opinion to advantage. In this environment defined by the perpetual campaign, partisan identities do not themselves contribute to thoughtful collective will formation. Consider the recent overview of party ID by Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler (in their important book Partisan Hearts and Minds). They note that party identifications can best be compared to religious affiliations. Adherents are usually born into them, they are remarkably persistent, and they do not contribute to rational evaluations of the options (religious or political). They are stable and have an extraordinarily powerful effect on behavior. If one is concerned just about a sense of identification, then as Rosenblum notes, such identities are “weighty.” But if one is concerned about some minimally rational process of collective will formation, the impact of party ID is to make voting and policy choice predictable, not to make them thoughtful.

A thoughtful process of collective will formation, whether by elites (representatives) or the mass public themselves, requires a disposition not to make a partisan judgment, but an independent judgment about the public interest. Of course, real world judgments reflect some mix of partisan interests and independent judgment. But to the extent one is just focusing on what will serve one’s party, what will contribute to electoral competitiveness and effective mobilization, one is not acting on the disposition that will assist deliberation in the public interest. Competitive elections can be won by misleading the public, by demobilizing it with negative ads (as my colleague Shanto Iyengar has demonstrated) by the MAD politics of the trivial but sensational sound bite — a politics of Mutually Assured Distraction. These techniques win elections and mobilize participation, but they do not add up to any collective weighing of substantive arguments about what should be done. Rather they add up to pseudo-mandates and a very thin form of democracy.

In my view we do not need to make a virtue of partisanship. Partisan interests will effectively motivate partisan behavior. We need to make a virtue of all citizens, whether partisans or independents, making a judgment about the public interest, even when those judgments may not serve their party interests. Supplementing partisan decisions with deliberative mechanisms can help. Progress on deliberative democracy does not depend on getting rid of parties, but on instilling deliberation about the public interest within — and with supplements to — existing institutions. It is not the independent voter who must be cultivated, but the independence in all voters and all representatives. To the extent such a disposition is cultivated, voters are not behaving as partisans but as part of “We the People.” Institutional experimentation, an enterprise very much in the spirit of Madison (who had to create a whole political science to support his design of the U.S. Constitution) should be furthered. But to make an ethic of partisan behavior rather than independent judgment is to settle for forms of democracy that would deaden rather than enhance collective will formation.

The Conversation

Partisanship, Ideology, and Loyalty

[Editors’ Note: This post originally appeared at Crooked Timber. As it is part of the ongoing discussion among our participants this month, we’ve reprinted it here.]

Brink Lindsey criticized Nancy Rosenblum’s work on partisanship as follows:

she cites findings from the political science literature that independents tend to be less interested in politics, less informed about the issues, and less likely to participate in the process than are their partisan fellow citizens… . All fair enough. Yet knocking independents down a peg doesn’t change the fact that partisanship in America today is a dreadful mess… . under present circumstances at least, partisan zeal ought to be attacked rather than defended.

I’ll confine my bill of indictment to two charges. First, partisanship undermines clear thinking. Second, it undermines moral integrity. In both cases, the root cause is the same: the conflation of friend and foe with right and wrong… . partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense… . their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other… .

Even when partisans know what the score is, they’re constantly tempted to shade the truth, or at least keep silent, in order to be a good team player. Recall, for example, the fury unleashed this past fall on the handful of conservative commentators who were willing to admit the obvious: Sarah Palin was obviously, embarrassingly unprepared for the office she was seeking.

While I don’t think that these criticisms are necessarily wrong as such, I do think that they are aimed at the wrong target. When Brink argues that partisans are often inclined to believe stupid things, or to have strongly correlated views on political matters that have no apparent connection, he’s likely correct. But this criticism hardly applies only to partisans. Take two examples.

First, Libertarians. These aren’t partisans in the usual sense of the word; while there is a Libertarian Party, I’ve never in my life met a libertarian who votes for it (or indeed who has expressed any sentiment other than embarrassment at its existence). Yet even in the absence of party identity, libertarians appear quite as vulnerable to dumb-yet-convenient truth claims and strong correlations of political views as are traditional partisans. Indeed, this is apparent on precisely the two issues that Brink refers to — gun control and global warming (my strong impression is that libertarians, at least those engaged in public debate, tend to be strongly against the first, and highly skeptical about the existence and/or remediability of the second).

Second, purveyors of what might be termed the “bipartisan consensus” in Washington DC. This is a set of viewpoints that defines itself against partisanship. But again, casual empiricism (from someone who reads their output, lives in DC, etc.) would suggest that they are at the very best no better than similarly well-educated partisans in their understanding of the truth, and arguably somewhat worse (because their ideas have been systematically less likely to come under challenge, they are more likely to be bad ones). And again, there are correlations between apparently disconnected beliefs — there is no reason why someone, for example, who believes that Social Security reform is teh awesome should be more likely to have believed four years ago that the Iraq war was a Very Good Thing. But in my admittedly personal and unsystematic experience, those two points of view were very highly correlated indeed.

The point is that what Brink is concerned with here is a much more general and pervasive phenomenon than partisanship. What he’s worried about is ideology. And while political parties are one prominent bearer of ideology, so too are political movements, densely interwoven social networks and many other social phenomena. Not only that, but ideologies are hard to do without. Joseph Schumpeter has a quote somewhere that I keep meaning to try to find again, to the effect that our ideologies blind us to much of reality, but without our ideologies we would not see at all. I think that is mostly right — which is not of course to say that ideologies should not be subjected to empirical test, tempered by discussion etc, but they are in the end impossible to eradicate, and have heuristic benefits as well as disadvantages.

The second problem that Brink points to is real again, but is similarly more general than partisanship. It isn’t only partisans who have incentives to shade the truth to protect comrades, or to avoid punishment by their peers. It’s anyone who works within an organization or coalition. The New Republic — a magazine which has on occasion criticized leftwing bloggers for their over-eagerness to toe the party line — is a good example. I suspect that many people who write for the New Republic believe that their editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, is both nasty and crazy. Yet (perhaps with a couple of exceptions) they aren’t going to say this in public places, because they don’t want to be fired or blacklisted. Loyalty and compromises are again, not a specific problem of parties.

So, my challenge to Brink is as follows. Can you provide us with any warrant to believe that partisans are especially vulnerable to problems of ideology and misplaced loyalty, as opposed to other actors in politics and public debate? My first-approximation belief is that we don’t — and that while the problems that Brink identifies are real problems, they are generic ones. This may be the result, as Brink notes, of historical changes, but if we are talking about latter-day partisanship, I really don’t think that Brink’s charge stands. Or, to put it another way, if we didn’t have organized political parties as bearers of partisanship, I imagine that we would suffer under all the same burdens without enjoying some of the benefits (in terms of organizing public debate etc) that Rosenblum identifies.

Responses on Political Theory, Idealism, and Extremism

Partisanship and Political Theory

Most of my thoughtful, empirically well-armed respondents have joined the conversation as social scientists. I will try to say something about the arguments and evidence they marshal in a moment. But first I want to remind readers of Cato Unbound that my turf is political theory. On the Side of the Angels considers anti-partyism and antipartisanship, which have dominated political thought from the ancients to today. I offer a typology and illustrations of these powerful, recurrent aversions. I mention this for readers who may be unaware of the scope of the subject, but also because political theory is not exclusively of the moment. How bad are partisans today, as measured by some criterion of knowledge or civic virtue? That is the subject of several responses, and the question is fairly raised by my essay. But to be clear: it is not the focus of my work. It is certainly not my intention to defend every aspect of contemporary American partisanship. Indeed, my ethic of partisanship provides a critical perspective. Rather, my intent is to provide a deep account — comprising both historical “moments of appreciation” and my own theory — of the contributions of parties and of citizens who are partisans to representative democracy, which cannot exist without them. My focus is on the long history and several faces of antipartyism, and why these positions are wrong, when they are wrong.

The contemporary aspects of On the Side of the Angels address democratic theorists for whom (with rare exceptions, of course) parties and partisanship are outside the pale of consideration. I juxtapose democratic theory’s inattention with political science’s near-obsession, and in the sections on American partisanship today I use what I hope are the best studies by political science colleagues to show that my claims for partisanship are not at odds with what we know; empirical work informs but does not drive the enterprise.

I appreciate partisanship while proposing an ethic that allows us to criticize actual partisans. But the appreciation comes first. For the important democratic part parties play cannot be played by any other group or institution — and this holds for more than organizing elections or mobilizing participation, as important as these are. Moreover, democratic politics cannot be carried on by men and women who take the independent or impartial standpoint democratic theorists typically invoke as most likely to produce good public reasoning and fair outcomes. In Angels, I try to discriminate among the dominant strands: deliberative theory, neo-republicanism, and “epistemic democracy.” These theorists rarely acknowledge parties as institutions, and as I said in my essay, they concede almost nothing to parties when the do. If they allow that parties are a practical necessity for organizing elections and legislatures, partisan citizens are not. I attempt to show that even on their own terms, democratic theorists — particularly deliberative theorists — have something to gain by grappling with the uses and moral distinctiveness of partisanship.

Jim Fishkin offers a typology of democratic theories and asserts that there is a place for parties in truncated, errant versions but not in deliberative democracy. He reiterates the now-standard dichotomy between open-minded, informed deliberation and decisionmaking by partisans. Modern democracies are, of course, “mixed regimes” — all the elements he notes are present and arguably essential (unless we move to democracy by referendum, or officeholding by lot). One interesting question is what contributions do parties and partisanship make besides running candidates for office and encouraging participation? The most interesting question of all is where and how deliberation and elections, participation, etc. come together. One of the main thrusts of Angels is the intersection between partisanship and deliberation — an absolutely crucial question in a “mixed regime.” I argue that parties themselves are arenas for deliberation; the internal workings of parties require it, and I wish Fishkin had given some thought to that. I argue too that when it comes to deliberation on questions that are not resolved by discrete policy decisions (or on national direction) in contrast to single issues like wind power in Texas, citizens would benefit from a mix of deliberation and partisanship. Democracy would be improved by an informed understanding — a demonstration — of how and why parties shape state and national agendas and what well-articulated partisan positions and policies and national visions are. Fishkin notes that “supplementing partisan decisions with deliberative mechanisms can help.” Precisely. And vice versa.

Consider a moderate position that democratic theorists might take. If we understand the value of parties in the Millian sense of shaping lines of political division and staging “trial by discussion” (where does this fit in Fishkin’s typology?), we could assign partisans a modest role. We could reluctantly concede that democracy needs just enough partisans to “man” the parties. Ardent partisans may not personally be deliberative, but at the level of the polity they are the agents of “trial by discussion.” Even this grudging view concedes something important to party leaders and to activists in the electorate. And it is not restricted to electoral competition and campaigns. It goes on in formal and informal settings where partisanship is displayed, and it is inherent in Fishkin’s “collective will formation.” How can it be improved, not circumvented?

Fishkin’s categories are not very helpful in probing our subject, not least because he associates partisanship exclusively with winning elections and getting people to vote. Consider representation, a theme left out of this discussion so far. Modern parties are more than convenient vehicles for conducting elections and organizing governments; they are creative in constructing lines of political division. They don’t just do this for an audience of voters, either. As Nadia Urbinati emphasizes in an earlier response to Angels, ideally parties are stable institutions that create ongoing connections between partisans and representatives. They are communicative forums. They are unique institutions for insuring that representatives are responsive to citizens. Parties create and sustain political relations apart from electoral moments. Of course, this rendering of political partisanship depends on parties that are not ephemeral, or short-term alliances among officials. It emphasizes civilian partisans and parties as membership groups.

Political theorists might balk at the charge that their accounts of democracy are anti- or apolitical, but their democracy is about judgment and justification, the argumentative forms disagreement should ideally take, and how right decisions might emerge. Their models are judicial decisionmaking, or small-group deliberation under conditions of full information, that do not make binding decisions, and where the force of the decision comes solely from the moral authority of popular deliberation based on full information — as in deliberative polls. Deliberative democratic theory has contributed to a more systematic understanding of decisionmaking under stringent conditions, and the grounds of democratic justification. Institutionalist political theorists propose courts or nonpartisan expert commissions to make decisions in certain areas, rather than elected representatives. Districting is a proposed example. Some theorists, like Philip Pettit, propose nonpartisan popular mechanisms to review, contest, and emend egregious democratic political decisions. I probe all this in detail in the chapter “Correcting the System.”

Why are these strands of democratic theory nonpolitical? Leave aside my view that all politics is partisan whether or not there is a formal party system. Leave aside my view that wherever we have pluralism we will have partisanship, again, even if we do not have parties. Suffice it to say, as Fishkin’s response demonstrates, that democratic theory today has little to do with political organization or action. It has little to do with the day-to-day business of building political associations, setting political agendas, choosing comrades, or influencing electoral and policy outcomes. It is unconcerned with empowerment, except in the ideal terms that identify stringent public reason as the only justifiable form of influence. Angels is my attempt to reinsert all this business, to make it respectable for theory.

Cato Unbound respondents have picked up on my juxtaposition of partisanship and independence. In addition, I create another division: between partisanship and other forms of political association — social movements, interest groups, “public-interest” advocacy groups, and voluntary associations in civil society that episodically enter politics. These were my subject in the book Membership and Morals, while this book is an attempt to show what parties can do for democracy that no other form of association can. Of course, many of the criticisms made of parties and partisans apply to all the other forms of political association — social movements, advocacy groups, interest groups (including self-styled public interest groups). The grounds of appreciation for parties emerge clearly in contrast. Partisans take sides on comprehensive matters of national interest. Many partisans are also advocates of particular issues, but as partisans they are more. So zealousness on behalf of a party is different from uncompromising zeal on behalf of guns or consumer protection. Moreover, other forms of political association are limited in their objectives and therefore short-lived. This is obviously the case for randomly selected, issue-oriented, one-time citizen juries or deliberative polls. Democratic theory needs this discussion of comparative forms of association and organization.

One of the important aspects of parties in comparison with other forms of political association is that they are relatively open and changeable: consider the temper, agenda, and constituency of the two major parties today in contrast to two decades ago. Henry Farrell’s fascinating discussion of political blogs is on point — I wish I had written it! His important observation is that for parties to do the work they must in democracy — including the creative work of identifying national directions and shaping the conflict — they must be open to new groups, ideas, and resources. He suggests that in this respect bloggers are potentially constructive resources. In Angels I discuss others: third parties and fusion parties, for example, and grassroots participation. I talk in detail about primary elections and whether they should be open and non-partisan, as progressives want, or whether they are most useful as forums for party-building.

One final thought about political theory and partisanship. As Brink Lindsey insists, historical setting should affect our understanding of parties and our judgment about their importance for democracy. Lindsey believes that partisanship has evolved from concrete, personal political loyalty toward an affiliation based on ideology, and he judges this an improvement. I want to remind readers of the merits of political machines and the way in which “corruption” is not a simple thing. Good progressives like Jane Addams had a sympathetic understanding of “Why the Ward Boss Rules,” and her account of neighborhood organization, patronage, and spoils is crucial to understanding this era. Among other things, parties as membership groups incorporated whole sections of the population into democratic politics and the system of patronage and spoils was important in the evolution of the national political system and the workings of federalism. Parties are still the chief vehicles of political integration of immigrants. (This is more than participation in voting, of course, and extends to acculturation into democratic practices more broadly.) We should also notice that Lindsey’s progressive narrative is distinctively American. After all, the origin of important European parties (socialists, Christian Democrats) was quite different; as a generalization, European parties began as ideological parties and are converging increasingly on American-style umbrella parties. So is he right that American parties today are polarized and ideological? It is a great debate in political science, and considerable evidence distinguishes partisans in national office from ordinary civilian partisans. (Andrew Gelman suggests that partisans today are not lock-step on issues like gun control and climate change, and that ordinary partisans are not ideologically polarized or self-identified as conservative or liberal. That is, they seem to conform to the comprehensive element of my ethic of partisanship and to be compromising.) For now, just notice that Lindsey’s characterization of polarized ideological parties is a slice of time in the moment, and I have tried to anchor the conversation in a broader perspective historically and in recurrent arguments in political theory.

Good Enough vs. Ideal Citizens and Partisans

Brink Lindsey demonstrates that the Progressive strain of anti-partisanship is alive and well; he enacts it. While not a party abolitionist, he echoes the disparagement of partisans on the basis of bias, ignorance, and inattention to the public interest. I’ll address the question of zeal or extremism in the next section. But how many responses from contributors address partisanship specifically, rather than citizens in general who have run amok and are selfish, inattentive to the public interest, lazy, ignorant, or biased? Many criticisms of partisans extend to the general state of knowledge, political engagement, and comprehensive vision of just about every category of citizen — to voters generally to say nothing of nonvoters (the real challenge for contemporary democracy). It is not hard to build up a discouraging list of negatives, summed up by Larry Bartels as “unenlightened self-interest.” (Small surprise that as political psychologists turn to neuroscience research, the first thing they test is the portion of the brain in Democrats and Republicans that respond to partisan cues. “Cold reasoning” sections of the cortex are quiet, it seems; “the process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, with flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected”)

The comparative question is whether partisans are better or worse than others on the score of ignorance, bias, and falling off from virtue. Empirical studies suggest that on every dimension they are better than nonpartisans.

Lindsey brings up perceptual bias: “[their] beliefs …are determined by their political identity”; “they start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works.” Is this true? Recently, political science “revisionists” have challenged the classic account of partisanship as “the unmoved mover.”

The common thrust is that attitudes do shape party id, and that changing political attitudes alter political orientation. Partisanship is active, alive to the connection between preferences or attitudes and party positions. Revisionists have absolved partisans of the arbitrariness of the claim that “partisans are partisan because they think they are partisan.” Whatever deficiencies political scientists uncover, the appeal of revisionism is to tie party id to reflection on experience and responsiveness to events and therefore to undercut “blind partisanship.” Moreover, the deficiencies revealed do not confirm the worst of the negative stereotype of partisans. Partisans do absorb information and revise opinions and don’t reflexively view party leaders or programs in a positive light. The “biased learning” hypothesis is rejected by Green, Palmquist, and Schickler. Democrats and Republicans are not ordinarily polarized in response to new information; their responses move in the same direction; there is “parallel learning.” The thesis of Partisan Hearts and Minds, as the title says, is that “we can expect a disjuncture between what voters think of parties and the degree to which they identify with partisan groups.” As some readers will doubtless recognize from their own experience, partisan hearts and minds are not always in sync.

Lindsey also sees partisanship at odds with “virtue”: “I believe there is an inverse relationship today between one’s commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one’s commitment to partisanship.” Partisans, he says, shade the truth or keep silent to be a team player. Undoubtedly; personal failings and strategic thinking are everywhere and not unique to partisan politics. Are we appalled by all kinds of selectivity and compromise in every political situation? (Independents are — it is part of their moral hubris.) Is this behavior blamable, much less a violation of political morality? When and where? And to what purpose?

We do not have to be Machiavellians to reject the categorical imperative in the normal course of democratic life. The same is true of compromise, and political theory has surprisingly little to say about the general occasions and justifications for compromise, although it remains an essential political act. This is why an ethics of partisanship is necessary.

Put in other terms, the questions for political theory that Lindsey raises about partisan “virtue” are as old as political factions, and were raised by Tocqueville’s distinction between great and small parties and their fit for their time. Only some times and on some matters of constitutional or moral significance do we need or want great parties and principled adherence to them. I imagine that Lindsey does not see every political question as one of moral principle taxing our moral behavior — as something that cannot in conscience be deferred or repressed or deferred or compromised? Today, the enormous number of words and energy spent on parsing and advocating for bipartisan and post-partisan politics might make sense as applied to torture or the parameters of Presidential authority. Even on many constitutional questions partisans are likely to be divided within and among themselves and to accommodate — religious “accommodation” is a perfect example. But for the most part appeals to bipartisanship or postpartisanship are rhetorical: the contours of a stimulus bill are the meat and potatoes of small party politics. Are there principles or policies on which everyone, including partisans, should be up in arms and uncompromising? Yes. Are these rare? Also yes.

Lindsey invites us into a deeper discussion of partisanship versus civic virtue. When he says that partisans are too little concerned with the public interest, he could mean one of at least three things. He could mean that partisans are driven by naked self-interest, disconnected from a picture of larger interests with which their own may or may not be congruent. He could mean that partisans are incapable of an impartial or neutral perspective on what is in the general interest. Or he could mean that good-faith partisan views of the public interest fail to understand or to move us toward the true public interest. This is subject too large to deal with here.

It bears on my extended discussion in Angels of the Humean notion that partisans can be injected with “a small tincture of Pyrrhonism” and hesitation — instants in which they appreciate that the other side is sometimes in the right and assume the pose of the impartial observer. It raises the question whether these partisans are necessary for developing understanding and movement toward the public interest. We are familiar with Mill’s insistence on “the social function of antagonism” and his signature argument about one-sidedness. Truth “is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Mill erected the philosophical framework of progressive antagonism and insisted that this process requires actual advocates, not devil’s advocates or impartial observers.

I argue that more and better partisanship is what we should want for all (or most) citizens. (I am a student of Thoreau and do not disparage disengagement for good reasons.) How good must partisans be? How good can they be? I call for “more and better partisanship,” but Angels is not a reform tract, and I leave recipes for improvement for a future piece. I believe the essential condition is political attention and engagement by citizens in a variety of forums. That, we know, is tied to the excitement of competition with high stakes. Henry Farrell’s response is relevant here. It suggests that the parties and partisanship contain their own resources for correction if they are sufficiently open. Parties, unlike other political associations, have the structure and incentives to be.

Understanding Extremism

Lindsey also brings up zealousness — always a simmering element of anti-partisanship. To begin, notice that just recently we have been hearing charges of overly zealous partisans with biased judgment. We should not allow this concern to trump our concern for the more widespread, enduring, and dangerous phenomenon of apathy and disengagement. People are apt to link the two. One of the most frequently stated but unproven claims is that parties “turn voters off” and provoke retreat from democratic politics. Antipartyism is rampant, but it is not the cause of apathy. Apathy is often part and parcel of revulsion at politics tout court. It is grounded in a recurrent and characteristically American view that pragmatic problem-solving can replace politics. Its familiar expression is a “just fix it” state of mind. It takes the prosaic popular form of impatience with government but is also articulated in expert and elite theory.

One example of this mindset is the faith often seen in the ability of random citizens in nonpolitical contexts to arrive at policy decisions in the public interest. Again, I do not think these are an antidote to democratic apathy, which is at least as much a problem as episodic zeal.

It is good to recall that extremism and polarization are far from constant characteristics of partisanship. In 2007 a political analysis of American parties with the title Off Center was standard fare. The surprise is how swiftly it supplanted titles like Dead Center: the Perils of Moderation, and the disgusted observation: “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Extremism as a normative accusatory does not refer to party positioning and it should not refer to partisans generally, but to the disposition and conduct of some partisans in opposition.

Extremism, I argue, is a deviation from the three elements of my ethics of partisanship. Specifically, extremism refers to failure to take responsibility for mobilizing voters. It signals failure to articulate a comprehensive story about the state of the nation, addressed to the nation as a whole. And it points to boasted intransigence, an avowed rejection of norms of compromise necessary to get the public business done. Each of these deviations from the ethics of partisanship are the result of a kind of single-mindedness that takes one idea or aim to its limit, thereby upending the democratic purposes of parties.

Failure to mobilize voters (and citizens in between elections), failure to identify a comprehensive range of public concerns, and failure to compromise are each the result (the justifiable result in extremists’ eyes) of preoccupation with a single value, issue, or cause. One reason ordinary partisan voters and many officials are not extremist is that for them single-mindedness has no appeal. It is not only that personally and individually they may have the capacity to endure or even enjoy the jockeying of pluralism, or that philosophically they are Millians appreciative of the overall benefits of the trials of ideas. Rather, it inheres in the expectation that in party politics singlemindedness is out of place. It arouses moral aversion. The extremist is one-eyed, monotonic, unwavering, to repeat, singleminded. She is not just right, but right on a matter of such singular urgency that it eclipses all competing matters, suppresses all cautions, and rationalizes unfortunate consequences. There is hubris to extremism, itself an undemocratic vice.

Henry Farrell’s contribution inspires me to say another few words on this score. Note that in the context of American party politics the term extremism does not refer to antidemocratic parties — fascist or communist, for example, parties that do not respect the terms of regulated rivalry, opportunistic groups that exploit the electoral system for hostile or fatally divisive ends. It should be clear, too, that in pointing to partisan extremism I don’t just mean incivility, the demonization of political adversaries, or raw language. We generally understand and accept the ordinary purpose of extremist rhetoric in the context of politics: to generate enthusiasm. Language is calculated to excite political action by evoking palpable threats and naming opponents. Specific political conditions make extremist rhetoric tactically sound. It is reinforced by both apathy and independence. The less that conventional political activity appears to be satisfying, the more strenuously partisans insist on high stakes. A depressed political mood seems to require some electric participatory jolt. So partisans pronounce grievances, exaggerate danger, and arouse resentment. Similarly, where parties are close in an electoral race, one way to try to “escape the purgatory of parity” is to resort to rhetorical extremism. This rhetoric is distinguishable from extremism and has different correctives.

Again, the values or positions that partisan extremists advance are not necessarily outside the mainstream or off-center, as the spatial model would suggest. Extremism is a matter of modality. “Extremism” says that values and programs are advanced in a temper, at a register, and in a mode that is unyielding. I think this goes some way toward distinguishing strong partisanship from its corruption — it sets up the conversation.

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.

A Brief Reply to Farrell

Henry argues that my criticisms of partisanship are valid enough, but that the vices I identify (ideological blinkers, differing standards of judgment for comrades and rivals) aren’t specific to party ID. I agree completely! The problems I discuss go to basic aspects of the human condition: namely, confirmation bias on the one hand and ingroup loyalty/outgroup hostility on the other. Partisanship of one kind or another is absolutely inescapable: we are all partisans of the ideas we currently hold to be true and the values we cherish, and we are all more partial to some people than others.

We cannot eliminate this natural human partiality, but we ought to wrestle with it. We ought to care about the truth and entertain a healthy doubt that we are currently in secure possession of it; we ought to be able to step outside our narrow affiliations and take a larger view. As Nancy Rosenblum points out, political parties do push back against partiality — internally. They do facilitate internal deliberation; they do encourage narrow factions to see the larger party interest. But externally, vis à vis other parties, it’s a totally different story. Parties exist to mobilize coalitions in competitions for political power. It is therefore in their DNA to drum up enthusiastic (i.e., uncritical) support for the cause and us-versus-them groupthink. Those are not activities that I find worth celebrating. In particular, when natural human partiality is scaled up to the level of mass action, and when the whole point of that mass action is to grab the levers of coercive power, I don’t see how anyone with liberal instincts can view the resulting spectacle without at least an occasional shudder of revulsion.

I think perhaps Henry misunderstands the nature of my antipartisanship. I don’t oppose the existence of political parties, and I don’t have any alternatives to suggest. I even agree that they have a real upside, as Nancy has so ably demonstrated. But the plain fact is that partisanship is riddled with intellectual and moral vices, and somebody needs to point that out. If there is a necessary and appropriate role for partisans to keep the democratic system chugging along, surely there is also a place for antipartisans to keep political zeal in check by pointing out its squalid and sometimes dangerous excesses.

A Brief Reply to Rosenblum

Nancy’s response is a model of judicious, careful, and thoughtful argument. I don’t find much in it to disagree with. Which raises the question: why are our overall evaluations of partisanship so different? We both see a mix of good and bad in both partisanship and antipartisanship, so why does she end up siding with the former while I throw in with the latter?

First, I think, is a matter of differences in focus. Nancy is taking the wide view of a political theorist, looking at political parties as a general phenomenon and pointing out the underappreciated good things they do to make democratic politics work as well as it does. I, on the other hand, am looking at partisanship as a think tank wonk engaged in the contemporary American debate about public policy. From where I stand, it is quite clear that partisanship is an enduring frustration. I regularly see brilliant intellectuals and highly knowledgeable experts on both sides of the aisle whose contributions to our understanding of how the world works are compromised by tribal partisan loyalties and emotional commitments to semi-coherent ideological narratives. And I can’t help but think that’s a terrible shame. I understand that politicians have to be political, and that’s fine. But why do outsiders — academics, journalists, think tank scholars — who do not hold or seek political power have to be politicized? I can’t imagine that Nancy would deny the very sharp conflict between the ethic of partisanship and the ethic of intellectual integrity. To Nancy, though, it’s just a small piece of the larger puzzle she is examining. For me, though, that piece is where I work.

Another difference, I suspect, is a difference in overall attitude toward politics. A clue about this possible difference crops up when Nancy, in discussing partisan zeal, counters that “we should not allow this concern to trump our concern for the more widespread, enduring, and dangerous phenomenon of apathy and disengagement.” I have to say, apathy and disengagement don’t worry me much at all. I think democratic politics is by its nature a dirty business — necessary to be sure, but squalid all the same. To my way of thinking, romanticizing the often stomach-turning reality of mass representative democracy is far more dangerous than apathy and disdain. Yes, parties serve a useful social function. So do loan sharks and prostitutes. It doesn’t follow, though, that I should think highly of the individuals who fulfill these functions.

Finally (for now, at least), Nancy makes the excellent point that partisanship has virtues at the collective, systemic level that may not be apparent when examining individual partisans. I wonder if she has failed to extend the same broadened view to antipartisanship. So generally attentive to pluralism, she nonetheless seems to want to wish antipartisanship out of existence. Is there really no place for us non-belongers in this incredibly diverse society? Is there no positive function we serve? I agree with Nancy that, over the long run (and in healthy, stable democracies), the desire to win elections serves as a constraint on partisanship’s worst vices. But might not the strain of disdain for politics and politicians that runs through American culture — and that is fed by people like me — serve as an additional constraint? When you know that a good chunk of people think what both you and your opponents are doing is contemptible, surely that puts some damper on your Manichean pretensions.

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?

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.

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.

Dissensus on Consensus

Henry Farrell misreads me. Reason-based collective will formation and consensus are not the same thing. Deliberative Polls self-consciously avoid any promotion of consensus. That is why the results are collected in confidential questionnaires, or secret ballots, to avoid the distorting social pressure of consensus-based forms of deliberation. And that is why I dispute the common differentiation between “deliberative” and “aggregative” forms of democracy. My arguments favor deliberation for preference formation and aggregation (counting of votes) for decision. Sometimes there is more consensus sometimes less. There is no consistent pattern of decreased variance in opinion in our results. Put another way, there is nothing about deliberation that should rule out continuing strong disagreement (as Farrell appears to assume). Whether or not there is more agreement, at least people understand the reasons on either side and know what they are agreeing or disagreeing about. And at the end of the day, count the votes, but with reason-based preferences, not just manipulation and misinformation. That has always been my position. And a democracy focused just on winning political competitions without deliberation would be a democracy without meaningful collective will formation, as Schumpeterians admit.

When citizens deliberate in our processes there are significant changes of opinion more than two thirds of the time and the changes of opinion are driven by those who become more informed about the issues. There may be more agreement or less but it is reason and evidence driven at the end. My point about the role of partisans in deliberation is not a shift at all, as I have always advocated scientifically representative inclusion and balanced consideration of competing arguments. It is hard to have balance if you leave out those with strong opinions. Their views inform the others in discussion even if they do not change themselves. These points do not in any way affect my strong advocacy of a democracy in which citizens consider interests beyond self interest and partisanship. But it would be a sterile form of deliberation if people did not speak up for their own interests and if those with strong opinions were not included.