Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
1. Nancy Rosenblum: "Glorious Traditions of Anti-Partyism and Moments of Appreciation," Part I

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.

To begin, I’ll introduce two high points on my map of the terrain, two “Glorious Traditions” of antipartyism. The character and purpose of political parties vary over time and political contexts, of course, but if “party” lacks institutional coherence, aversions to parties are surprisingly steady. The first glorious tradition of antipartyism insists that political society should be integral and that divisions are unwholesome. The formulations are familiar – an organic body politic, an indivisible nation or people, unitary royal or popular sovereignty, a general will that cannot err, one determinable common good. “Holism” can be hierarchical or communitarian and egalitarian. From a holist perspective, every partial group and association fosters particularist interests and opinions. No form of pluralism is benign. Parts just are partial, and every organized interest and opinion is an actual or latent political party. Because parties’ raison d’etre is partiality and conflict, they are particularly anathema -- parts against not of the whole. This aversion is with us still.

The second glorious tradition of antipartyism accepts pluralism and partiality, and incorporates social and political parts into the frame of government. It is one thing to accommodate divisions in a system of representation (as in the mixed constitution or corporatism), however, and another to organize party conflict within or among them. “In all civilized societies, distinctions are various and unavoidable”, Madison wrote to Jefferson, but the logic of pluralism does not extend to parties. What earns the accusatory label “party” is turning acceptable divisions into warring factions, or inventing needless, novel divisions as an excuse for contesting for power. Partisans are passionate zealots, extremists, begetters of “extraordinary ferment” and “violent animosities”. Partisans, Hume wrote, suffer “madness of heart”.

In this tradition of antipartyism, in contrast to holism, however, reconciliation to parties is conceivable. For here, parties are less symptoms of deeper intolerable division than causes and drivers of arrant divisiveness, disrupters of political equilibrium. They can conceivably be tempered and put to use. We see this in the half-way house status of the party of constitutional necessity that David Hume identified with the fortunate parties of the Glorious Revolution. Constitutional necessity was the judgment partisans passed on their own activity, of course, before parties became respectable. Partisan association was temporary, a dangerous instrument political men must occasionally employ for the public good. The halfway house party of necessity with its disclaimers of partisanship is still with us: a nonpartisan party uniting people of all views in defense of the neglected national interest; an honorable party of independents; a party to transcend parties.

A set of recurrent themes marks the long course of the antiparty tradition that sees parties as fatally divisive, among them grim explanations for the ubiquity and irrepressibility of parties. Finally, there were so many causes there seemed to be no cause and we can almost see Madison throwing up his hands when he wrote, “A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them.” Another constant theme is party archetypes, as in Jefferson’s “the terms whig and tory belong to natural as well as to civil history.” Both themes had a critical thrust, but they could be inverted and recast as appreciative of parties. For example, it is not hard to see that with a half conceptual turn it would be possible to represent parties as antagonistic but necessary elements of a reasonable political order – party of order/party of progress, say, so that parties appear as philosophically defensible parts whose dynamic is mutually corrective, even progressive. Similarly, the charge that parties not only exploit deep divisions but also invent conflicts (“the smallest appearance of real difference suffices”) contains the insight that parties create rather than simply mirror social or ideological divisions. The creative role of parties drawing lines of political division and as Tocqueville recognized “introduce[ing] a new power into the political world” is foreshadowed, aversively, here.

Against the background of these glorious traditions of antipartyism, I retrieve early moments of appreciation that can serve as guides to the achievement of parties. Sartori commented that “great achievements are accomplished in the mental fog of practical experience”. My challenge is to rescue from futility the traces of positive in the long history of antipartyism, and underscore their significance.

One moment of appreciation belongs to Burke, who portrays party conflict as a form of regulated rivalry. “Every good political institution must have a preventive operation as well as a remedial”, he wrote. Revolution and impeachment are recognized remedies for tyranny, but party conflict is the previously unrecognized preventative that makes these remedies unnecessary. The spirit of party is a “vigilant watchman over those in power”. Parties expose one another’s crimes and failures. Regulated party rivalry entails enormous political self-restraint; that was a crucial insight. The discipline consists of conceding each party’s status as just a part in a permanently pluralist politics, and with it the provisional nature of being the governing party, and the charade of pretending to represent the whole.

By bringing opposition within the frame of government, parties do more than manage political conflict; they organize the business of government. Perhaps surprisingly, this moment of appreciation belongs to Hegel. He argued that the real issue vexing political representation is not the right of enfranchisement or who were to be the constituents but rather the result of representation: the creation of a legislative assembly. Political men must recruit responsible colleagues and form parties in order to govern, which requires more than temporary cooperation or a commanding personality. Hegel wrote of the opposition party: “What it is often charged with, as if with something bad, namely all it wants is to form a Ministry itself, is in fact its greatest justification.”

Both regulated rivalry and governing are forgiving when it comes to the character of parties; neither moment of appreciation appears to depend on “great parties” mirroring deep natural or social cleavages or on partisans’ shared philosophy. “Small” parties can do the work, and serve as templates for great transformative parties.

(Continued in Part II here.)

Nancy Rosenblum

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