Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
10. Patrick Deneen: Progressivism and Partisans

Nancy Rosenblum has done a great service in seeking to rehabilitate the place of parties and partisanship in the discourse of political philosophy. Her effort to categorize the sources of “anti-party” sentiment is admirable – divided into categories of “the luster of independence,” “escape from the deadly groove,” and “weightlessness.” A bit of historical flesh on these theoretical bones might add both some complexity and robustness to her categories, and further pose a challenge to her categorizations of what is praiseworthy about parties and partisanship – namely, “inclusiveness,” “comprehensiveness,” and “compromisingness.”

I wish, in particular, to focus on the second of the grounds for philosophical opposition to parties and partisanship: the desire or imperative to “escape from the deadly groove.” Rosenblum stresses the Progressive-era sources of this particular suspiciousness, and rightly so: it was during the Progressive era that an increasingly dim view of the role of Parties in electoral politics and governance reached a modern apogee. Suspicions toward Party gave rise to reforms such as the Direct Primary, the Initiative and Referendum, and perhaps most importantly (in terms of eviscerating the practical force of Parties), civil service reform leading to a massive decrease of political appointments.

While many of the criticisms of Party were couched in recognizable terms that decried the role of the “partisan hack” or the absence of expertise in government (this was the same period that witnessed the rise of Political Science as an ascendant discipline), at a more fundamental level many of the criticisms of partisanship partook of a deep suspicion toward “the deadly groove” of ethnic or “tribal” solidarity. In particular, once-ascendant Protestant leaders had witnessed the rise of a new form of Party government – the urban machine – one that rested deeply upon the communal coherence of immigrant communities. These communities – often Irish, but also Italian, German, and Jewish – represented not only a different set of ruling personalities, but more often than not a fundamental challenge to the liberal idea of Party that resolved itself around interests. Instead, there was a fear that Parties were increasingly defined in terms that were less grounded ultimately in the individual and instead coalesced around shared communal and social features based in common ethnicity, religion, and history. This changed landscape represented a basic challenge to the liberal assumptions that had permitted the flourishing of Party – namely, that all Parties are reducible to individuals who possess interests, and thus that are manageable in accordance with the systemic assumptions of the liberal constitutional order. By contrast, Parties based in identification of blood, race, history, religion and ethnicity were a different beast: this form of identification represented a deep and fundamental challenge to liberal democracy, and thus had to be combated with determined ferocity.

Progressives – most often liberal Protestants – increasingly decried Parties in general, and couched their criticisms in terms of an aspiration to a new universalism that resembled… liberal Protestantism writ large. Thinkers such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey urged a transcendence of “partisan” particularity in the name of a new form of national unity. Such thinkers aimed to hollow out devotions to local and particular associations and identifications, at once reducing identity to that of the individual and the nation (the temporary, even Hegelian locus of the “universal”). The partial or mediated identifications of the new immigrant classes represented a threat to the liberal order; indeed, it can be argued that the religious (often Catholic) sources of commitment to various forms of local mediation (e.g., the parish) were seen by many as the greatest obstacle to the assimilation of these new immigrant communities into the liberal individualist and universalist order. Concurrent with attacks on Party and partisanship were similar efforts to “universalize” a new form of national, liberal education (represented best in the efforts of Horace Mann and John Dewey) and the embrace of a new science of politics (i.e., a universal and replicable form of “political science.”).

That is: what was precisely objectionable about the form of Party that so perturbed the liberal elite was that these parties were noteworthy for being: 1. exclusive; 2. particular; and 3. uncompromising. They were parties based upon strong local communities with longstanding shared traditions and beliefs. They rejected many of the fundamental premises of liberalism, including most fundamentally a self-understanding that begins by conceiving humans to unencumbered, monadic, rational individuals. Reading the arguments of the Progressive opponents to Party during the early years of the twentieth-century, one encounters over and over a condemnation of their irrationality, their “tribal” quality, their backwardness, their recidivism, their very threat to the American way of life. Opponents to such threats couched their alternative vision in the name of the universal, the rational, the scientific, the national and transcendent. If parties were to survive, it was only by basing a new form of Party upon these latter, liberal characteristics. By means of a variety of Progressive-era reforms, the “organic,” communal and local form of partisanship was largely routed in favor of our current form of Parties that are predominantly national, interest-based, shifting alliances.

If Rosenblum is today able to praise parties at best for being “inclusive,” “comprehensive” and “compromising,” it is only because one major and challenging alternative to the liberal conception of partisanship was almost wholly defeated in the early part of the 20th-century. Her praise of Party is made within the comfort of the liberal paradigm – seemingly challenging the “independent” or “rationalist” extremes of liberalism, albeit well within the comfort zone of liberal presuppositions of the role and status of Parties within the contemporary polity. One wonders on what side Rosenblum would have found herself during the Progressive era, when Parties were proudly exclusive and liberalism believed itself under assault by a very different set of anthropological assumptions lodged under the banner of Party?

Patrick Deneen

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