Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
11. Nancy Rosenblum: Response to Melissa Schwartzberg

Professor Schwartzberg rightly observes that parties (I would add party systems) do not necessarily operate in a way that enhances deliberation or political participation. The extreme case of course is charlatan parties -- parties that do not intend to respect election results or that intend if successful to subvert democratic norms. I devote one chapter of On the Side of the Angels to the subject of banning parties. I look at parties that are avowedly anti-democratic or that challenge the secular or egalitarian character of democratic society. The orthodox justifications for “militant democracy” and the criminalization of parties with antidemocratic ideologies are only part of the story. The challenges posed by parties have changed since World War II; the justifications that can reasonably be offered for outlawing religious or ethnic parties, for example, are an increasingly important theme in modern constitutionalism and a neglected aspect of democratic theory.

Prof. Schwartzberg’s concern is parties that respect democratic norms and institutions but that in the course of formulating issues, creating lines of division, staging the battle, selecting and simplifying agendas and arguments are insufficiently responsive to groups that desire a hearing and influence. Of course, the important reductivist business of parties is matched on the other side by the business of adding new issues and partisan voices – a quick look at changes in both the constituencies and issues identified with Democratic and Republican parties over the last few decades is a simple case in point. We have been more attentive to exclusion than we have been to the difficult business of creating political order out of the mass of ideas, programs, and personalities that flood political life and demand attention. Prof. Schwartzberg’s concern is the opposite: the perils of reductivism, the fact that parties may obstruct popular “civilian” partisan in-put in the construction of platforms, policies, and agendas, and in the selection of candidates. (They may also, of course, narrow the range of arguments that are brought to bear in advancing agreed-on agendas and candidacies.)

I don’t see a contradiction between Schwartzberg’s best-case scenario and her concern that agendas and candidates are generated by internal conflicts among leaders and activists. For one thing, this seems to me to be a matter of degree. Party activists are typically members of interest and advocacy groups, and bring these perspectives to bear on internal party politics, so that by itself the amount of “grass-root” participation does not determine the breadth of considerations that go into programs and priorities. Mass participation is not the only way to insure that the common recognizable interests of ordinary citizens are taken into account. Besides, there are practical limits to just how inclusive party organizations should be during the different stages of the electoral process and in the party-building stages in between elections. (I assess legal requirements for democratic decision-making within parties, and attempts to mandate open or non-partisan primaries to enhance participation.) That said, in many democracies and certainly in the U.S., parties organize not only national elections but also elections and governing at the state and sometimes local levels so that even if we count just party activists, that adds up to a considerable number of citizens, and a manifestly diverse group as any caucus-goer knows. Moreover, large-scale partisan participation (and recruitment of partisans) is typically episodic – as we know, events and candidates can open the gates to activism. The most important thing to say in response to Prof. Schwartzberg’s reasonable concern is that only partisans are motivated to take part in the business of shaping political lines of division and the arguments that explain those divisions; the push for inclusive deliberation must come from them.

There are two cases where Prof. Schwartzberg’s concerns about reducing the voices in party deliberations point to more serious challenges to my appreciation of parties and partisanship. One is when parties or a segment of a party is captured by a particular set of donors or moneyed interests. This was Ostrogorski’s preoccupation: “organization reached its climax: from a broker in offices it rose to a trafficker in political influence….”. Where there is systemic corruption, the formal and informal activities of partisans are not decisive in shaping critical aspects of the party agenda, choosing specific candidates, or directing the actions of partisans in office. I discuss this complex subject in “The Anxiety of Influence”.

The other way in which parties can obstruct best-case deliberation is when particular groups are excluded from the ambit of every party; whether on account of prejudice or because their electoral influence is judged insignificant and not worth mobilizing. Prof. Schwartzberg proposes that this exclusion is a source of disaffected independence, and that I should take this into account in my severe criticism of Independents. The causes of disaffection and political detachment are not well known, and have more important sources than inhospitable political parties. In any case, that is an empirical question I am not equipped to answer here. But I can that the Independents that concern me (and that have the solicitude of most political theorists) are not non-voting sufferers of anomie, but proud anti-partisans who look down on partisans for moral reasons and who identify Independence with epistemic high ground. Of course, the response to exclusion from party life does not have to be political detachment. Historically, third parties and fusion parties in the U.S. have been formed to represent regional or ideological or identity groups, and they have often been taken up and absorbed by major parties over time. Robust parties are remarkably changeable institutions.

As this suggests, the problem that interests me in Prof. Schwartberg’s remarks is whether the response to captured parties or exclusionary parties is an attempt to create another party or a resort to other forms of political influence and agitation. My appreciation of parties entails a double contrast: first, partisanship in contrast to vaunted Independence, and second, partisanship in contrast to activism via interest and advocacy groups, social movements, and so on. All sorts of political organizations serve important democratic purposes, of course. But if we value these other forms over parties and partisanship, we are liable to misunderstand and even detract from the distinctive purposes (including the deliberative purposes) that are served if they are served at all only by parties and electoral politics.

One last observation. Both Profs. Schwartzberg and Marin focused on my brief for the potential of parties as deliberative agents and arenas. True, one of my concerns has been to bring parties and partisanship into the ambit of the dominant deliberative strain of democratic theory, where they have been ignored or depreciated. But that is just one of my objectives. The elements of an ethic of partisanship I propose serve other democratic purposes besides deliberation. And the overarching reason for appreciating parties and partisanship has to do with acceptance of political pluralism and contestation. Partisanship, to repeat, is the only political identity that does not see pluralism and political conflict as a bow to necessity, a pragmatic recognition of the inevitability of disagreement. It requires severe self-discipline to acknowledge that my party’s status is just one part of a permanently pluralist politics, and the provisional nature of being in the majority, or governing, or for that matter being in the minority. In short, partisanship accepts the regulated rivalry that defines democratic politics.

Nancy Rosenblum

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