Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
12. Nancy Rosenblum: Response to Marin

I take just one exception to Prof. Marin’s probing comments: at the outset she seems to assign to parties attributes that I assign to partisans – and then only to partisans who fit my account of ethical partisanship. Many institutional features of parties are a response to the formal and political requirements of specific electoral systems – a point to which I return in answer to Prof. Marin’s question about proportional representation. Within those constraints, whether parties are inclusive, comprehensive, and compromising is the result of decisions by party leaders, activists, and “civilian” partisans. I try to take care not to animate the institution!

Prof. Marin’s argument is that in appreciating partisans who aim at inclusiveness and comprehensiveness I invoke a “public, collective `we`”. That is correct: partisanship, I suggest at some length, is a shared political identity that can be usefully understood in terms of identity politics. It is also true that one reason for valuing partisanship is its potential for articulating a general conception of the public interest. Of course, partisans do not always attempt this, and may fail when they do. And the connection between political identity and articulating an account of the general interest is important: partisans situate themselves in a system of political opposition, and their programs and candidates serve a notion of the public interest (when they do) that is contested. The important point for me is that only partisans active in party politics make this attempt because it is in the context of elections and partisan governing that open, conscious appeals are made to the great body of citizens. Other forms of political action fall short on this account, and although individual Independents may conceive a comprehensive account of the public agenda they are scattered elements who have neither means nor intention to articulate their ideas as part of a program of political action. Prof. Marin concludes that there is a tension between the value I place on parties play as carriers of comparatively comprehensive accounts of the public interest and my criticism of the anti-party tradition I call “holism”.

My first response is to say that we should take holism seriously as a philosophical and political position. If we do, it is not hard to see “what about holism is responsible for its antiparty tendencies”. Partisan advocates for a contested conception of the public interest are anathema to holism. Properly understood holism is anti-political. It is typically utopian in its vision of perfect unity. Every strain of philosophical and political holism shares a rejection of pluralism and of political partiality and parts. All social and political groups threaten the unity and integrity of political order, on the holist view, but because parties have partiality and opposition as their aim, they stand out as the most morally and politically unabidable. Holists cast parties as parts against rather than parts of the whole. That parties may contest notion of the public interest rather than partial interests makes them no less particularist. For holists, the common good cannot be identified or instituted by means of a dialectic of party conflict. Nothing is more antithetical to holism than James Bryce’s observation that a party system “stimulates the political interest of the people, which is kept alive by this perpetual agitation.”

My second response is to say that in any political society that accepts pluralism, parties and partisans are the indispensable, committed agents of responsible democratic pluralism. They are unique in this, which is why I refer to partisanship as the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy. The most important and defining characteristic of partisanship – more important than the ethical elements of inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and compromisingness – is that even though partisans speak to the public at large and often wish they could claim to speak for everyone, they know they do not represent the whole. Divisions and partiality are not lost sight of. The chastening knowledge is always there. To say the obvious, yes, partisans want to win “the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of the great body of the people”. But it is a defining characteristic of parties in democracy and the heart of the moral distinctiveness of partisanship that any majority, or supermajority, or consensual mandate is temporary and revocable. Partisanship is imbued with this truth about democratic politics as the inseparable from the act of drawing significant lines of division, and with an acceptance of the vicissitudes of pluralism. This is the discipline and the creativity of partisanship.

Prof. Marin ends with an institutional challenge. Do the elements of my ethic of partisanship argue against proportional representation, where parties are less likely to be inclusive and their objectives comprehensive. I have no simple answer to this fair question. Proportional systems with many small parties that are effectively single interest or identity groups or that occupy a tiny piece of the ideological spectrum obstruct the sort of democratic deliberation that can arise in party politics. Their partisans speak to narrow constituencies, their agendas are typically truncated, and inclusiveness and compromise take place at the level of government formation and ministerial decisions, and are often fragile and temporary. But within the constraints of electoral systems, often enough parties that begin as narrowly sectarian become more inclusive – consider European Christian Democratic parties. In short, the applicability of the elements of my ethic of partisanship to PR is variable and depends in part on the specifics of electoral systems that are beyond the scope of this project. That said, I do suggest that inclusive umbrella parties (or electoral districts that require segmented religious or ethnic parties to appeal beyond their group) are more likely to develop comprehensive agendas and to broadcast reasons to wide swaths of the voting population. Even so, there is no assurance: “narrow-casting” is a regrettable feature of the national electoral behavior of American umbrella parties, for example. The impetus must come from partisans themselves, hence my attention the ethical dimension to partisanship.

Nancy Rosenblum

1 comment:

Mara said...

I take the point that what recommends partisanship is its willingness to accept pluralism and the idea of a contested public. I also take the point that the three features I discuss belong to partisans and partisanship rather than to parties.
But I feel that my point got lost in my clumsy attempt to bring holism into the picture. I did not mean to suggest that I see no difference between holism and the ethic of partisanship.

My question was about the argument that one thing that recommends partisanship is its willingness and ability to make claims about the public interest. My point – which was just about that argument – could be put this way: Why is that (making claims in the name of the public interest) a good thing? Why does it recommend partisanship?

Precisely because we start from the premise of pluralism and disagreement in politics (which, I agree with Nancy Rosenblum, is a very reasonable starting point), we cannot take the idea of a public interest for granted. My question was about this puzzle: How can we make sense of the idea of a public good if we start from the premise of pluralism? What precisely are the contours of that idea, which enables partisans to invoke it – and thus (claim) to speak for everyone – without forgetting that they do not speak for everyone – that is, without claiming to speak for everyone. For it is not enough that partisans “*wish* they could *claim* to speak for everyone” (my emphasis) if the argument I discuss here is to hold. We must think they do more than claim their partial interest as the public good. My hunch is that if we had more to say about the idea of the public interest we could answer the first question (Why is making claims in its name a good thing?)

One proposal (suggested to me by Nancy Rosenblum’s reply) is that what recommends partisans is that while they give their view of the public interest, they acknowledge it as partial. But is not this a requirement of reasonableness? Should we not then add a fourth feature, reasonableness, to partisans?