Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
13. Nancy Rosenblum: response to Urbinati

Nadia Urbinati has offered two wonderfully reflective responses to Angels. Representative government, she insists, makes parties essential. I trace philosophical accounts of this insistence in the history of political thought in “Moments of Appreciation”. I’m grateful for Urbinati’s extension of the idea in her reconstruction of contemporary representation. She reinforces the point that modern parties are more than convenient vehicles for conducting elections or for organizing governments; they are creative in constructing lines of political division. Urbinati adds that ideally parties are stable institutions that create on-going connections between partisans and representatives. They are communicative forums. They are unique institutions for insuring that representatives are responsive to citizens. Urbinati rightly sees parties as deflating notions of accountability that focus on principal/agent mechanisms or contractual formalism. Parties create and sustain political relations apart from electoral moments. Of course, this sensitive rendering of political partisanship depends on parties that are not ephemeral, or short-term alliances among officials. It emphasizes civilian partisans – parties as in a sense membership groups.

Urbinati notices the enduring tension between the partisan and partial character of representation and acting in the national interest. In some systems like the U.S. this is further complicated by the fact that representatives are bound to serve their districts as a whole, including nonpartisans and supporters of the opposition. This results in tortuous accounts of representation as seen in Supreme Court opinions, which I discuss. Urbinati makes the important point that “partisanship is a process of unification not an act of unity”. Partisan representation suspends these elements; it is the unique institution of representative democracy and partisanship the distinctive democratic political identity.

I want to respond as well to Urbinati’s sensitive discussion of anti-politics. She rightly points out that I identify two “glorious traditions” of antipartyism in the history of political thought: holism, which is anti-political (or an exploitation of party designed to put an end to parties and politics) and another which accepts pluralism and political conflict but rejects parties as the institutional form in which divisions are played out. To these she adds a post-democratic form of anti-partyism that like holism is anti-political, but without holism’s philosophic foundations. This is less an additional category, I think, than an episodic feature of democratic anti-partyism overall. Urbinati focuses on contemporary deliberative democratic theory, which identifies good citizenship with judgment rather than passion or interest, or partisanship. This is of course one of the main themes of Angels, and I probe it in detail in the chapter “Correcting the System”. Like Urbinati, I argue that this rejection of partisanship is a recipe for disempowerment. My only quibble with her treatment is her suggestion that apathy is the outcome of antipartyism. True, partisanship is linked to political engagement and excitation. But other forms of participation – advocacy groups or social movements – are equally engaging, if short-lived. The characteristic outcome of this form of antipartyism is less apathy than revulsion at politics tout court. It results in the view that pragmatic problem-solving can replace politics. Its familiar expression is a “just fix it” state of mind that takes the prosaic popular form of impatience with government but is also articulated in expert and elite theory. Putting political decision-making in partisan arenas off onto courts and agencies is a self-protective move on the part of elected officials in the face of public revulsion. It is also an ineliminable part of advanced political economy where problems seem politically intractable; John Dunn’s The Cunning of Unreason captures this moment. All this makes parties and partisanship more, not less, imperative, and it makes a defense of political, partisan democracy both necessary and difficult.

Nancy Rosenblum

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