Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
14. Andrew Rehfeld: What about interest groups?

Nancy Rosenblum’s book is a welcome counter-weight to recent trends in deliberative theory and the resurgence of republicanism (ala Pettit) that have tended to minimize the role of political parties. The emergence of Barack Obama as possibly a “post-partisan” president continues that trend in the real world. What Rosenblum’s work has done is renew arguments that offer a stronger version and defense of party’s and partisanship. It is a work of political theory in its synthetic best: sensitive to history, philosophically interesting, empirically aware and with implications for political action. It is a subtle work, brimming with insight and I’m delighted to engage this rewarding work.

My delight stems in large part because I’m kind of a diehard anti-party, and anti-partisan, kind of guy. My loathing to both strands comes from the kind of cognitive shut down I see among partisans. Rather than exhibit some ideal point of Millian advocacy that Rosenblum describes, these partisans are unable to listen to other arguments at all. In fact, it is not so much that they believe what they do that I think is the problem, but rather that their beliefs about politics are fixed to a party leadership that then shapes and in no small part determines what they ought to be. The Yellow Dog Democrat is the perfect example.

In more theoretical terms, partisanship and partyism as Rosenblum has defended it here is self-contradictory, for it relies on a value for the system that none of the participants themselves can endorse. Further, what Rosenblum’s defense, based on Millian principles of contestation, would require is not what now exists, but what I have elsewhere called “voice without earplugs,” that is a way to structure the legislature so that many views can be promoted even as those expressing them are open to changing their own minds. Finally, I think Rosenblum has ignored the role of institutions to help channel and develop the proper role of parties and partisanship within the system. What emerges in her treatment is a defense of a system in which advocacy of partial views is the governing principle in order that partiality not be the governing principle!

Parties and partisans, but what about interest groups?

Rosenblum’s distinction between partisanship and partyism is really helpful. As Rosenblum demonstrates, the view that independents are ideal observers weighing carefully each side of the argument is bogus: they are rather “politically detached” ignoramuses (my term) who would prefer to watch TV than engage their fellow citizen in debate, and this should alone should temper our enthusiasm for them. But it is not clear to me whether partisan engagement by citizens on the issues is based on reasoned judgment which later turns into advocacy (the Millian model perhaps) as much as it is determined by family or cultural upbringing. In any case, being a partisan is likely to cause citizens to connect with others and engage with the issues and that alone is a good thing.

But here, I think I would advocate partisanship (“identification with others in a political association”) without parties (which is exactly what Madison’s ideal was). In large part, this is because partisanship among citizens appears far more like religious belief than it does reasoned civic discourse generating community and a commitment to the life of the polis. So we might say that partisanship is inevitable among citizens in a large representative government, and it does have some nice political consequences in terms of building community, etc. But it does not follow that the community it fosters or the views it generates among its partisans are worth channeling into the legislature. In which case, we might endorse partisanship as a check on abuses of government (since engaged citizens on either side are more likely to resist abuse) than a non-partisan citizenry. But at the same time we’d want to structure the legislature and government itself to resist the underlying partisanship. (I’ll return to that theme in another posting.)

What this raises is whether the very helpful analytic distinction between “partisanship” and “partyism,” is sufficient to get the benefits without the costs. I think it would be helpful to consider “interest groups” as a third location of partisanship, in way that would give the benefits of partisanship an outlet (by having citizens involved in issues about which they care) and to have them possibly managed by an independent, non-partisan legislature. Ideally, individuals interested in politics and policy would have to make a choice: are they committed to policy ideals as represented by their supported interest groups, or are they interested in impartial governing? Indeed, the recent “ethics” rules issued in Obama’s first days as President that restrict lobbying by former members of his staff have much of this flavor to it. It is not that Obama objects in principles to lobbying and interest group partisanship, per se. Rather, it is that his role in government is to be the adjudicator and not a partisan. This is rough—obviously Obama is a Democrat. But it hints at a way we might get the benefits of partisanship without the negatives of party in government.

Partisanship, as Rosenblum has set it out, thus depends on governing party’s, rather than merely organized interest groups. I would encourage us to think about this differently, that the benefits that Rosenblum defends for partisanship might be gotten without legislative political parties. What we need—for reasons I’ll pursue in my next post—is a way to separate the legislative effects of parties (which I think contra Rosenblum may only be a second best solution) from the positive citizen effects of partisanship.

Andrew Rehfeld

No comments: