On the Side of Angels symposium
15. Andrew Rehfeld: Regulated Conflict and a “proto-Millian” defense of parties or “Vote for me, I’ve probably got the right answers.”
In my first post I argued that we might get more of Rosenblum’s beneifts of partisanship without the costs, by thinking about “interest groups” as the proper outlet for partisanship, and then structuring government to be an independent, non-partisan body. This view contrasts with the practical fact that many, perhaps most, interest groups align very closely with existing political parties. In this post I want to make clear why I don’t think Rosenblum’s argument is ultimately successful at the level of legislative political parties. In my final post, I’ll offer some ideas about what we might do to counteract the problems.
In her defesnse of parties, Rosenblum counters the anti-party argument that parties aim at partial good. Rosenblum does not reject this, but rather notes that from these partial views can emerge a whole, if debate is structured in a proto-Millian way to make sure a trial of ideas alighting on a better solution emerges from this conflict. Further, parties bring real advocates to debate their position, not just those of the devil. As she quotes Mill, “objections have force when they come “from persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.” The “contestation,” she writes, “corrects error…Without party rivalry, ‘trial by discussion’ cannot be meaningful.”
Thus for contestation to happen in the right way we need parties that have these two features to them: a) their members believe their view is best for all; and b) they must be open to changing their minds about what is best for all.
Now if “partyism” means that parties are partial, only hubristically saying they are promoting the common good, then it is unclear how a Millian clash of ideas is happening at all. Such parties are compromising and trading off to get as much as they can for their own group. Participants do not come ready to engage in a principled discourse about the whole, they come ready to seek their own goods for their own members. And this is very much the character of contemporary political deliberation, no less so than in the United States. Indeed, it describes the logic of classic pluralism as articulated by Dahl and Truman.
But this is not Rosenblum’s defense, and for good reason. Parties themselves are not actually partial in the sense of advocating for a part of the whole; they are by and large committed to a view of what would be best for the whole. And this is not just a “hubristic” posturing as Rosenblum describes in her first posting (although it can be that too). All partisanship is based on a clash between different views about what would be good for all that organize the political party itself: Green principles; Labour principles; Democratic, and Republican party ideals. The Democrats in the United States, believe we would all be better if we followed their programs, as does the Labour party in Israel believe that country would do better if it followed theirs. (I thus must also disagree with her contention in her first post that it is individual partisans who try to proselytize and seek new recruits. In my own experience, my very partisan neighbors are least likely to try to get new recruits to believe as they do. Far more likely are the Democrats and Republicans as parties going to cast about seeking new converts by framing their arguments in the broadest possible way.)
But if partyism is defended on the lines of a Millian debate arising between parties who advocate for what they believe is best for all (a), the second problem emerges that is at odds with (b), the view that party members should be open to changing their mind. For if they were open to changing their minds, they would not be the kinds of strong advocates that Rosenblum is envisioning necessary for a Millian outcom. Rather, party members would have to hold this far more tepid view: “well, before the clash of ideas happens within the legislature, we Republicans believe that taxes should go down; but of course we can’t really endorse that until we hear what the other side has to say.”
Now I think that’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, but no politician is likely to be relected on such a platform “Vote for Us, we’ve probably got the best ideas, but we’ll just have to wait and see!” But that position is what’s at the core of Mill’s view that Rosenblum plays on—it is no longer quite the pro-party, rough-and-tumble, clash-of-ideas-by-true-believers-to-see-which-one-actually-emerges-as-best. Or if that’s what Rosenblum means, it is not clear it connects with any parties of which I am aware.
In my final posting I will turn to institutional solutions that might achieve Rosenblum’s goals of deliberative advocacy and partisanship.