Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
19. Jacob T. Levy: Anti-partyism and presidentialism

I have already paid my compliments to On the Side of Angels and praised its methodological contributions in particular; I think it has set an excellent new example for political theory’s engagement with political science. Just as the “moments” of moral-psychology realism in her last book, Membership and Morals, made an important contribution understanding freedom of association as a theme in social theory, not just in abstract rights-theory, so does her serious and extended treatment of the political science of elections and parties in On the Side of Angels promise to improve the way we do democratic theory. And one thing worth noting early on is that Angels is an outgrowth of Membership, though she makes little of this in the book. Having written on the liberal theory of intermediate associations in civil society, Rosenblum seems to have noticed how little political parties figured in that literature; and she rapidly staked out the striking and provocative position that “among the associations of civil society, political parties are primus inter parus.” And Angels bring the same spirit of appreciation for real pluralism and disagreement to the special case of political parties that Membership brought to the general case of associations.

(Disclosure: as noted in the comments section of this post, it’s probably no accident that I’m a fan of Rosenblum’s methods and approaches, as she was my advisor and most important teacher as an undergraduate at Brown. On the other hand, not only do I not think that our areas of substantive or methodological agreement were things that she taught in the classroom back then; it’s not clear to me that she had yet worked out the methodology that she would go on to develop for Membership back in 1990-92.)

So much for throat-clearing. Angels brought the following questions to my mind.

1) In the developed west., how distinctively American is anti-partyism today, and might it be related to presidentialism? I noted in a prologue to the symposium that some descendant of anti-partyism seemed to be an especially strong trope in presidential inaugural addresses. (I think that it’s primarily the second “Glorious Tradition” of anti-partyism, that which accepts pluralism while disdaining zealotry; but I think that it partakes of the first as well. It’s not just “We Republicans respect you Federalists and will treat with you fairly rather than in a spirit of enmity;” it’s “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”) It seems to me that this is in part the appropriate transition from candidate to official, from party leader to head of government.

But it’s in part also about the ascension to being head of state the figure who is supposed to rise about political divisions in order to symbolize a unified nation, as a constitutional monarch in a parliamentary democracy is supposed to do. (The neutral head of state set above responsible party government was developed in fits and starts in England in the 18th century but was, I think, first fully theorized by Constant in France in the 19th. As it happens, France is now unusually among European democracies not to have a head-of-state who set apart from ordinary politics, whether a constitutional monarch or, as in Germany, a President who is not part of government.) And it’s a way for the President who is both head of state and head of government to contrast himself with the legislature, which in its nature is divided on party lines.

The attempt by the executive to reach around the supposed grandees of legislatures and courts to a putatively-unified People against is a worrisome feature in constitutional states. When the one offers the many an alliance against the few, he does not do so for the benefit of the many. And anti-partyism is an important weapon in the hands of plebiscitary executives who seek to do away with constitutional and legislative checks on their power. (Hugo Chavez is the obvious case.) In a more limited way, it seems to me that American presidential-antipartyism typically tends toward the delegitimation of Congress, and sometimes of the states as well—only the President speaks for the unified whole of society. But of course, qua head of government, he doesn’t; he just holds power over the whole of society.

I speculate that anti-partyism can be institutionally-specific, and is often strongest in an independent executive. Constitutionalists and liberals have good reason to be wary of an especially powerful independent executive; the founding core values of constitutionalism included checking that kind of executive power with habeas corpus and related rights against arbitrary imprisonment and punishment. But, if Jeremy Waldron is right that the legislature is the core institution of democracy, then democrats also have a strong reason to be concerned; antipartyism will typically be a means by which legislatures are delegitimated.

So for this post, I’ll offer these three hunches: the special link of antipartyism with presidential systems, its differential impact on the perceived legitimacy of the legislature, or the special problem that impact would have for constitutional democracies.

Jacob T. Levy

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