On the Side of Angels symposium
20. Nancy Rosenblum: Response to Levy
Jacob offers an interesting speculation: that presidentialism with its promise of representing the nation as a whole expresses and fuels anti-partyism even if does not cause it. I think that whether and when the president-above-party exists (or is proffered as an ideal) is contingent and not a systemic constant. Historically, American presidents have been among the great party-builders (Jefferson and Van Buren, for starters). Institutionally, presidents are the heads of their parties and whether government is unified or divided their agendas are typically identified as partisan. In fact, it is the failure to enact the periodic rhetoric of standing above partisanship (except occasionally in matters of foreign policy and national security) that is striking, and expected. Inaugural addresses are momentarily anti-political in that they mark an instant in which – despite the presumptive wounds of political contest – citizens acknowledge their unity. This is an important ritual but it is less peculiarly anti-partisan than a reminder that political divisions do not entail a fatally divided nation. Again, presidential self-presentation, policy, and public reaction are variable and I would not tie anti-partyism to this institutional arrangement.
The roots of anti-partyism, as my first essay suggests, are deeper philosophically and culturally. The element of holist anti-partyism that interests me most in the American context is the tendency of majoritarianism to slip over into the majority as the nation. I discuss this dynamic in some detail in Chapter 1 of Angels. Majoritarianism by definition acknowledges pluralism and is anti-holist, but often enough the majority is taken temporarily as the whole – legally and rhetorically. That seems to me to be what presidents do: claim a majoritarian mandate for their admittedly partisan agendas. This is something short of true plebiscitarian democracy. It is not anti-party.
Bipartisanship of the sort touted during the 2008 presidential campaign and repeated by President Obama today is something else again. Senators Obama and McCain promised to govern in a bipartisan fashion. Both offered a track record of bucking their own party as a qualification for leadership. What should we make of this improbable self-distancing of our national leaders from their own parties? Again, I think it is explained by the moment and not by political structures. Antiparty sentiments have been fired up by several decades during which parties appeared to want to destroy one another as an effective and legitimate opposition, were hubristic in their claim to represent the nation as a whole rather than just a part, and where intransigence had become a virtue. Bipartisanship does not erase divides but promises compromisingness as partisans give up something of their principle or pay some material cost in order to get the public business done. Bipartisanship is different, or so it seems, from consensus or nation-as-a-whole, which is appropriately rare. At its best, compromise within and across party lines is the heart of democratic politics; it is not raw opportunism and is not morally compromising. It would be better if President Obama articulated and abided by an ethic of partisanship rather than implicitly conceding the moral high ground to Independents.