On the Side of Angels symposium
21. Nancy Rosenblum: Response to Rehfeld
Prof. Rehfeld’s exuberant self-description as a die-hard antipartisan echoes the “divine right to bolt” from parties often touted as the right path for sensible citizens. I have failed to convert him, not surprisingly given his avowed contempt for partisans (“politically detached ignoramuses”) and his attraction to impartiality. I can’t quite tell whether his response is partly playful or entirely sober; in any case, I have enjoyed grappling with it.
Consider a moderate position that antiparty theorists might take. If we understand the value of parties in a proto-Millian sense of shaping lines of political division and staging the battle we can assign partisans a modest role. We could reluctantly concede that democracy needs just enough partisans to “man” the parties. Ardent partisans may not be deliberative personally but at the level of the polity they are the agents of “trial by discussion”. For the rest and for the most part, on this view, democracy needs open-minded Independents to adjudicate among them. Even this grudging, truncated view concedes something important to party leaders and to activists in the electorate. It is, however, more than Rehfeld would allow. He admits (for reasons not entirely clear) that citizens will be and should be partisan -- by which he means they will have conflicting interests and opinions, they will be partisans of a cause, say, but he concedes nothing to real partisans ((“party id”; attachment to others in a party that contests elections and takes responsibility for governing).
Rehfeld’s diffuse notion of partisanship does not accept my case for real partisanship as the distinctive political identity of representative democracy. He certainly does not accept the moral claims I make for partisans who try to make parties comprehensive, inclusive, and compromising. I won’t repeat my assessment of the minimal case for real partisanship: the comparative knowledgability and engagement of partisans (Rehfeld rejects – or ignores -- empirical work on party id).
His witty characterization of Millian partisan officials who do not claim to be on the side of the angels but rather present themselves as only “probably right” is not what I commend. I assess with care the Humean notion that partisans can be injected with “a small tincture of Pyrrhonism” and hesitation – instants in which they appreciate that the other side is sometimes in the right and assume the pose of the impartial observer. Hume’s prescriptions are too stringent and phenomenologically alien to partisanship. My modest ethic of partisanship suffices. It stands opposed to Rehfeld’s independent, impartial, “professional” legislator. (I leave aside the question who elects these types?)
Rehfeld’s chief concern is to dispose altogether of any role for parties and partisans in organizing legislatures and in representation – it is a frontal challenge to Prof. Urbinati’s argument in this blog. He would divorce partisanship from the business of decision-making. What about all these interest and advocacy groups that are allowed, even encouraged, to lobby legislators? The problem of differential resources and organization arises in earnest here. It is not clear that Rehfeld wants to empower these advocates, these partisans without party – only that his professional legislators are an audience for their more or less organized voices.
In any case, it seems to me that what Rehfeld does is extend the institutional ambition of deliberative democratic theorists. They have typically focused on “deliberative polls” or “citizen juries” that do not make binding decisions, where the force of their judgments comes solely from the moral authority of popular deliberation based on full information. Or, deliberative institutionalists propose courts or nonpartisan expert commissions to substitute for decision-making by elected representatives in certain areas (districting, say). Or, like Philip Pettit, they propose nonpartisan popular mechanisms to review, contest, and emend egregious democratic political decisions. Rehfeld would bring impartial deliberation into the heart of government decision-making tout court.
Think about his legislature. Rehfeld does not address the question of how interests and opinions are consolidated, if only temporarily, into coherent, principles or consistent policy positions. From early on, parties have served that purpose; their importance in government for setting agendas and regulating rivalry (in contrast to party in the electorate) has gone largely undisputed. The profusion of interest and advocacy groups lobbying legislators (can we call them representatives?) he proposes is a recipe for chaos and for much more short-term and strategic alliances than presently exist. It is bound, I would argue, to result in the formation of parties – though this time caucuses within legislatures rather than large-scale comprehensive ones tied to the electorate.
Rehfeld assumes, I assume, that his model would produce better decisions – better in the sense of untainted by special pleading and directed impartially at the common good. This assumption even on his own terms is dubious, and as a theoretical matter goes to the heart of long-standing debates in political philosophy that I cannot review here. In “Correcting the System” I try to systematically distinguish nonpartisanship and types of impartiality. One problem with impartiality as a regulative ideal is, again, that we do not have standards for the relevant universe of alternative proposals and reasons. It is still less clear what “professional” adds to the characterization of legislators as nonpartisan or impartial. In any case, it does not seem that Rehfeld holds a strong epistemic view of democracy; rather, he aims to correct for the worst prejudices and naked self-serving. The attempt to draw a bright line between interests and passions on the one hand and reasonable or impartial evaluation on the other is one of the heroic endeavors of contemporary political theory. Angels is an extended answer to this antipolitical ideal.
Under what circumstances are Rehfeld’s concerns proportionate to extra-party correctives? One is when parties and their partisan officials are systemically corrupt so that all legislation is rightly understood as log-rolling for purposes of re-election or group self-serving, that is, when deliberation within and among parties about burdens, benefits, and the general interest does not occur or cannot explain any outcomes. The other is when parties are entrenched, so that the possibility of accountability and of change among parties (including new party-building) is impossible. These circumstances call for the intervention of nonpartisan commissions or courts, perhaps. But that is a far cry from Rehfeld’s legislature. I would have said his legislature of saints, but he is modest and calls it a legislature of professionals.