Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
22. Nadia Urbinati: Pluralism and Parties continued

In comments here, Paul Gowder asks

“On your final point, can you say more about how you get from pluralism to parties? Can one have pluralism that is not merely a "social given," but is also not instantiated in political parties as such? Perhaps, say, citizens could come to the table with ideologies (drawn from their Rawlsish comprehensive doctrines), and those ideologies could permit them to be understood as bodies of interest and permit a representative to say that she stands in a certain relation to those bodies ("I'm sympathetic to the Catholics"), but without the voters being organized into parties?”
(See also his post here.)

My answer:

Cultural and social pluralism is not the same as party pluralism, and this distinction is very important.

John Rawls described the “depth” and “breadth” of overlapping consensus – what Hegel would call the “constitutional ethos” -- in the following terms:

“…once a constitutional consensus is in place, political groups must enter the public forum of political discussion and appeal to other groups who do not share their comprehensive doctrine. This fact makes it rational for them to move out of the narrower circle of their own views and to develop political conceptions in terms of which they can explain and justify their preferred policies to a wider public so as to put together a majority.”
Political groups (parties) articulate the “general” view from peripheral or civil association kinds of viewpoints. Parties are partial-yet-communal associations and essential points of reference that allow citizens and representatives to recognize one another (and the others,) form alliances, and moreover situate ideologically the compromises they are ready to make. As Pitkin wrote, “But in fact, one of the most important features of representative government is its capacity for resolving the conflicting claims of the parts, on the basis of their common interest in the welfare of the whole.” Representation is the institution that allows civil society (in all its components) to identify itself politically and to influence the political direction of the country. Its ambivalent nature –social and political, particular and general-- determines its inevitable link to participation.

Political representation transforms and expands politics insofar as it does not simply allow the social to be translated into the political; it also facilitates the formation of political groups and identities. Hence Hegel could write that representation brings dissent into politics because in politicizing the social sphere it brings plurality and difference into the public, and Weber could accentuate that the political aspect of voting lies in the chance the citizens have to transcend their social being by their own doing, that is to say to act independently of their social identity and become themselves representatives of their political community.

It might be useful to recall Tocqueville’s prescient diagnosis of the two forms of associations democratic citizens tend to create: civil associations that bind (and divide) individuals according to their specific and most of the time uni-dimensional interests or opinions; and party associations that bind (and divide) citizens along the lines of their evaluative interpretations of matters that are general, or of “equal importance for all parts of the country.” The former produce fragmentation “ad infinitum about questions of detail” that can hardly have a general breadth since the life of civil associations depends on the relative closure of their borders. The latter interrupts fragmentation, not however by imposing homogeneity or concealing difference (making the whole society in the image of one party), but by creating new forms of “difference” between citizens. Political partisanship both brings people together and separates them on issues that are general in their rich and implications. The function of parties goes well beyond the instrumental one of providing organization and resources for political personnel rotation and the peaceful resolution of succession claims. Their function is above all that of “integrating the multitude” by unifying people’s ideas and interests and of making the sovereign permanently present as an agent of extra-state influence and oversight.

Cited Texts:

Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich. “The English Reform Bill,” in Political Writings, Trans. T.M. Knox, 295-330. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. The Concept of Representation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. J.P. Mayer. New York: Harper Perennial, 1969.

Nadia Urbinati

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