Thursday, January 29, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
23. Jacob T. Levy: Exclusions from government

Our symposium was scheduled to end yesterday, and Nancy Rosenblum is hereby released if she wants-- she's been writing full responses to every set of comments all week. But I've heard from a few commentators that they have things they'd still like to say, and I do too, so I'll keep the shop open for a while.

I had meant to make a few substantive posts in response to On the Side of Angels, but the time spent juggling the postings and so on took away from planned commenting time. So, even recognizing the possibility that Rosenblum may not have time to keep responding, here's the first of the leftover points I had meant to develop.

The final full chapter of the book examines, sceptically, arguments for "banning parties, outlawing political practices, and disqualifying certain partisans from participation in elections and government." Those last two words led me to expect something that I didn't find in the chapter. Rosenblum offers a careful examination of arguments about parties associated with political violence; parties that aren't really parties but are masks for some other kind of political organization; parties that incite hatred; parties that threaten the existential identity of the state, e.g. by supporting separatism or minority rights; and parties that are controlled from outside the polity. As always, both in this book and in Membership and Morals, Rosenblum is suspicious of the quick urge to suppress pluralism and dissent, and she offers good arguments as to why the boundaries around democratic contestation should not be drawn so narrowly as many in the "militant democracy" literature have thought.

I especially value this chapter because it both recognizes that many political parties aren't the parties of political theories (liberal, socialist, communist) but rather the parties of a religious or ethnocultural group, and argues against the delegitimation of such parties that's common in both majoritarian politics and democratic theory. (I once wrote in a symposium on Membership and Morals that I wished it had paid more attention to specifically cultural pluralism; Angels does so, and I'm glad to see it.)

But the chapter is centrally an argument against banning parties and prohibiting participation. It's the political-theory equivalent of a First Amendment argument. And I wonder what Rosenblum thinks about the alternative, the option I was waiting to see her examine: legally permitting parties to campaign, compete, win elections, and hold seats, but creating a taboo around their participation in government.

In parliamentary systems this means a taboo around forming a coalition government with them, or perhaps even a coalition government dependent on their passive support. Arab parties are normally allowed to contest elections and hold seats in the Israeli Knesset; but there is a powerful political norm that a legitimate government must command a Jewish majority, a majority of seats in the Knesset without depending on the Arab parties. The Bloc Quebecois has never entered into a coalition government in Canada, and during our recent constitutional crisis when there was a chance of a Liberal-NDP coalition displacing the ruling Conservatives, the Conservatives made great political hay out of the fact that the coalition would have been dependent on the votes of the Bloc (which nonetheless would not have been a partner in it). Post-totalitarian parties in Europe, sometimes post-Communist and sometimes post-Fascist, have often taboo in some countries and at some times.

On the one hand, such taboos might inhibit the important and beneficial process Rosenblum describes in the case of Christian Democrats: the normalization and liberalization and reconciliation to a constitutional order of a bloc that otherwise stands outside of it. On the other hand: voluntary isolation and rejection and shunning is the appropriate liberal response to things that should not be banned but nonetheless are beyond the pale. When a center-right party cedes power rather than join a coalition with fascists, or a center-left party does so rather than join with communists, are they acting as good partisans on Rosenblum's understanding, or bad ones? What about taboos around ethnic and religious parties?

I can think of prudential arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a taboo provides an incentive for reform in a particular direction; when a communist party breaks with Moscow and reorganizes itself as a democratic socialist party, when a separatist party becomes just an ethnic-regionalist party, when a fascist party becomes just a party of the right, the taboo could be relaxed. On the other hand, the isolation could itself discourage such reform because the party leadership never acquires the discipline of responsible party government. A taboo could provide voters with an incentive to support a more moderate party, one within the acceptable boundaries; or it could contribute to their further alienation from the system.

And I can think of other reasons on both sides, too: the argument from the right of the voters to be represented, and the argument that we'll likely get fewer bans and more respect for free speech precisely insofar as the threatening parties are sure not to govern. But I can't think of a general way to balance these considerations, even though the case seems to call for a general norm, and I wonder whether Rosenblum can.

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