Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
3. Nancy Rosenblum: "The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’," Part I: Independence

On the Side of the Angels has three purposes. I create a typology of the antiparty arguments that recur in the history of political thought, and identify rare “moments of appreciation”. [Blog #1] I go on to trace the “post-party depression” that accompanied the rise of mass electoral parties in the U.S.. Virtually every contemporary political pathology and scheme for correcting the system by eliminating, circumventing, or containing parties has its roots in Progressive Era, when antipartyism and the ideal of political Independence were at a pitch. I trace this continuity in case law and democratic theory. Finally, drawing on work in political science, I propose grounds for an appreciation of partisanship in democratic politics today, and I outline an ethic of partisanship.

Partisanship needs a moment of appreciation. We recognize “partisan” as invective; the barb comes out of improbable mouths, a virtual reflex. Nothing is clearer than the solicitous attention showered on political Independents, or that they are typically portrayed as partisans’ undisputed moral superiors. Democratic theorists are no exception. Parties are famously “orphans of political philosophy”, and political theorists today continue to ignore or disown them. Sober realists might concede the minimum: that parties are convenient mechanisms for “reducing the transaction costs” of democracy. Perhaps they might be brought to say that while partisans are not admirable, some number of them are indispensable to realize the function of parties. But any concession is pragmatic, unexuberant, unphilosophical, grudging.

The notion commonplace in democratic theory that an “intelligently and progressively democratic” system depends on the ability of its supporters to attain a nonpartisan spirit is exactly wrong. In contrast, I cast partisanship as the characteristic and morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy. I chip away at the moral high ground claimed by Independents, and provide “party id” – ordinary citizens’ identification as a partisan –an iota of dignity. (My focus here is “civilian” partisans, referred to as “the party in the electorate”, though a similar argument applies to partisans in government.)

To make the case, I offer three points each about Independence and partisanship.

1. The Luster of Independence. Declining party identification – a “no preference” response on a survey of political attitudes -- is widespread throughout advanced democracies, but the proud self-designation “Independent” is unique to the U.S.. The peculiar luster of Independence here owes to a civic ideal of self-reliance as a virtue and social condition that preceded organized parties, and was later replanted in the soil of electoral politics. In Judith Shklar’s formulation: citizens [must] “be independent persons in both their political and civil roles, who give and withdraw their votes from their representatives and political parties as they see fit.” From early on partisanship began to be cast as degraded citizenship, as abject dependence rooted in clientelism, capture, or blind loyalty.

To be clear: the core of Independence as a political identity today is antipartisanship, not antipartyism. True, fundamentalist Independents reject party systems per se as too rigid to accommodate political judgment, and others may regret the current configuration of parties. But it is the avowal that she is not a partisan that gives Independence its luster, and explains the apt term “closet partisans” applied to the majority of Independents who end up voting regularly with one party.

2. ‘Escape from the Deadly Groove’
Progressives introduced the influential view that where the partisan is seduced or bought, the Independent is a free agent. The supporters of party organizations were characterized as thoughtless, set in some “deadly groove” and under some affective thrall. Today, the contrast is posed in cognitive as well as moralistic terms. Where partisans are “judgment-impaired”, crippled by perceptual bias, the Independent is a nimble “positive empiricist”, “cognitively mobilized.” These assertions do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. Independents typically know less than strong partisans, and cannot reasonably claim that they bring balanced information to bear. Unanchored, Independent’s considerations are more likely to be chaotic and ad hoc than partisans’. They participate in politics less.

Nonetheless, several heroic representations of Independence are commonplace and need to be disposed of. Escape from the deadly groove does not make the Independent bravely Thoreauian, doing in every case “what I think right”, since she is reduced to choosing among courses set by others. There is no warrant for casting Independents as Humean impartial observers, judicious umpires inclining victory to this side or that “as they think the interests of the country demand”. Nor as sensitive to Mill’s “half-truths” and to the dynamic by which every position derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other.

What if individual Independents were disinterested, or impartial observers and correctors of the deficiencies of every party? Even the ideal Independent lacks the moral distinctiveness of “party id” I turn to shortly, beginning with the fact that Independents are politically detached and weightless.

3. Weightlessness. Partisanship is identification with others in a political association. “We partisans” organize and vote with allies, not alone. Independents are as detached from one another as they are from parties. If Silone is right that the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades”, Independents do not make it. They are not sending a coordinated message (even if analysts are in the business of interpreting what their votes meant). Independents do not assume responsibility for the institutions that organize public discussion, elections, and government and are not responsible to other like-minded citizens.

Which is why what Teddy Roosevelt called “mere windy anarchy” is the perennial anxiety of those who imagine Independents as the hope for democratic reform. I’ll give the last word on this point to Edmund Burke, who said it first: “In a connexion, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the publick.”

(Continued in Part II here.

Nancy Rosenblum

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