Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
4. Nancy Rosenblum: "The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’," Part II: Moments of Appreciation of Partisanship

(See Part I here)

Now for three notes of appreciation for partisanship, corresponding to the elements of my proposed ethic of partisanship.

1. Inclusiveness. The first is the inclusive character of party id, which is characteristic though not unique to partisanship in the U.S.. That is, identification with Democrats or Republicans from Florida to California, and at every level of government. No other political identity is shared by so many segments of the population as measured by SES or religion. Nor are partisans clumped tightly together on an ideological spectrum. This is not to say that all partisans have an especially deep moral commitment to inclusiveness -- only that they are ambitious to be in the majority. Understand, however, that claiming a majority is more than a matter of strategic necessity or institutional design. Partisans want to win elections, but a plurality can suffice. They want to have their policies enacted, but there are other avenues of political efficacy. Rather, partisans want the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of “the great body of the people”. In this respect, inclusiveness is a conscious democratic value.

Party candidates may have short-term strategic interests (or safe seats) that allow them to speak only to “the base”, or to sliver audiences, or even to deliberately depress participation, and activists may demand single-minded attention to one issue and ideological purity. But ordinary civilian partisans aspire to persuade and mobilize as many as possible to identify with them. Their horizon of political expectation extends beyond a single election cycle, and their disposition is to inclusiveness.

2. Comprehensiveness. The second element of an ethic of partisanship, and grounds for appreciation, is attachment to others in a group with responsibility for telling a comprehensive public story about the economic, social, and moral changes of the time, and about national security. Of course, partisans sometimes focus on a specific event and their party’s competence to identify and deal with it. Partisans pursue partial interests, though this is not unreconstructed interest group pluralism since partisans share a complex of concerns and connect particular interests to a more general conception of the public interest.

It would be overstating the case to say that given the comparative comprehensiveness of their concerns partisans assume the obligation Rawls articulated: to advance some conception of the public good that is not ad hoc but situated in the most complete conception of political justice we can advance. It would be understating the case to say that in contrast to members of interest and advocacy groups, including self-styled public interest groups, partisans are not single-issue voters. An important result follows from comprehensiveness: ordinary partisans are rarely extremists because adhering single-mindedly to one single dominating idea has little appeal.

3. Compromisingness. Inclusiveness and a comprehensive account of what needs to be done are only possible if “we partisans” demonstrate the disposition to compromise. When compromise is with fellow partisans it acknowledges the larger “we”. We have only to think of political purists to underscore compromisingness as a moral disposition of ordinary partisans. Purists “cant about principles”. They represent intransigence as a virtue. They do not find failure ignominious. As one Republican sensibly objected, “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical…”.

Of course, compromise can be evidence of abject pandering or raw opportunism. If you are partisans, you know for yourselves, I suspect, that working out the bounds of reasonable compromise is part of the discipline of partisanship.

Inclusiveness, comprehensiveness and compromisingness set the contours for the best possible partisanship. They enable the distinctive work of partisans: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision. Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential.

The Moral Distinctiveness of ‘Party ID’

This brings me to the overarching achievement of parties and partisanship. We know that in political life partiality and disagreement are inescapable, and so are groups and associations of all kinds organized in opposition to one another. But we tend to forget that political parties and partisanship are not inevitable, and should not be taken for granted. Commitment to political pluralism, to regulated political rivalry, and to shifting responsibility for governing makes party id the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy.

We might think that the vicissitudes of political fortune and the limits of human volition make this existentially true, a felt experience. Or we might say that all citizens in democracy have a part in this; they do, presumptively, formally. But partisans are expressly identified with it. Partisanship is the political identity that does not see political pluralism and conflict as a glum concession to the ineradicable “circumstances of politics”. And while thinking they should speak to everyone, partisans do not imagine they speak for the whole. True, they are on the side of the angels, offering a satisfactory account of what needs to be done. But however ardent and devoid of skepticism, there is this reticence. Partisans do not represent the opposition as a public enemy. They don’t secede, revolt, or withdraw in defeat, and “elections are not followed by waves of suicide.”

Skeptics of my appreciation of partisanship can be forgiven today. For several decades, the leadership of American parties often appears to want to destroy one another as an effective and legitimate opposition – even to the extent of trying to criminalize political differences. They are hubristic, claiming to represent the nation not a part. Intransigence has become a virtue; compromise even with fellow partisans is not in their repertoire; failure is not ignominious even if the public business is not done. The thrust of an ethic of partisanship, of course, is critical as well as appreciative.

These failings do not characterize ordinary partisans, or taint partisanship as a proud political identity. In any event, nonpartisanship cannot sustain democracy and democratic citizenship, and even vaunted bipartisanship is a temporary corrective at best. That is all the more reason for democratic theorists to connect the practice of democratic citizenship with partisanship, and to consider the terms and conditions of better partisanship as seriously as they do impartiality and institutions designed to work without parties or partisans. Political theorists should adopt these orphans of political philosophy and take them in.
Works Cited:

Edmund Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs”

Jesse Macy, Political Parties in the United States 1846-1961

Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum, “Political Liberalism vs. “The Great Game of Politics””, Perspectives on Politics (March, 2006).

Theodore Roosevelt, American Ideals

E.E. Schattschneider, Party Government

Judith N. Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion

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