On the Side of Angels symposium
6. Nadia Urbinati: Parties are not an Option in Representative Democracy
Rosenblum’s defense of the morality of the political party and partisanship represents a seminal contribution to both democratic theory and political theory. Resuming Ignazio Silone’s maxim that the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades”, not of independent bystanders, Rosenblum links partisanship to citizens’ participation and political responsibility. This is her central thesis: “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.” Partisanship is an indispensable mean to regulate political conflict in peaceful manner, recognize political pluralism, and generate political agendas and political identities. These are compelling arguments, essential to the understanding of political action in democratic society, both inside and outside of the institutions. Drawing on my book on representative democracy, I would propose an additional argument that may stress Rosenblum’s thesis: representative democracy makes parties essential.
Representative democracy reveals the limits of a conception of politics as an individual-to-individual relation between the candidate and the electors sealed by elections. It reveals the limits of a conception that rests on the formalistic element of authorization (voting) and a juridical (as private) interpretation of representation as agent/principal relation. A democratic theory of representation compels us to go beyond the intermittent and discrete series of electoral instants (sovereign as the authorizing will) and investigate the continuum of influence and power created and recreated by political judgment and the way this diversified power relates to representative institutions. Augustine Cochin wrote years ago that “a people of electors by itself is not capable of initiative, but at most of consent;” yet a representative democracy is not a “crowd of inorganic voters.” Political parties and movements are the means citizens create to give their political presence an effective and persistent character through time. Their strength and social rootedness signal the strength of democratic representation.
Moreover, since representation functions politically (to make laws) in a collective and public setting and since laws cannot be treated like contractual agreements because they impose their authority on all indiscriminately, not just on those who agree with them or those whose ideas are represented by the majority, it is extremely important that we abandon the logic of the contract in interpreting representation.
However, that representation cannot be regulated and checked like a 'contract' between a principal and an agent does not mean that citizens can only check representatives through elections. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right to say that representation cannot be a contract. Yet just because political representation can only exist in the juridical form of a non-legally bounded contract of mandate, some other form of ‘political’ mandate is needed to check representatives. The very fact that representatives play an active (legislative) role implies that they are not independent of the electors; it implies a political kind of 'mandate.'
The seed of the democratic character of representation germinates from the paradox that although a representative is supposed to deliberate about things that affect all members of the polity, she is also supposed to have a sympathetic relation to a part (the part that votes for her). In substance, a relation of ideological sympathy and communication between the representative and her electors is necessary and can occur only because political representation excludes legal mandate and is not a contract. The sympathetic relation of the representative to the part that voted for her is and must only be a matter of opinions or ideas, an informal and thus not authoritative kind of relation. This means however that the representative is not politically autonomous from her electors although she must be legally autonomous. Party is the political link of interdependence between citizens and elected representatives.
In democratic politics, representation is not "acting in the place of somebody," but more precisely, being in a political relation of sympathetic similarity or communication with those in the place of whom the representatives act in the legislature (from here citizens’ quest of representativity comes). The assumption of this (idealized or ideological) kind of sympathy (which is the foundation of the advocacy aspect of representation) is reflected in the statute that regulates how the deputies vote in the representative assembly. Except in clearly specified cases (which pertain to decrees, not laws), the voting record must be made public. Electors need to know what the representatives do and say and how they vote in the assembly because they need to compare representatives judgment to their own judgment.
That a political representative is required to share her ideas only with her electors, not with the whole nation as a homogeneous body, entails that representation is itself a denial of plebiscitarian and populist democracy (a homogeneous identification of the body politics with one leader). Indeed, in order to acquire the moral and political legitimacy to make laws for all it must articulate pluralism but not superimpose an unreflective unity over an indistinct mass of individuals. It is thus important to make clear that representation is a process of unification not an act of unity that erases pluralism. As such, it presupposes and fosters pluralism, one that is not a mere social given but a political construction made by free citizens in their conflicting divisions or sympathetic alliances. Representative democracy is based on political parties and partisanship.