Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
7. Melissa Schwartzberg: The development of parties' programs

On the Side of the Angels is, in my view, an exemplary work of political theory: it demonstrates the value of classical works of political thought as source material by which to challenge conventional views, and the richness that comes from drawing on the findings of empirical political science to construct normative arguments. Rosenblum’s discussion of the role of parties in fostering deliberation is illustrative of her general methodological approach, as she draws on classical political theory, contemporary normative work, and empirical research in developing her claims. Against much of deliberative theory, Rosenblum suggests that parties have a pivotal role to play in enabling deliberation. On her account, parties serve (attractively) to reduce the multidimensional nature of disagreement: parties bring interests and opinions into sharp opposition so as to subject them to Millian “trial by discussion.” Freeform deliberation is doomed to fail, she rightly holds, and to the extent that parties clarify points of disagreement and thereby enable deliberation to occur more robustly prior to voting, they perform a critical democratic activity. Yet it doesn’t strike me as obvious that the reductive process generated by the party system will necessarily operate in a way that enhances deliberation or democracy more generally, and so I’d like briefly to consider the circumstances under which it is likely to be beneficial and the conditions under which this process could do real harm.

The best-case scenario for parties and deliberation might run as follows: Parties’ agendas emerge from a substantially less constrained deliberative process; it is relatively easy for civilian partisans to participate in this process, and there is a forum in which outlying or extreme positions can be heard and debated. Through this deliberative process, candidates are identified and platforms developed. Civilian partisans then can take up the banner, helping to construct arguments on behalf of the proposed policies and responding to criticisms of opposing parties, which have generated their own policies and platforms through a dynamic process that responds to the choices of the other parties. In this world, independents would, as Rosenblum argues, miss out on the fundamental activity of framing, defending, and criticizing issues in response to others’ arguments. Further, given the expansive nature of the deliberative process ex ante, the independent might rightly be charged with epistemic or moral hubris insofar as they fail to listen to or learn from others’ positions.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that policy agendas and candidates do actually emerge in such an inclusively deliberative fashion – programs and candidates typically result from internal conflicts among party leaders and activists at various levels. Now, Rosenblum would probably argue that this isn’t a problem: she holds, I think, that the real work of citizenship comes after the construction of parties and their agendas, of deliberating in the context of preexisting alternatives. But without such a role for citizen partisans in the construction of these alternatives, I fear that the beneficial reduction in the dimensionality of debates generated by internal party politics may have as a side effect an unappealing parochialism. Further, since would-be civilian partisans may not view the party as reflecting their divergent perspectives – that is, they may feel it is insufficiently inclusive – their identification with the party may be gravely attenuated, thereby pushing more partisans into the ranks of the disaffected independents. The argument, in this case, that independents are “weightless” may be unfair if, while partisans, they felt that their weight – their distinct perspectives and their solidarity within a deliberative process – had gone unnoticed. The creativity and moral salience of partisanship so elegantly defended by Rosenblum depends, it seems to me, upon offering civilian partisans a genuine opportunity to participate in the development of their parties’ programs.

[On the role of deliberation in reducing the dimensions of disagreement and thus helping to generate single-peaked preferences (and avoid cycling), see also Jack Knight and James Johnson, “Aggregation and Deliberation: On the Possibility of Democratic Legitimacy,” Political Theory 22:2 (May 1994), pp. 277-296)]


Jacob T. Levy said...

Melissa, the distinction seems awfully sharp to me. "Internal conflicts among party leaders and activists at various levels" includes a number of features.

One is the attempt to integrate and synthesize various interest groups, represented by activists and party leaders in their various factions, into a functioning coalition. And those factions and interest groups in turn represent wide bodies of citizens, or particular glosses on the constellations of interests of wide bodies of citizens. In the U.S., the Democratic Party's program is partly formulated by power contests within and among those representing (inter alia) various labor unions, feminists, African-Americans, and other ethnic groups; the Republican Party's program is partly formulated by power contests among various religious groups, business interests, gun owners, etc.

But each of those groups I just named is pretty reliably partisan; each is basically a signed-up member of their respective coalitional parties. And so each has some interest in seeing its party succeed, not just its parochial interest succeed; and the programs aren't just formulated by power struggles, but also by intergroup deliberation about what would serve the coalition as a whole. And so the process described by Nancy can kick in, even without any actors behaving as wholly high-minded deliberators about the public good. That, in its way, is what Grover Norquist's famed Wednesday Morning Meetings were all about.

Another feature that blurs the distinction you're drawing is primary elections. The stronger our partisan-ness, in Nancy's sense, the better a job we can do as primary voters. We vote in primaries, qua partisans, for people who we think can win the election for our party; but we also do so as members of our various factions and groups that seek to promote our own concerns within the party. It's not a strongly deliberative process; but it is a party-shaping process. Partisan voters don't just wake up one day in late October to discover that their party has either embraced their interests or left them behind; they've taken an active and organized part along the way. It may be "parochial" in your sense, but just to the degree that it is, that mitigates the danger of the disaffected groups feeling weightless within parties and drifting toward Independence-- no?

Melissa said...

Jacob, I should clarify: my goal is not to get partisans to become "high-minded deliberators." I focused on deliberation because Rosenblum made the interesting and counter-intuitive argument that parties would improve deliberation -- and I simply wanted to argue that the mechanisms that might enable it to do so might also generate pathologies. My concern was just that the mechanisms enabling that process might lead to the systematic exclusion of would-be partisans who aren't part of the party's "natural constituency," maybe because of distrust or uncertainty about their level of commitment or simple parochialism. You might be right that this is not really a problem -- maybe parties are so interested in capturing votes from new constituencies that they're open to new ideas from unusual camps, or that the tents are just enormous as they are. This is an empirical claim, and I'd love to hear from any comparativists reading as to whether they observe marginalization of outlying voices or efforts at consensus building within parties.

It's true that the most fully engaged partisans may be able to have a real effect during the primaries, but if I am a Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich voter, it's not obvious to me that I will feel relieved after the primary process that the party lines had been sharpened and think, "Ah, now I can really deliberate!" Further, if I am an independent looking for a party to join, but only registered partisans are able to participate in the primary system, I may feel even more alienated. And if independents are trying to become partisans but find themselves systematically shut out, then this in my view undercuts the putative moral status of partisanship and Rosenblum's criticism of independents as woefully disengaged.