On the Side of Angels symposium
8. Mara Marin: Holism and the public interest
In her On the Side of Angels Nancy Rosenblum offers us reasons to reject a long tradition in the history of political thought according to which “partisan” is an invective and “Independents” are “portrayed as partisans undisputed moral superiors.” She proposes “an ethic of partisanship” as the ground for appreciating parties.
Parties have three features, she argues, that are as many reasons for us to appreciate them. Parties aim, first, to be inclusive, secondly, to offer “a comprehensive story about the economic, social and moral changes of the time, and about national security” and, thirdly, partisans are inclined to compromise.
This is a refreshing and complex view that I appreciate not only for establishing parties and partisanship as legitimate and central subjects for political theory, but for being an excellent example of how work in political theory can be developed in dialogue with both empirical political science and the history of political thought.
But what strikes me about these features is that they invoke a public, collective “we” (beyond that of the party membership) and an idea of the public interest. (This is true of at least the first two features, but arguably also about the third, given that the justification of this last feature is linked to the other two features). For the inclusiveness feature of parties does not simply mean that party identification is shared by diverse groups (people from different states, of different religions, etc.). Rather, it means that partisans want to be in the majority because they “want the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of ‘the great body of the people.’” Parties are comprehensive in the sense that even as partisans pursue partial interests, they “share a complex of concerns and connect particular interests to a more general conception of the public interest” (my emphasis). Parties make possible what Rawls calls “public reason” by situating particular issues “in what we consider the most reasonable and “complete” conception of political justice we can advance” and by speaking “to all citizens as citizens and not view them only as situated in some interest group or social class” (On the Side of the Angels, 359).
But if the value of parties is given by the moral value that comes from being approved by the people, and from offering a conception of the public interest, then it seems that ultimately what matters is the whole, the country, not the parts, the parties (even when they are inclusive and comprehensive). To put it differently, there is, at least at first sight, a tension between justifying parties by invoking the public interest and rejecting holism as a tradition of antipartyism. Or is there a difference between the conceptions of “we” and of “public interest” invoked by the ethic of partisanship and those at work in holism? What are these differences, if any?
I think that we need to know more about these differences not only to have a more complete picture of the ethic of partisanship, but also to understand what about holism is responsible for its antipartyism tendencies. Is it simply the idea of a body politic, or is it a particular way of conceiving it (for example, as an organic entity to whom all parts should be subordinate) that is responsible for antipartyism? Is it possible to distinguish the general ideas of the political “we” and of “public interest” from the particular ways of understanding them that constitute holism as a tradition of antipartyism, and thus maintain a more widely acceptable conception of holism? More importantly, does the ethic of partisanship depend on a such version of holism - a conception of what constitutes the body politic and the general interest - that is not inimical to parties? If so, what is that conception?
Finally, is the ethic of partisanship a normative standard to be used to assess and criticize particular parties and particular party systems? Should we commend parties for their sincere attempts to link particular proposals to a general conception of the public interest? Should we reject parties that do not make that attempt (or are - in our view - insincere when making it)? Does the ethic of partisanship give us a reason to reject proportional representation systems because they make parties less likely to be comprehensive (On the Side of the Angels, 359)? Does it give us reason to prefer systems with fewer parties because having “fewer parties enables coherent and comprehensive narratives” (On the Side of the Angels, 359)?