Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
9. Henry Farrell: Comparative questions

On the Side of the Angels is more than a good book; it’s a necessary one. The lack of sympathetic accounts of partisanship in political theory, and in our wider public discourse, is extraordinary, and Rosenblum provides a nuanced, well-argued and exciting account of why we should think about partisanship as having benign consequences for politics.

That said, a seminar like this is supposed to provoke critical debate, not gushing encomia, if it’s going to have value. So here’s my criticism. I would have liked to have seen more comparative analysis of parties, and the debates around parties, in different countries. Such analysis is present in Rosenblum’s book, but mostly around the margins – her main interest (with the exception of the final chapter on banning parties) is very clearly the US debate on partisanship and parties, and the various streams of thought that have flowed into it. I think that a lot could be learned from applying her arguments to different contexts. Since I’m most familiar with European political parties, here are two examples.

First – Rosenblum’s fascinating account of the modern American critique of partisanship situates it in large part in the historical context of the Progressive movement. The Progressives saw party machines as intrinsically bad for American politics, and sought to encourage reforms that would weaken political parties in various ways. Many Progressives believed that politics in the ideal would not involve partisanship at all, instead relying on various forms of civil society mobilization to tackle political problems. The ideal political actor was not the partisan (who was supposedly dependent on bosses to tell him what to do) but the independent. Rosenblum’s account of how this implicit set of biases feeds into contemporary debates about the virtues of deliberation, the benefits of civil society, the need to reform fundraising practices and so on is quite convincing. While (as she acknowledges), other strains of thought are implicated, there is an apparent connection between Progressive critiques of parties, and the assumptions of latter-day civic reformers.

This spurs an interesting (at least to me) question – can some of the differences between left-of-center European critiques of parties and left-of-center American critiques be traced back to cross-Atlantic differences in historical situation at the beginning of the last century? The argument might go as thus: those who were most influential in the US debate were indeed Progressives, who, as Rosenblum observes, believed that parties were intrinsically problematic. Those who were most influential in the European debate were Social Democrats and their intellectual heirs, who had quarreled with Communists (the Kautsky-Bernstein debates), and who held that the best way to achieve socialist equality was through the ‘paper stones’ of the ballot box rather than revolution.

Thus, not only were the European reformers not opposed to parties, but they saw one party (the Social Democratic party) as having the capacity to redeem politics. While American reformers worried about party politics as such, European reformers worried that the party (and especially its leaders) would be corrupted by its engagement with traditional politics. The perceived problem was the opposite of the American one – not that politics would be debased by parties, but that parties (and left parties in particular) would be debased by politics. Thus, in part, a very particular European tradition of critique, ranging from Michels through Pizzorno to this recent piece for the New Left Review by Peter Mair, all focus on the ways in which parties may be corrupted by an overly close engagement with hierarchy and the state.

Now, to be clear, one should not construct an overly idealist account of how this debate has developed – differences between European and American debates are at least as much the product of different objective situations as of different historical traditions of debate. But Rosenblum’s fascinating historical account of Progressivism at the least raises the question of whether debates about parties from early in the era of mass-mobilization continue to resonate in Europe too.

A second comparative angle is suggested by Rosenblum herself in an aside. When writing about mixed constitutions (which seek to address social divisions by assigning different institutions to different parts of society, rather than allowing parties to organize themselves), Rosenblum suggests that the European Union is a good modern example of what a mixed constitution looks like. This – combined with her later arguments about the salutary consequences of partisanship for politics – has some interesting possible implications that could be developed further.

Political theoretic debates about the European Union typically focus on its ‘democratic deficit’ and its lack of a ‘demos.’ Here, the problem is two-fold. First, the European Union has serious problems of democratic legitimacy, because of the quite attenuated links between EU decision making and democratic choice. Not all agree that this attenuation is a problem (some, like Andrew Moravcsik, perceive it in quite benign terms), but the perceived democratic illegitimacy of the European Union has haunted debates over reform, and helped spur various initiatives (greatly improving the decision making clout of the European Parliament, seeking to provide greater involvement for national parliaments and the like).

There is still controversy over the extent to which supranational arrangements can have direct democratic legitimacy in the absence of a self-conscious European demos, but perhaps more pertinently, none of these reforms seem to have worked. The European Union is suffering a continuing legitimation crisis, which appears to have worsened dramatically over the period of reforms, rather than getting better. EU publics, in contrast to elites, seem indifferent towards the EU and disengaged from it when they are not actively hostile toward it.

Here, Rosenblum’s arguments perhaps provide a different perspective on the problem and the possible locus of a solution. By treating the EU as a mixed constitution, we can see how the EU’s legitimacy problem has similarities with the more general question of how different sets of interests should be balanced in mixed arrangements. But more importantly perhaps, we can also see how further constitutional reforms may not on their own be sufficient to engage publics with the EU. We may need partisan contention (or some close equivalent) too. Some of the EU’s legitimacy problem may not rest with the institutions but with Europe’s political parties.

Most particularly, there is a nearly complete absence of partisanship at the European level. This is not to say that there are not European parties. The European Parliament groups together Socialists, Christian Democrats, Liberals and others in broad party organizations which do have an important role in organizing debate at the European level. Furthermore, national level parties have created some limited umbrella groupings, so that Christian Democratic leaders from different countries meet together regularly. But these are parties without partisanship. Voters, to the extent that they know these groupings exist, don’t care about them (for example, voting for European Parliament candidates usually turns on purely domestic issues, punishing the government etc).

This lack of partisanship in turn means that European political parties have not constructed the kinds of divisions that (as Rosenblum argues), usefully organize political contention, transforming it from a potentially inchoate mass of quarreling interests and groupuscules into a comprehensible and relatively organized system where politics is organized around one or a few key differences of policy and/or philosophy. Instead of being presented with clearly different approaches to governing Europe, voters are typically presented either with party consensus (that Europe is a ‘good’ thing) or with a battle between this consensus (as presented by mainstream parties) and a variety of arguments from those on left and right who argue that the European Union is fundamentally ill-advised or illegitimate.

The pro- and anti-Europe divide may, or may not, itself be a useful division. But what it surely means that voters are not presented with choices about which Europe (whether social-democratic, free market or whatever). Instead, they are faced with a choice (to the extent that they have a choice at all) over whether Europe – e.g. whether to affirm or reject the decisions made by a coalition of left-wing and right-wing elites about the direction of European integration.

The lesson that I’d like to draw (which goes somewhat further than Rosenblum’s own argument about the benefits of partisanship) is as follows. The European Union would likely have more legitimacy in the eyes of voters if it were organized as a space of partisan contention. The lack of real argument between different partisan forces as to how Europe should be organized contributes to voters’ disengagement.

Henry Farrell

1 comment:

John Quiggin said...

The Progressives were important, but I think a much bigger factor in the US distrust of partisanship was the role played by white Southern Democrats, who prevented the emergence of a genuine party system. Meanwhile the institutionalisation of the two big parties through the primary system (a progressive institution) and First Past the Post voting prevented any serious and sustained challenge from independents or third parties.

Once the white Southerners became Republicans, support for partisanship grew rapidly, first on the Republican side and then among the Democrats.