Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
2. Nancy Rosenblum: "Glorious Traditions of Anti-Partyism and Moments of Appreciation," Part II

(See Part I here.)

But a third moment of appreciation, a philosophical defense of parties, did depend on the character of the lines of division among parties. Like regulated rivalry and governing, this moment of appreciation assigns the advantages of parties to the very divisiveness that appalls antiparty theorists. Hume’s version of the philosophical moment rests on a stringent ethic of partisanship. Here, as in ethics, Hume assumes the pose of “impartial observer”, the standpoint he took assessing the actions and claims of Whigs and Tories during the Glorious Revolution. “Impartial” is understood relative to the parties; the observer is independent of connections, nonpartisan. But Hume wants to claim more: the position of impartial observer has its own center and ballast -- what he calls “the proper medium”, “extremes of all are to be avoided”. From this standpoint: “Though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”

The striking note is that Hume would impress the impartial observer’s perspective on partisans themselves. Partisans might be injected with “a small tincture of Pyrrhonism” and hesitation. Partisans should sometimes exhibit a sense of fallibility and accompanying humility, and should incline to a generous estimate of the opposition’s intentions (“there are on both sides wise men who meant well to their country”). Hume escalates his demands further: partisans must also “persuade each that its antagonist may possibly be sometimes in the right…that neither side are …so fully supported by reason as they endeavor to flatter themselves”. This requires partisans to acknowledge that no one party is in the complete interest of the nation, or even of those who advance it. Hume proposes an ethics of partisanship equivalent to moderation grounded not in pragmatic accommodation or the checking function of opposition but in philosophic insight into parties’ “proper poise and influence”.

Hume’s imperative goes against the grain of actual partisanship. After all, the role of philosophic spectator is phenomenologically alien, and the attitude of hesitation is antithetical to much political action. Generous assumptions about the opposition’s intentions (“wise men who mean well”) are episodic at best. Only sometimes, and only some partisans, stand back from their rightness, and when they do it does not always mean recognizing that other parties share in being right or moderation of a kind “likely to bring truth and certainty”. A less demanding ethics of partisanship is my subject in later posts.

The most enduring philosophical moment of appreciation shares Hume’s assumption that parties’ contributions are complementary, only here, the benefits of opposition do not depend on partisans’ stepping back to become impartial observers. Less stringently, more hopefully, the dynamic of party antagonism does the work. I call this moment proto-Millian.

We are familiar with Mill’s insistence on “the social function of antagonism” and his signature argument about one-sidedness. Truth “is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Mill erected the philosophical framework of progressive antagonism and insisted that this process requires actual advocates, not devil’s advocates or impartial observers. He explained in On Liberty that objections have force when they come “from persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.” But is Mill’s “trial by discussion” a defense of parties?

The claim that contestation corrects error, heightens awareness of arguments for and against propositions, and produces better decisions and more legitimate ones was and remains long-standing enlightenment orthodoxy, but the link between opposition and improvement did not identify political parties as the agents of fruitful antagonism. For example, the most ardent voice of enlightenment, William Godwin, tied social improvement to “communicative politics” (his term) but insisted that the “shibboleth of party has a more powerful tendency, than perhaps any other circumstance in human affairs, to render the mind quiescent and stationery”.

This judgment should be familiar, for contemporary political philosophers typically sever deliberation from partisanship. Insofar as “the internal telos of deliberation is consensus”, partisanship is anathema by definition. Deliberative theorists who do not aim at overcoming disagreement nonetheless associate partisanship with “coercion, negotiation, or, in its most discursive form, rhetorical manipulation”. (Gunderson)

We are prodded to ask: when Mill speaks of “The great council of the nation; the place where the opinions which divide the public on great subjects of national interest, meet in a common arena, do battle, and are victorious and vanquished”, does he intend a brief for parties? There are good reasons to think that Mill’s “party of order or stability” and “party of progress or reform” each of which “derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other”, did not refer to actual political associations but to “modes of thinking”, a bow to two seminal minds in philosophy, Bentham and Coleridge. Actually existing parties appalled him. “In the present situation of Great Britain, and of all countries in Europe” parties are incapable of serving as the nation’s “Committee of Grievances and its Congress of Opinion”.

So I call this moment of appreciation proto-Millian. Mill himself turned to institutional arrangements for antagonism without parties, the most important being his campaign on behalf of proportional representation. A new breed of political men, “hundreds of able men of independent thought” would enter the field and be voted into government, he imagined. Honorable, distinguished men “having sworn allegiance to no political party” would offer themselves in undreamed numbers. In place of party Mill imagined a “personal merit ticket”. But could “hundreds of able men of independent thought” drive improvement on Mill’s own terms? Does independence insure “a serious conflict of opposing reasons” or a real struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners? True, Mill’s nonpartisan men of merit are not Humean impartial observers. But why should we think that Independents would spontaneously fall into complementary camps, partisans of order or progress, rather than promiscuous coalitions? Or that they would provide actual liberal and conservative partisans backbone and muscular reasons? Mill was right to be skeptical that coherent legislation could emerge from “a miscellaneous assembly”, and to approve of “concert and cooperation”. Yet he leaves us to imagine Independents doing the work.

I am wary of the philosophical moment of appreciation if only because a lot is lost if intellectual boredom leads us to take regulated rivalry and responsibility for governing for granted, or if they are overshadowed by the drama of progressive antagonism. Another caveat is that there is no reason to think that principles or values or interests arise in antagonistic pairs, or at all. Finally, the philosophical moment of appreciation invites disappointment: from this perspective, partisans disappoint when they are resistant to “a small tincture of Pyrrhonism”, or when “men not measures” dominate, or when contest leads to stasis or compromise. Indeed, the failed promise fuels ferocious attacks on parties and partisanship, most famously Carl Schmitt’s.

The proto-Millian moment of appreciation can be rescued by restating it more modestly. Parties don’t dependably add up to a comprehensive, philosophically defensible whole and are not complements whose antagonism is dependably countervailing, much less progressive. But parties do draw politically relevant lines of division, reject elements of the others’ account of projects and promises, and accept regulated rivalry as the form in which they are played out. It is enough that party antagonism focuses attention on problems, information and interpretations are brought out, stakes are delineated, points of conflict and commonality are located, the range of possibilities winnowed, and relative competence on different matters is up for judgment. We can preserve the proto-Millian position in paler shades as long as parties create lines of division and define themselves in relation to one another. For, caveats in view, it is still the case that politically salient values, preferences, programs, interest, and principles are unlikely to be cast in terms of Mill’s “serious conflict of opposing reasons” unless partisans do the work of articulating lines of division and advocating on the side of the angels. That is the main point to retain from a pared down proto-Millian position: without party rivalry, “trial by discussion” cannot be meaningful. It will not be if interests and opinions are disorganized and are not brought into opposition, their consequences are not drawn out, argument is evaded. Nor can it be fruitful if the inclusion of interests and opinions is exhaustive and chaotic; parties are about selection and exclusion. Shaping conflict is what parties and partisans do, and what will not be done, certainly not regularly in the way representative democracy requires, without them.

My next entry offers a defense of partisanship, and challenges its indefensible absence from democratic theory today.

Works Cited:

William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Adolf G. Gundersen, “Deliberative Democracy and the Limits of Partisan Politics: Between Athens and Philadelphia,” in Political Theory and Partisan Politics, eds. Edward Portis, Adolf Gundersen, and Ruth Shively.

Hegel, “Proceedings of the Estates Assembly in the Kingdom of Wurtenberg” in Z.A. Pelcyzynski, ed., Political Writings.

David Hume, “That Politics May be Reduced to a Science” and “Of the Independency of Parliament”Political Essays, ed. Haakonssen.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813, Memorial Edition.

James Madison, “Parties”, in Jack N. Rakove, ed., James Madison: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1999).

Mill, "On Liberty" and “Edinburgh Review”in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J.M. Robson; Considerations on Representative Government.

Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, borrowing from Oakeshott.

Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

Nancy Rosenblum

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