We expect political philosophers to argue against the supposedly irrational passions that partisanship fosters. Criticisms of faction and discord began with classical republican thought, and tend to emphasize reasonableness and compromise as the center of a healthy political life. Although republicanism has moved away from its beginnings in small, tightly-knit communities, our abhorrence of political division remains. Modern democratic theorists emphasize the idea of “impartial” deliberation as a goal for our politics, and accuse political parties of undermining the basis for decent political life.
American politicians frequently endorse the idea of moving “beyond partisanship,” promising a united future free of partisan strife. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama told Americans that in his election, we had chosen “unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” He signaled the “end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics, the time has come to set aside childish things.” To be sure, this may simply be just another political tactic already overtaken by events. Yet we might ask ourselves why we so commonly find hope in the idea of reviving unity in American political life—and more importantly, whether parties really deserve the low reputation they currently enjoy.
Nancy L. Rosenblum’s On the Side of the Angels is an ambitious book that both attempts to understand this disdain for parties and partisanship, and also to provide a defense of these institutions. She calls her book an “act of reparation”—an effort to find a place for parties and partisanship within political theory as integral social and moral institutions rather than pathologies we must eradicate. For Rosenblum, politics is about recognizing relevant differences between citizens and acting on them, not aiming at the unity of purpose President Obama would have us embrace—a unity that belies the extraordinary differences of belief dividing Americans today.
The progressive critics of partisanship often charge that parties “demobilize” ordinary citizens, turning them off politics. Instead, they praise community organizations, activism, and civil society as better ways to foster political participation than the grubby activities of political parties. For progressives, unifying citizens behind a common cause and acting toward its fulfillment exemplifies the good political life. Parties merely distract Americans from the real work of managing the common interest. Rosenblum rightly observes that these groups work more to subvert politics than they add to it. They aim at “governance,” which presupposes agreement, not disagreement.
Rosenblum questions easy progressive assumptions by reminding the reader that despite the real value of civil society and its associations, these organizations bear no responsibility to respond to their members’ changing concerns. Associations exist for particular ends, and only those ends. By contrast, parties open up the possibility for change—their leaders reshape the party platform in light of each day’s issues. Rosenblum concludes that associations often bear a narrow, unhelpful partisanship for their own issues that excludes far more people than real politics can allow. Although they rally individuals around an idea of who “we” are, parties seek to include as many people as possible to obtain governing majorities—a comprehensiveness that particular communities and civic associations cannot replicate.
Rosenblum notes a second failing common to anti-party thinkers: their belief in disinterested or dispassionate deliberation. She rightly calls absurd the idea that anyone can absorb information and facts in an ideologically sterile fashion. Facts always require moral interpretation. If we cannot help but apply value judgments in making political decisions, the very notion that there can be a disinterested public reason comes into question. Rosenblum writes that partisans and their organizations “do the work philosophy cannot: determine the range of matters for discussion and decision.” Parties foster a kind of “trial by discussion,” forcing us to take sides and become invested in particular beliefs, interests, and opinions. The alternative merely fosters indifference.
In one of the book’s more enjoyable sections, Rosenblum provides a devastating critique of so-called political “independents.” Mocking their pretension to elevation and knowledge, Rosenblum argues that independents exist within an agenda constructed by parties and are thus “reduced to choosing between courses arranged by others.” Without a group to rally around, independents are the source of the very atomism and disengagement they claim parties create. They are, in short, “parasitic on the issues and positions struck by parties.”
While it may stand outside the book’s purpose, Rosenblum does not answer an important question her work suggests: Why does the desire to overcome division in the name of compromise or abstract “reasonableness” appeal to us? This problem begs another book. However, her observations on independents and many others make the book an important and valuable contribution to politics in America. The principal difficulty with the book rests in her attempt to deal with what she sees as an unsavory aspect of party and partisanship: political extremism.
Unsurprisingly for a political theorist at Harvard, most of her examples of political extremism fall upon the Republican party. But setting aside her specific cases (Newt Gingrich comes in for special censure), her criteria for identifying an extremist pose certain problems. She defines extremism as a kind of single-mindedness that sees deviation from first principles as dangerous. This may be a decent definition, but without a substantive understanding of what America is and should be, “extremism” remains an accusation we level at the other party. This allows her to imply that conservatives and libertarians consistently depart from a decent, albeit partisan politics of compromise. Part of the difficulty here may rest in the way Rosenblum herself is unwilling to admit that America may have left behind its own founding principles.
Nonetheless, as the first step toward rehabilitating partisanship in America, On the Side of Angels stands as a valuable contribution to political philosophy and practice. Politicians on both sides could learn a great deal from Rosenblum’s book. Real compromise requires recognizing genuine differences—something President Obama’s rhetoric of hope and change can never accomplish.
-Brian Smith completed his doctorate in Government at Georgetown University in July 2008. He currently is the Tocqueville Forum’s inaugural Jack Miller Postdoctoral Fellow.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin