Nancy L. Rosenblum


On her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship

Cover Interview of July 30, 2009

In a nutshell

Distaste of parties and partisanship is palpable and widespread.  While party activists battle one another each claiming they are on side of the angels, critics demonize them all and praise Independents as their undisputed moral superiors.  One third of survey respondents agree with the proposition “The truth is we probably don’t need political parties in America anymore.” One third of voters prefers that “candidates run as individuals without party labels.”

On the Side of the Angels combines research in the history of political thought and study of contemporary democratic politics to illuminate these enduring aversions to political parties and partisanship and to provide just what the subtitle promises: an appreciation of parties and partisanship.

This is a harder task than might seem.  In politics and political theory today, political parties and their partisan supporters are disparaged if not actively despised.  They always have been.  The canonical history of political thought is a record of relentless opposition to parties as institutions and moral disdain for partisans.  Even today when many people concede the utility of parties for “reducing the transaction costs of democracy,” “partisan” remains an invective and political Independent is a term of respect.  Any concession to parties and partisans is pragmatic, unexhuberant, unphilosophical, grudging.

To understand this state of affairs, I create a typology of the aversions to political parties that recur throughout the history of political thought.  I also discuss the work of a few rare thinkers who offered moments of appreciation.  For example, Burke recognized that parties could serve as watchdogs over one another and provide a sort of “regulated rivalry.”  Hegel saw parties as ways of organizing political business and recruiting responsible individuals into government.  John Stuart Mill recognized the creative role of parties in organizing complementary lines of division (“Party of Order”/”Party of Progress”).  Mill also thought that party contestation could work like the marketplace of ideas to refine and correct political programs – a process of “trial by discussion” that requires “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.”

One piece of this history is a vital prelude to contemporary American politics: the “post-party depression” that accompanied the rise of mass electoral parties in the United States.  Virtually every contemporary political pathology and scheme for correcting the system by eliminating, circumventing, starving, or containing parties has its roots in the Progressive Era, when antipartyism and the ideal of political Independence were at a pitch.  I trace the continuity of progressive antipartyism to the present in key Supreme Court cases and in contemporary democratic theory.

Finally, and most important, I propose grounds for an appreciation of partisanship in democratic politics today.  I argue that politically salient values, preferences, programs, interests, 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.  I chip away at the high ground claimed by Independents, and provide “party id” – ordinary citizens’ identification as a partisan – with an iota of dignity.

I conclude by proposing three elements of an ethic of partisanship.  It is certainly not my intention to defend every aspect of contemporary American partisanship.  Indeed, my ethic of partisanship provides a critical perspective.  Rather, my intent is to provide a deep account – comprising both historical “moments of appreciation” and my own theory – of the contributions of parties and of citizens who are partisans to representative democracy, which cannot exist without them.