We need better partisanship — not Independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship

Cover Interview of

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.

“Only parties with their armies of ‘civilian’ partisans can organize elections, mobilize participation, and create on-going connections between citizens and representatives.”

The wide angle

Three things drew me to this project. In my earlier work on freedom of association in the U.S., Membership and Morals, I attended to virtually every sort of voluntary association from religious groups to right-wing militias – except political parties. What I neglected is the most important voluntary association for representative democracy: only parties with their armies of “civilian” partisans can organize elections, mobilize participation, and create on-going connections between citizens and representatives. On the Side of the Angels is my mea culpa for ignoring them.

In addition, over the last decade or so my students at Harvard have been increasingly vocal (and hubristic) in vaunting their status as political Independents. Declining partisan identification (a “no preference” response on a survey of political attitudes) is widespread throughout advanced democracies. But the proud self-designation “Independent” is unique to the U.S. I wanted to understand why.

Finally, in my own academic subfield, democratic theorists write as if we should have democracy without parties and partisanship. They favor impartiality in politics as in ethics. Proponents of democratic deliberation, for example, favor specially created Deliberative Polls and Citizens’ Juries removed from conventional political arenas, with participants chosen to represent “lay citizens and nonpartisans.”

This was my motivation. I set out to comprehensively trace the long history of antiparty arguments in political thought.

I identify two “glorious traditions” of antipartyism. The first insists that political society should be a unified whole and that divisions are unwholesome. This tradition sees every partial group as divisive and no form of pluralism as benign. Because political parties exist for partiality and conflict, they are particularly anathema, disfiguring what should be a unified political community. This aversion is still with us; we recognize it in the preference for consensus, and in models of political deliberation and decision-making by impartial, public-spirited citizens, and in turns to nonpartisan (and non-democratic) commissions and boards of experts.

A second antiparty tradition accepts pluralism and accommodates divisions in a system of representation (think of the early mixed constitution: Crown, Lords, and Commons) but still find parties anathema. On this view, parties turn acceptable divisions into warring factions or invent novel divisions in their pursuit of power. They are magnifiers or creators of cleavage and conflict, fatally divisive, and partisans are zealots and extremists.

American antipartyism flows from both “glorious traditions,” and has its own source as well. The peculiar luster of political Independence in the U.S. owes to a civic ideal of self-reliance as a virtue and social condition. This ideal preceded organized parties, and was later replanted in the soil of electoral politics. From early on partisanship was cast as degraded citizenship, as abject dependence rooted in clientelism, capture, or blind loyalty. Independents characterized partisans as ignorant, inert, set in some “deadly groove” and under some affective thrall. “The ‘good people’ are herded into parties,” Henry Adams wrote, “and stupefied with convictions and a name, Republican or Democrat…”

Today, the contrast is posed in cognitive as well as moralistic terms. Where partisans are “judgment-impaired,” crippled by perceptual bias, the Independent is a nimble “positive empiricist,” “cognitively mobilized.” These assertions do not stand up to empirical scrutiny, as I show. For over a century, the progressive ideal has been to circumvent parties and convert partisans into Independents.

My defense of partisanship begins by undermining the claim that Independents are uniquely disinterested, or bravely Thoreauian – “doing what I think right” in every case (after all, she is reduced to choosing among courses set by others), or the claim that Independents are judicious umpires inclining victory to one side or another as they think the interests of the country demand.

The chief deficit of political Independence in contrast to partisanship, however, is weightlessness. Partisanship is identification with others in a political association. “We partisans” organize and vote with allies, not alone. Independents are as detached from one another as they are from parties. If Silone is right that the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades,” Independents do not make it. They are not sending a coordinated message (even if analysts are in the business of interpreting what their votes meant).

Independents do not assume responsibility for the institutions that organize public discussion, elections, and government and are not responsible to other like-minded citizens. Fundamentalist Independents reject party systems per se as too rigid to accommodate political judgment, and circumstantial Independents regret the current configuration of parties. But the avowal that she is not a partisan is what gives Independence its luster. Hence the apt term “closet partisans” with its implication of covertness rooted in shame, applied to Independents who end up voting regularly with one party.

I’ll give the last word on this point to Edmund Burke, who said it first: “In a connexion, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the publick.”

This discussion sets us up to perceive grounds for appreciation. Party competition is constitutive. It creates a system of conflict. It “stages the battle” that is democratic politics. Partisanship is the ordinary not (ordinarily) extraordinary locus of political creativity.

Parties 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. 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 is up for judgment.

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.

July 31, 2009

A close-up

I’ll focus on the three elements of my proposed ethic of partisanship, which applies to “civilian” partisans, ordinary citizen voters, as well as to partisan politicians in office.

The first is the inclusive character of party identity – identification with Democrats or Republicans from Florida to California, and at every level of government. This is characteristic though not unique to partisanship in the U.S.

No other political identity is shared by so many segments of the population as measured by socio-economic status or religion. Nor are partisans clumped tightly together on an ideological spectrum. This is not to say that all partisans have an especially deep moral commitment to inclusiveness – only that they are ambitious to be in the majority.

Understand, however, that claiming a majority is more than a matter of strategic necessity or institutional design. Partisans want to win elections, but a plurality can suffice. They want to have their policies enacted, but there are other avenues of political efficacy. Rather, partisans want the moral ascendancy that comes from earning the approval of “the great body of the people.” In this respect, inclusiveness is a conscious democratic value.

Party candidates may have short-term strategic interests (or safe seats) that allow them to speak only to “the base,” and activists may demand single-minded attention to one issue and ideological purity. But ordinary civilian partisans aspire to persuade and mobilize as many as possible to identify with them. Their horizon of political expectation extends beyond a single election cycle, and their disposition is to inclusiveness.

The second element of an ethic of partisanship is attachment to others in a group with responsibility for telling a comprehensive public story about the economic, social, and moral changes of the time, and about national security. Of course, partisans sometimes focus on a specific event and their party’s competence to identify and deal with it. Partisans pursue partial interests, though this is not unreconstructed interest group pluralism since partisans share a complex of concerns and connect particular interests to a more general conception of the public interest. In this they do what other forms of political association – social movements, interest groups, “public-interest” advocacy groups, and civil society groups do not.

It would be overstating the case to say that given the comparative comprehensiveness of their concerns partisans assume the obligation philosopher John Rawls articulated: to advance some conception of the public good that is not ad hoc but situated in the most complete conception of political justice we can advance.

It would be understating the case to say that in contrast to members of interest and advocacy groups, including self-styled public interest groups, partisans are not single-issue voters. An important result follows from comprehensiveness: ordinary partisans are rarely extremists because adhering single-mindedly to one single dominating idea has little appeal.

Inclusiveness and a comprehensive account of what needs to be done are only possible if “we partisans” demonstrate the disposition to compromise. When compromise is with fellow partisans it acknowledges the larger “we.” We have only to think of political purists to underscore compromisingness as a moral disposition of ordinary partisans. Purists “cant about principles.” They represent intransigence as a virtue. They do not find failure ignominious. As one Republican sensibly objected, “I did not become a conservative in order to become a radical…”

Of course, compromise can be evidence of abject pandering or raw opportunism. If readers of this post are partisans, you know for yourselves, I suspect, that working out the bounds of reasonable compromise is part of the discipline of partisanship.

Inclusiveness, comprehensiveness and compromisingness set the contours for the best possible partisanship. They enable the distinctive work of partisans: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision. Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential.

“Inclusiveness, comprehensiveness and compromisingness set the contours for the best possible partisanship. They enable the distinctive work of partisans: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision. Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential.”


On the Side of the Angels invites us to take a step back and recognize the overarching achievement of parties and partisanship.

We know that in political life partiality and disagreement are inescapable, and so are groups and associations of all kinds organized in opposition to one another. But we tend to forget that political parties and partisanship are not inevitable, and should not be taken for granted. Commitment to political pluralism, to regulated political rivalry, and to shifting responsibility for governing makes party id the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy.

Partisanship is the political identity that does not see political pluralism and conflict as a glum concession to the ineradicable “circumstances of politics.” And while thinking they should speak to everyone, partisans do not imagine they speak for the whole. True, they are on the side of the angels, offering a satisfactory account of what needs to be done. But however ardent and devoid of skepticism, there is this reticence. Partisans do not represent the opposition as a public enemy. They don’t secede, revolt, or withdraw in defeat, and “elections are not followed by waves of suicide.”

Skeptics of my appreciation of partisanship can be forgiven today. For several decades now, the leadership of American parties often appears to want to destroy one another as an effective and legitimate opposition. One or both major party claims to represent the nation, not a part. Intransigence has become a virtue; compromise even with fellow partisans is not in their repertoire; failure is not ignominious even if the public business is not done. The thrust of my ethic of partisanship is critical as well as appreciative.

In the recent presidential election, Senators Obama and McCain offered track records of bucking their own party as a qualification for leadership, and promised to rise above partisanship. But nonpartisanship is not a synonym for independent thought: it is navigating without political orientation or organization. Bipartisanship is not a synonym for reasonable compromise: properly understood, it assumes a temporary consensus, which is appropriately rare and arises mainly at moments of national crisis. It would be better if Congressional leaders and President Obama promised to articulate and abide by an ethic of partisanship rather than concede the moral high ground to those who transcend party.

What we need, in sum, is not Independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship. That is all the more reason for democratic theorists to connect the practice of democratic citizenship with partisanship, and to consider the terms and conditions of better partisanship as seriously as they do impartiality and institutions designed to work without parties or partisans.

© 2009 Nancy Rosenblum
Nancy L. Rosenblum On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship Princeton University Press 600 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0691135342

Nancy Rosenblum is Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University, and Chair of the Department of Government. Among her publications are On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship (Princeton, 2008) and Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America (Princeton, 1998) for which she won the APSA David Easton Prize in 2002. Her edited volumes include Thoreau: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought and Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies. Professor Rosenblum has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2004 and is Associate Editor of the Annual Review of Political Science. For links to her work see her full vita.

Cover Interview of
July 31, 2009