DURING THE 2008 Presidential campaign, Senators Obama and McCain promised that if elected they would govern in a bipartisan fashion. Both avowed that they were not reflexive partisans, and both offered a track record of bucking their own party as a qualification for leadership. They seemed to identify strong partisanship with uncompromising dogmatism, divisiveness, and the eclipse of reason.
At the same time, they cast partisanship as synonymous with pettiness. After “extremist” the most common adjectives they attached to the word were diminutives: “bickering” and “smallness.” We heard it from candidate Obama, who often repeated the sentiment. “Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”
What should we make of our political leaders’ improbable self-distancing from their own parties and the steady drumbeat of praise for political independence? And should we blame partisan extremism for fueling the anti-partisan mood? No. The threat to democratic politics is not partisanship, but the faux luster of independence and its claim to the high moral ground; the danger is the widespread conviction that we would be better off without parties altogether. One cost is that rabid anti-partyism leaves little appetite for reflecting on the ethics of partisanship.
DISAVOWAL OF partisanship during the 2008 campaign is not surprising; it mirrors the dominant mood. A third of voters prefer that “candidates run as individuals without party labels.” Americans agree with the proposition that “we probably don’t need political parties in America anymore.”
Consider the titles of scores of books published in the last two or three years: Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System; We the Purple: Faith, Politics, and the Independent Voter; The Radical Middle; and my favorite in the specialty category: Party Crashing: How the Hip Hop Generation Declared Political Independence.
We might assume that anti-party sentiments have been fired up by years of polarization and what is cast as the extreme partisanship of Washington. Parties appear bent on destroying one another as effective and legitimate opposition. They are hubristic in their claim to represent the nation as a whole rather than just a part (as the name “party” dictates). Intransigence has become a virtue. Whether it is a matter of purist ideological commitment or a strategy adopted by Congressional party leaders, the result is clear: partisanship is blamed for making constructive policymaking impossible.
So it is important to recall that anti-party sentiments have deep roots in American political culture, which has nurtured independence as a value that encompasses both self-reliance in economic life and nonpartisanship in politics. U.S. political history is marked by a moral aversion to both parties, which are seen as corrupt and corrupting, and to partisanship, which is seen as uncritical loyalty.
As a result, independence has always had a certain luster. Independents are voters persuaded; partisans are voters bought. Independents hope for “good government” and “clean elections.” Lincoln Steffens was blunt when he said, “I don’t see how any intelligent man can be a partisan.” The attribution has stuck. While partisans are said to be crippled by a perceptual bias, the Independent is described as a nimble “positive empiricist” and “cognitively mobilized.”
Schemes for eliminating or circumventing parties date back to the rise of mass electoral parties in the nineteenth century. They reached a pitch in the Progressive Era, and we are heirs to their anti-party reforms, among them nonpartisan popular referenda and the ideal of manager-style government that promises pragmatic problem-solving without political organization and partisan divisions.
“Just fix it” is one face of independence today; it is a popular aspiration exploited by, among others, Arnold Schwarzenegger when he says, “How about being realistic and just solving the problem?” The other face of independence is the offensively moralistic: “‘Patriot’ and ‘partisan’ may share a few letters,” argued Christine Flowers in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Daily News, “but partisans owe allegiance to a political faction, while patriots put the nation’s welfare above their own.”
SO WITH all this against partisanship, what is there to be said for “we partisans”? And what is there to quarrel with in independence?
For one thing, the virtues attributed to Independents do not stand up to scrutiny. Research reveals that they are the least interested in politics, the most politically ignorant, the lightest voters. Independent voters know less about politics and policy, appointments and their consequences, and their political thinking is more likely to be chaotic.
Nonpartisanship is not a synonym for independent thought: it is navigating without political orientation or organization. Nor is there warrant for casting Independents as uniquely guided by conscience–as civic-minded and impartial observers inclining victory to this side or that according to the interests of the country. Finally, Independents are detached and weightless, and not just because they are less likely than partisans to participate at all. Independents neither assume responsibility for the institutions that organize elections and government nor do they owe allegiance, or even justification, to other like-minded citizens.
Independents create what Teddy Roosevelt called a “mere windy anarchy.” While partisans deliberate and vote with allies, Independents are as detached from one another as they are from parties. If, as Ignazio Silone says, the crucial political judgment is “the choice of comrades,” Independents do not make it. “As a group Independents remain difficult to pin down,” confirmed a May 2009 PEW report. Independents are fickle, ungrounded, and liable to mistrust. They vote for one or another candidate, but they remain fundamentally “undecided.” As we see today they can turn on a dime to oppose the people and policies they were understood to support
Partisans, on the other hand, take responsibility for telling a comprehensive public story about the economic, social, and moral changes of the time. American parties are typically broad umbrellas; and in their role as partisans, their supporters are not single-issue voters.
As we know, parties can be captured by internal factions that become entrenched and have influence beyond their natural political life. But the longer-term source of instability and lack of direction in democratic politics today is caused by a lack of partisanship. As PEW reports, the public’s two-mindedness about government is a product of the way Independents—not partisans—think. They make it dizzying for many elected officials to advance their understanding of public welfare. It is difficult to articulate, and advance, bold and expensive policy changes–like health care insurance–not only because of partisan division but also because of the solicitude for independence.
EXTREMISM HAS often been the erroneous and destructive charge leveled at partisanship. But in the American context it is wrong to argue that extremism is a thoughtful reference to a position on an ideological spectrum. The business of parties is to draw the lines of political division that shape democratic decision-making; and when this is called extremist by anti-party types, it is as if politics itself is under attack.
There is, however, a valid meaning of extremism when it is applied to today’s American party politics: it is a failure to be inclusive and to take responsibility for mobilizing and responding to voters other than “the base”; it is a failure of comprehensiveness–an unresponsiveness to the range of concerns facing the nation and a single-mindedness that takes one idea or aim to its limit; and, finally, it is a boasted intransigence, an avowed rejection of the norms of compromise necessary to get the public business done.
We know that very often the hardest compromises are intra-party, and compromise with fellow partisans is an obligation and stern discipline; it is part of creating, acknowledging, and sustaining the partisan “we.” Extremism, in this context, is an appropriate description for those who cast compromise as raw opportunism and who lack the capacity to give up something of their principle or pay some material cost in order to advance political goals.
Anti-partyism and boasted independence are therefore not unique to this polarized moment. There is a permanent structure of anti-party thought that courses through our history. That said, it also has distinctive contours today. The specific animus of today’s anti-partisanship is expressed in the equation: partisan=ideological=extremist.
Partisan self-defense against this onslaught has also assumed a distinct contemporary form in the protective promise of bipartisanship. Bipartisanship has become the partisan’s armor. For those unwilling to give up the importance of parties, bipartisanship is the way to demonstrate that while not independent, the partisan is not “just another go-along party politician.” For sober political realists, “bipartisanship is not the first instinct; it is an option to be considered within the context of perceived electoral imperatives.”
TODAY, HOWEVER, bipartisanship is not narrowly strategic. It is moralized and de-politicized—an effort to take the sting out of partisanship and confer some legitimacy on partisans. When it is invoked, bipartisanship does not refer to bargaining, which lacks the appropriate moral aura. Instead, it is supposed to entail a John Stuart Mill-like recognition of the reasonableness of each side and a public acknowledgment that each party is a carrier of half-truths.
“Coming together in the middle” is a sanitized apolitical account. We know from actual accounts of bipartisan budget deals and social policies that political compromises rarely proceed along one dimension (“more or less”) or allow for splitting the difference. The middle is not always there; the ground of compromise depends on relative party strengths and purposes.
The important point is that compromise—whether bipartisan or the more common compromise among fellow partisans—is politically determined by talented partisans who can control the legislative process, understand substantive and procedural hurdles, argue the merits in party caucuses, rally moderates or radicals, inform, guide, cajole, and win the support of their fellow partisans.
What we need is not nonpartisanship or occasional bipartisanship but better partisanship. It would be better for democratic politics if party leaders and partisan voters articulated an ethic of partisanship and did not cede the moral high ground to Independents. Democracy needs strong parties and strong partisans.
From the start of his career, Obama supporters have fantasized that he was something other than a partisan politician and above the “tawdry favor-swapping of party politics.” However, productive politics and successful governing today are determined less by the luster and political influence of independence or by the popular weariness with polarization—than they are by the skill of party leaders. I am watching to see whether Obama is an ethical partisan. Is he capable of both articulating a bold, comprehensive story of what needs to be done and achieving compromise among his fellow Democrats?
An appreciation of partisanship goes beyond the matter of governing, though. The elements of an ethic of partisanship—inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and the willingness to compromise—enable the distinctive work of the partisan: drawing the lines of division and shaping the system of conflict that orders democratic deliberation and decision.
Party antagonism focuses on problems: information and interpretations are brought out, stakes are delineated, points of conflict and commonality are located, and the range of possibilities is winnowed. This is the vital work of democracy. Discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies must be identified; they must be selected and refined. Someone must create the lines of division over social aims, security, and justice; and someone must arouse the ambition and aggression for political action.
Shaping conflict is what partisans do. All the more favored forms of political action—from social movements to public-interest advocacy groups to experiments in deliberation—must finally translate into partisanship. The claim that partisanship fundamentally damages the political process is fundamentally wrong.
I’ll go farther: partisanship, not independence, is the morally distinctive political identity of representative democracy. Partisans identify with and support a system of regulated political rivalry. Partisans do not regret conflicts of principle and policy as a grim inevitability and they do not wish for consensus. They do not imagine that their party could or should speak for the nation as a whole, but they do think they should speak to everyone. The moral distinctiveness of partisanship lies in the democratic commitment to political pluralism and to the task of shaping a system of conflict.
Nancy L. Rosenblum is Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and the author of On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.
Photo: President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Sept. 11, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)