In Defense of Partisanship: Part One, All Politics is Political
Americans love to hate political parties. From the founding of the Republic, parties have been seen as dangerous barriers standing between people and their government. Parties are left completely out of the design of the state as constructed by the Constitution, and early American writing on politics treated their inevitable formation as an almost pathological social problem. As we all know, President Obama plays this stream of public opinion masterfully, even if his “post-partisanship” looks a little strange in the face of Republican discipline in Congress.
Personally, I’m a big fan of parties, mostly because I’m a big fan of organizing as a tool for generally less powerful people to tip the scales in their favor. I certainly understand the allure of politics without parties. Watching cable TV news makes even hardened politicos like me wish for a world with less polarization and conflict. But this longing is a mistake.
At the core of the anti-party argument is a quintessentially American evasion of the political. From the Founding Fathers through to the remarkably successful turn-of-century Progressive movement, we have labored under the utopian notion that there exists a discoverable, apolitical “common good” that is obscured and threatened by corruption, partisanship and self-interest. This thread of American political thought is reflected in contemporary appeals for politicians to “put aside their differences” and just “do what’s right” or “fix all the problems”. A more sinister version of this same desire to rise above politics can be seen in totalitarianisms of both the Right and the Left: if you hand the state over to the right “Folk” or class, politics will simply disappear.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a single “common good”. We don’t all agree on what the best solution is for a problem, or even what the problems are. That’s not a bad thing. What one person sees as the good society would be a dystopia for another. The world that John McCain wants to live in is substantively different than the world that Howard Dean wants to live in. They may agree on sugar imports, but such questions don’t necessarily define their politics. This is true even at the most local level, long a site of the most extreme illusions of non-partisanship. A libertarian small business owner, a hippie and a construction worker may all agree that potholes should be filled. However, despite the old adage, there are, in fact liberal and conservative ways of filling those potholes. Income tax? Parcel tax? Privatized road maintenance? These are all options that imply ideological preference and have huge social and economic repercussions.
Thus, all politics is political. In a democratic society, the way we go about making these decisions is by allowing citizens to choose between policies, even if this is done through representatives. In the United States, however, too often we don’t actually choose between policies or even ideas- we choose strictly between people. “Vote the man (sic), not the party” is so widely held a notion that it sounds almost un-American to disagree.
But voting for individuals doesn’t eliminate those difficult political decisions, it just takes it out of the hands of the voter. Instead of voting based on policy preferences, or even small but effective clues as to policy preferences like party identification, legally nonpartisan elections or “post-partisan” political culture encourages votes based on any number of pieces of information: name recognition (which can be bought), charisma, cultural affinity, gender biases or ethnicity.
Before I get accused of blatant idealism, let me also say that of course, there are also fundamentally competing interests in society. The point here, as well, is that the balance of those interests is achieved through politics. Nowadays, every politician everywhere hopes to score points with the electorate by denouncing “special interests”. What is almost hilariously obvious, however, is that the only common definition of “special interest” appears to be interests which the given politician opposes. Just as “pork” is any sum of money not spent in your own district, any group that you don’t like becomes a “special interest”. Here’s the thing: labor and business are competing interests, as are environmentalists and agribusiness. To the extent that government has a role in mediating those competing interests, we shouldn’t seek to depoliticize the process.
The idea of a disinterested, neutral set of elected officials serving as judges deciding which of these interests will prevail is as fundamentally undemocratic as it is unlikely. If the role of elected officials is to reflect the will of the people, elected officials should be voted in or out based on their views of how these interests should be balanced. Parties play a role in this process, as well, giving voters a clear sense of which collection of interests a politician is aligned with.
In the next section of this essay, I will look at the consequences of the restraints we’ve put on party activity. Of particular interest is the rise of nonpartisan voting systems at the local level, which has lowered voter turnout and advantaged candidates with strong social and financial capital. California’s Progressive experiment with effectively eliminating partisanship at the State Legislative level, thus handing governance over to industry lobbyists is another important case.