politics is to want something

søndag, mars 29, 2009

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.


Blogger Marko said...

Nice to read your posts again after a while Daraka. I
wholeheartedly agree that "post-partisanship" is a weird thing to
require in politics, and, frankly, I don't realize why it is so
appealing to so many people. However, there is another thing I'd
like to ask.

Political parties in US tend to encompass a much broader range of
political positions than those in Europe. In particular the Dems,
since they cover everything from (center)-right to the
left. Republicans are broad too, but unfortunately don't range
from center to right, as one would expect from the mainstream
party, but start on the right and go to crazy-right (the F-word
in your previous post).

As I understan it, the caucuses within Dems, representing
different political interests, fill the role of discriminators
within the political spectrum. I might be wrong here, but
comparing to UK, two US parties cover the entire spectrum,
whereas British parties fill only parts of it, even if only two
of them are really dominant at any instance.

Do you think that the fact that _people_ instead of _parties_ are
featured on ballots perpetuates the politics where party
affiliations are only vague indicators of ones policy
preferences? And can one hope for a better party discipline,
while this remains true? What confuses me is that GOP seems to do
well in terms of party discipline, within the same system. Could
it just be a consequence of them being more homogeneous, compared
to Dems?

(Sorry about the lengthy comment)

søndag, mars 29, 2009 8:45:00 p.m.

Blogger Steven Attewell said...

Re: your essay "In Defense of Partisanship: Part One," I really like the overall thrust.

However, I think your essay needs a bit more historical context. We always need to bear
in mind that the Enlightenment, especially the Enlightenment as understood by the
Revolutionary Generation (a term I prefer to the Founding Fathers, because it brings in the
mass politics of the American Revolution) contains an inherent tension between republicanism and
liberalism, along with with other ideological tensions - between protestant millenialism and secularism,
between pro-slavery and anti-slavery, between anti-imperialism and racist manifest destiny, etc.

Republicanism which has always been more friendly to the left, because of its belief
in the collective sovereignty of the people (which extends to sovereignty over the means
of production under the formulations of so-called "red republicanism"), and because it
understands better the inherent connection between political and economic power and
the need for a "rough equality of wealth" in a republic, nonetheless is the greater offender
on the question of the common good.

Ironically, Madisonian liberalism does recognize the natural origins of parties and partisanship,
and denies the concept of the common good. However, it does so from the position that all
natural rights belong to the individual, that one of the most fundamental of these is property,
and that government must be as minimal as possible to avoid infringing on the rights of the
individual. Madison explicitly locates one of the chief dangers of an unhampered democracy
the possibility that the majority might seize the wealth of the minority, although he borrows
from Locke a justification for massive inequality of property as justified under the doctrine
of natural rights. Hence, Madison, who sees that parties are the inevitable result of differences
of interests is the one who most seeks to render government incapable of altering them,
and it is the Republicans, who most vehemently deny the party as a legitimate vehicle for politics,
who believe that government must be strengthened so that it is capable of turning the will of the people into law.

søndag, mars 29, 2009 10:59:00 p.m.

Blogger GK said...

Once again, I agree.

But I do think Steven's on to something. It might be helpful, Daraka, to distinguish between the way "common good" ideas are used by anti-partisan / anti-political people and the ways other kinds of "common good" ideas can be used within partisan politics (or should we just say "within politics"?).

To out it briefly: Machiavelli, The Discourses. Old Niccolo has filled that Marx-shaped hole in my heart -- well, more or less. (And get the Penguin edition, which has an intro & notes by--appropriately enough, given the argument of this post--Bernard Crick.)

torsdag, april 02, 2009 7:16:00 a.m.

Blogger Erik said...

Speaking of the importance of political parties, what the hell happened to the left in Europe this week?

You name the leftist party, I'll tell you the number of seats it lost.

And this was in spite of right wing governments in control during a recession? How does the right not take the flak here?

mandag, juni 08, 2009 9:27:00 a.m.

Anonymous beautype said...

"Personally, I'm a big fan of parties... as a tool for [organizing] generally less powerful people."

Really? Parties are the answer? And how well has that worked out for those poor people you speak of?

Are they better off for the parties "organizing?" How much have the democrats obtained for them by their "organizing?" Any nice examples from Obama?

Do you have any historical examples from the US in mind when you suggest that people were better served by being organized in a party than my mass protests and militant struggle outside of approved party mechanisms?

Did people in the US really get more rights because of party activity, or did party organizations just reap the benefits of more militant forms of protest *that themselves* pressured the political establishment to budge in their favor? That is, isn't the function of the Democrats to allow the political injustices of the system to continue by *selling us* the crumbs that get thrown our way when militant protest begins to seriously threaten status quo political power?

Isn't is the would-be party of "working middle-class" about appeasement rather than reform? Can you really sell us the crumbs of mighty capital as the *successes* of party politics? And, historically speaking, can you really attribute to *party activity* the successes of massive militant protest movements that put actual human bodies in the way of political machine (often to the tune of police beating and gunfire)? If so, please name actual historical examples.

fredag, mars 18, 2011 11:24:00 p.m.

Anonymous beautype said...

Emma Goldman:
Our modern fetish is universal suffrage.. . . The women of Australia and New Zealand can vote, and help make the laws. Are the labor conditions better there?. . .

The history of the political activities of man proves that they have given him absolutely nothing that he could not have achieved in a more direct, less costly, and more lasting manner. As a matter of fact, every inch of ground he has gained has been through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage.

mandag, april 18, 2011 4:00:00 p.m.


Legg inn en kommentar

<< Home