Crazy Pills

Two Thousand Hippies At the Bottom of the Sea by A Milder Despot
February 10, 2009, 6:17 pm
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Cato Unbound, the monthly online roundtable run by the Cato Institute, had a series on a topic particularly close to my heart: Partisanship.

Nancy Rosenblum’s lead essay on the subject hit the nail on the head at numerous points, particularly her closing:

What we need is not independence or bipartisanship or post-partisanship but better partisanship.

I couldn’t agree more. Her critics have brought up numerous points about the toxic nature of what our partisan system has turned in to:

It’s not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity.

This is true about many (most?) of the people who would be described as “partisans” by democratic observers. However, I think Rosenblum is trying to describe a debate not between partisans in reality and independents in reality; I think she is trying to imagine a theoretical world in which people would be perfect partisans as she imagines or perfect independents. Indeed, there are lucid arguments made on both sides about the failure of partisans and political independents in reality.

Ignoring the reality of our political system, Rosenblum comes to the conclusion that the theoretical world filled with “good” partisans is preferable to the world filled with “good” independents.

I’m unsure of this and must give it more thought. However, I’ve always been a staunch advocate of partisanship for one reason: it is a necessity. And with that I take issue with one part of Rosenblum:

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.

I’m a relatively uninformed person, but I think this is wrong. I believe that political parties are absolutely unavoidable in politics. Admittedly, they often take far different forms (see, for example, Poland), but for whatever reason, political parties have come to be a natural element of democratic systems.

The United States’ system is more susceptible to a system in which there are only two dominant parties representing an either/or worldview, which is certainly what most critics of partisanship object to. But, and I think this is where Rosenblum’s argument is most salient, the ideal of a two-dominant-party system is democratically-created and -defined parties rather than a top-down authoritative party-control system.

Her three virtues of partisanship – inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and compromisingness – do represent an as-yet-unattained ideal, but it is a higher ideal than a world full of supposedly untethered independents.


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The New York Times had a great op-ed recently on the subject:

Great presidents do manage to push past partisanship — not by reaching out to the other party, but by overwhelming it with a new vision… Roosevelt and Reagan reveal the dirty rotten secret of bipartisanship. It happens only when one side is cowed, beaten or frightened. More competitive elections mean more ardent debates. And so it should be. Our government is designed that way.

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