Opinion

Beyond partisanship?

Posted August 9

Partisanship goes with democracy, and anti-partisan rhetoric often masks the complacency of a partisan elite.

People are fed up with politics, with “partisan bickering,” “polarization” and all that. We advertise our high-minded virtue by deploring the nasty, quarrelsome state we’re in and by identifying ourselves with a higher kind of society in which sweet reason and moderate temperaments set the tone, where elevated souls serenely exchange ideas in pursuit of a common good far above the petty concerns of “partisan bickering.”

Such transpartisan idealism partakes of an old and venerable tradition that includes the United States’ Founding Fathers. As readers of the Federalist Papers will remember, James Madison considered “factions,” or groups of voters mobilized to pursue their own, partial or partisan interests, to be the greatest threats to the republic. He hoped the federal Constitution would blunt the power of factions by multiplying their number, by using interests to oppose interests and ambition to counteract ambition and by creating institutional filters that would give worthy elites a chance to rise to the top and to govern for the common good at some distance from populist pressures.

Things did not quite work out this way. The vision of a nonpartisan republic was already on life support when George Washington warned in his farewell address of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” As he well knew, this spirit had already arisen within his own Cabinet, as the opposition between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over issues on the scope of the national government and the Anglo-French question divided Americans sharply into Federalist and Republican blocs. When Jefferson won the presidency by a massive and passionate organization of Republican opinion in the election of 1800, the ideal of a nonpartisan republic was effectively dead.

At least, it was dead as a matter of political organization. As an ideal, the notion of a common good above partisan differences lives on — Jefferson evoked it in his magnanimous inaugural address: “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.” This ideal resurfaces regularly to provide some relief from the boring or dispiriting realities of partisan politics, from the ongoing need to accommodate not only material interests but also ideological passions and prejudices to compose governing coalitions. And surely we need some belief in a higher common good to make this accommodation possible.

It is a mistake, though, to imagine that the lofty rhetoric of the public good can replace the necessities of partisan politics. Partisanship is the life of democracy itself, and it is delusional to embrace democracy and to deplore partisanship. Washington’s nonpartisan vision of the republic depended upon lingering remnants of a more traditional, deferential, hierarchical society, and these were being swept away under his very nose by the energies of a rising democracy.

For a century and a half, the two-party system, in which party leaders operated at some remove from the immediate pressure of public opinion, provided a sort of buffer between mass opinion and government. Democratic “reform” in recent decades has greatly decreased the power of (sometimes corrupt) party elites, but this has not produced a pure democracy of some ideal public good — it has only given more power to factions moved by money and celebrity.

Today enlightened minds love “democracy” but distrust “populism” and partisanship. This attitude follows from an elitism that cannot speak its name. The Founders candidly espoused the role of a gentlemanly elite who would “refine and enlarge” the views of the masses. Today’s media and intellectual elites often despise “deplorable” popular instincts and do it in the name of … “democracy”!

The most blind and aggressive kind of partisanship is one that pretends to be nonpartisan: Our side represents sweet, moderate reason, and the other side is, well, “partisan.” Those who deplore vulgar populism and bitter politics should not seek refuge in the rhetoric of a public good that suits their own tastes and interests. In a democracy, real moderation does not eschew partisanship but tries to elevate it by taking the claims of both sides seriously.

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