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January 3, 2009

partisanship and civic renewal

In The American Prospect, Henry Farrell argues that partisan activity is helping to restore "civic engagement"--voting, discussing, and grassroots activism. This is ironic, in his view, since Barack Obama emerged out of a nonpartisan movement for civic renewal and presented himself as somewhat post-partisan on the campaign trail. In the 1990s, Obama had joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, one of the important gatherings of intellectuals who tended to view citizenship in deliberative or communitarian terms and who decried hyper-partisanship. According to Farrell, "when Barack Obama speaks about how citizens can transcend their political divisions to participate in projects of common purpose, he is drawing on the arguments and ideas from these intellectual debates of a decade ago." Yet Obama won by tapping the energy of a highly partisan grassroots movement that may now challenge his administration from the left. "Scholars have misunderstood the basis of civil society," Farrell claims. They have hoped for civility, deliberation, and solidarity when competition and debate are more to the point.

I personally believe strongly in the value of political parties, which have the motives and resources to draw people into politics. Parties also provide opportunities for activism and leadership and offer choices to voters on Election Day. As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, "Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote." At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.

Thus I wouldn't say that Farrell reaches the wrong conclusions, but he does stereotype other scholars of citizenship. He writes, "None of the civic-decline academics, whether they focused on voter participation, social capital, or the quality of deliberation, saw much use for political parties or partisanship." In fact, parties and competition got a lot of positive play within what Farrell calls the "academic movement to reverse civic decline." His list of academics is selective, and some of the ones he mentions are favorable to parties. For instance, Theda Skocpol has written voluminously on parties; she advocates reforms to make them more participatory and competitive. Perhaps, as Farrell says, Robert Putnam "underplayed" the role of parties by depicting them "as merely one form of civic participation among many"--but Putman took a communitarian line that many of his colleagues criticized. For instance, what about Bill Galston, who is not only a political scientist who favors reforms to enhance party competition, but also an active strategist for the Democratic Party? Or what about Barack Obama, who has moved strategically from nonpartisan community organizing to elected office?

Jane Mansbridge was a participant in the discussions that Farrell briefly recounts (including a well-known meeting with President Clinton); and she is perhaps the most famous critic of a narrow definition of "politics" as party competition. Her great early book is entitled Beyond Adversary Democracy. Yet a quick online search of her work yields characteristic passages like this one (pdf):

Compared to Mansbridge, political scientists like Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Diana Mutz, Dan Shea, Nina Eliasoph, Marshall Ganz, and Sidney Verba and colleagues are far more favorable to parties and sharp ideological debate. A particularly clear example is Nancy Rosenblum, who was a scholarly adviser to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a ubiquitous participant in related discussions in the 1990s, and author of a book called On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.

My own ideal is a variegated political ecosystem that provides opportunities for ideological and partisan competition as well as neutral fora for open-ended discussions and traditions of collaborating across party lines. These varieties of politics check and balance one another. They also provide individuals with choices--which is important because different circumstances and temperaments require different styles of participation.

I think Farrell might share this goal. He writes: "Political conflict between parties with clearly diverging political platforms has its own pathologies, just as does the bipartisan-consensus politics it is replacing." This seems like a balanced view, much in keeping with the mainstream discussion of civic engagement. I only object to his effort to portray his own position as original and iconoclastic, when it is actually quite standard.

An emerging view seems to be that Barack Obama uses post-partisan rhetoric, either naively or vacuously, but his actual effectiveness is as a mobilizer of Democrats for liberal causes. In my interpretation, Obama has a richer and more comprehensive idea of "politics" than we have seen for a long time, from either left or right. His ability to see the value of parties and trans-partisan networks was one reason his campaign was so successful. It was also characteristic of the academic discussion that was one of his many influences.

January 3, 2009 9:28 AM | category: Barack Obama , deliberation | Comments


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