Evaluating Russell Muirhead’s Case for Partisanship

In The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age, Russell Muirhead sings the praises of modern political parties. When confronted with the drawbacks, he argues that we need better partisanship, not post-partisanship. I adopted this book for a class on political parties and interest groups this spring, planning to ask students whether parties advance or hinder policymaking for the final paper. I did not regret adopting the book.

Muirhead argues that modern anti-partisanship derives from the Enlightenment hope that there can be a nonpartisan basis for governance. From the Enlightenment to John Rawls, many political theorists have believed in universal truths and rights, leaving questions of technique as the only proper basis for political disagreement. To be a partisan on the other side of such truths is to be on the other side of reason and the public good. But in the absence of universal agreement on what is true, some mechanism is needed for compromising between biased perceptions of the truth and aggregating majorities for candidates. No political foundation, including the U.S. Constitution, permanently settles disagreement. People fighting for a political goal are biased whether they recognize it or not, and they are not sacrificing integrity by doing so. For all of their fears of parties, the founders were partisans themselves.

Given the inevitability of bias in political beliefs, political parties are the best mechanism for vying for political influence. Muirhead dismisses the possibility that an aggregation of people with autonomous issue positions derived from reason could ever sustain a democracy. Schumpeter complained that politics clouded people’s judgements of their real interests; Muirhead thinks a political system could not function based on disaggregated people acting on real interests. Parties rely on fluffy rhetoric and group unity to involve more people in the political process. By creating a group identity around parties, parties encourage larger parts of society to stand together as members of parties, helping to unify society. Partisanship provides a basis for political action other than issue positions and individual interests.  Of course, one could view that as political legitimacy through manufactured consent, and not a legitimacy worth having.

Parties also encourage partisans to be patient with the long-term projects of in-group politicians. Muirhead cites the Iraq War and the rollout of Obamacare as projects that nonpartisan voters would run out of patience with and prematurely reverse course. From one administration to another, there would not be a set of voters invested in the continuation of policies without parties, or an easy way of identifying which politicians would support continuity or disruption.

By seeing party loyalty through motivated reasoning as positive, Muirhead runs against the basic political assumptions of some recent work in political science. Achen and Bartels Democracy for Realists decries the irrationality of changing one’s positions to fall in line with one’s party. According to Achen and Bartels, pro-choice Republican men and pro-life Democratic men switched their position to fall in line with their party. Even white southerners who were liberal on civil rights joined the Republican Party out of group identity, and then changed their positions on civil rights to fit the Republican Party. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck’s book Identity Crisis also shows how partisanship leads party members to evaluate the economy and other news items through partisan-tinted lenses.  

Muirhead sees nonpartisanship and post-partisanship as delusions born of “vanity and idealism.” The false ideal is the delusion that politics could ever be above fundamental disagreement. Loyalty to one’s own individual political identity is an “escape from politics.” But he does acknowledge that partisanship has devolved into familiar problems – one party is against something merely because the opposing party is for it, or where people deny basic facts. He therefore calls for better partisanship rather than nonpartisanship, where parties put forth clear visions of the good and do not dismiss the other side’s ideas simply because they come from the other side. Muirhead wants Democrats to articulate a vision of government as effective, and acknowledge the trade-off that government programs require more taxes and regulations. He wants Republicans to articulate a vision where the lower taxes require fewer government programs.

However, Diana Mutz’ Hearing the Other Side offers evidence that any partisanship contains the seeds for bad partisanship. If parties want to maximize turnout and enthusiasm, it is in their incentive to encourage extreme group identity over policy visions. People who acknowledge some good points in another party are less likely to participate. There is a trade-off between thoughtful deliberation and participation, and the partisan incentive is to promote the latter over the former. Acknowledging trade-offs goes against the incentive of all politicians, given voter myopia, but partisanship leads voters to see the other party agenda as unmitigated disasters, without tradeoffs. Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement shows that group identity and antipathy to outgroups provides a much more effective basis for strong feelings – which motivate political activity – than issue beliefs like the size of government.

The Promise of Party is abstract enough that I sometimes question whether what Muirhead has in mind matches what I think he has in mind. When he says that coalitions for policies will constantly be reassembled and disassembled without parties, I have to wonder how that plays out. While such a system might witness more policies being repealed, it also provides more flexibility. Legislators might not antagonize other legislators the way they do under the current system, because they never know who might be their ally in a future coalition. Voters would still have many biases in the absence of parties, but partisan bias towards one’s neighbors and coworkers are one of the most potent form of bias around.

I also need to look at more empirical evidence to evaluate his arguments that parties promote policies that yield long term results. I do not know enough about the policies coming out of nonpartisan state legislatures like Nebraska, which most strongly resemble the system he opposes. At the national level, however, the Washington administration put forward Hamilton’s financial plan, which consisted of some of the most far-seeing proposals in the history of the republic. In the absence of official political parties in Washington’s first term, the taxes, assumption of debts, and creation of the National Bank were thought to offer long term economic growth at the expense of short-term growing pains. It was political parties designed by Jefferson and Madison that first undermined patience for these policies, albeit for their own vision of the long term good of the country. By 1816, the Federalist Party had all but disappeared, creating the closest scenario to a post-partisan polity the country has seen since the Washington administration. At that time, the Republican President James Madison renewed the National Bank, reversing his previous opposition. It would be hard to imagine such affirmation of another party’s cornerstone politics in 2020. The Federalist Party mounted no opposition to James Monroe in his second term in 1820. Yet, the Monroe administration also pursued policies that were intended to yield long term benefits, whether they were good or not. Among them were the Monroe Doctrine and acquisition of Florida, both negotiated by a Secretary of State who would have joined an opposition party had a viable one been available. The Era of Good Feeling had plenty of acrimony, mainly due to sectional differences. But the reintroduction of political parties was intended to sweep the biggest sectional difference of all, slavery, under the rug. Rather than promoting patience toward addressing the nation’s greatest long-term problem, the reintroduction of parties smothered it rather than dealing with it patiently. It was not until third parties reemerged in the 1840s that major parties addressed the issue again.

Despite my reservations, The Promise of Party provided me with clarity on how modern partisanship is at odds with Enlightenment political theory, and exposed me to arguments in favor of political parties that I have not read anywhere else. It is essential reading for courses on parties that strive to evaluate them from a normative perspective.

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