Two friends of the Madison Initiative have just written books that defend the importance of spirited partisanship for a healthy democracy, cutting against the grain of conventional wisdom. Let me give you a sampling of their arguments in the hope that it will convince you to read these timely contributions in their entirety.
Russ Muirhead is a political theorist at Dartmouth College and the author of The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age. In his preface, Muirhead argues that, “Rather than expect that partisanship can be overcome, or transcended, or simply turned off in those places where its presence would be corrupting, it is better—more true to the real possibilities for democratic politics—to differentiate between more elevated and more base expressions of party spirit…what politics needs is not less partisanship, but better partisanship.” In the rest of the book Muirhead defends “a kind of party spirit that is worn lightly, one that is open to facts and revision, and tolerant of—even appreciative of—opponents.”
Muirhead acknowledges that his fellow democratic theorists have not as a rule looked favorably on partisanship, viewing it as a partial conception or distortion of the common good. But he highlights two vital roles that parties play in democratic politics.
First, the ideal of equality underpinning democracy presumes the essential morality of majority rule. Political parties are what enable such majorities to be established; they thereby give democratic politics its legitimacy. Muirhead notes that partisans have to balance what they will stand for with who it will lead them to stand with (and vice versa) in their quest for a majority. This is a morally fraught but unavoidable judgment for those seeking to form democratically legitimate majorities.
Second, Muirhead, invoking John Stuart Mill, argues that, given human psychology and the limits of reason, democratic politics needs the clarifying contest of opposing truths, of “standing antagonisms” between those who emphasize tradition or progress, freedom or equality. Parties are the institutions that form around and defend their versions of these truths, and per Mill, “No whole truth is possible but by combining the points of view of all the fractional truths.”
Jason Grumet, President of the Bipartisan Policy Center, underscores this point in City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy. “Ideologically driven institutions serve an essential role in the political process. Our democracy depends on the collision between different interests and political parties.” Grumet goes on to observe, however, that “in a divided nation, ‘all or nothing’ politics have an all but certain outcome—and rarely is it ‘all.’” The better alternative is what Grumet terms “constructive partisanship,” which rests on personal relationships among partisans prepared to practice “the dark art of principled compromise.”
It is tempting to think that in our current age the political debate has finally raged out of control (mea culpa), but Grumet rightly points out that American history has long been characterized by extreme conflict. “What has changed of late is that the essential tension between partisanship and familiarity has fallen out of balance. The challenge for us, moving forward, is to rediscover that equilibrium.”
The way forward, Grumet argues, is decidedly not the reformers’ well-trodden path of more transparency, campaign finance reform, new ethics laws, etc., which he argues convincingly have produced much of the dysfunction we are trying now to unravel.
Grumet’s alternative solution is almost homely in its simplicity. Leaders need to take the risk, not insubstantial in the current environment, of investing in and restoring the mutual understanding and personal connections that used to enable the policy-making process to more or less function. It is easy to scoff at this, but harder to disagree with the basic truth that “whether a condominium board, a university, or a national legislature, human relationships form the core of our institutions.”
The Madison Initiative is investing in a number of organizations and programs that seek to put into practice the principles for constructive partisanship espoused by Muirhead and Grumet. These grantees include the Bipartisan Policy Center, No Labels, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, the Millennial Action Project, the Partnership for a Secure America, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and the Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowship. While advancing different missions and using different approaches, all of these grantees make a point of bringing partisans together across the aisle to foster mutual understanding, relationships, and trust.
We have heard plenty of criticism of this particular line of our grant-making from those who argue that it reflects a quaint and even naïve view of partisan politics. We aren’t suggesting that the cultivation of cross-party relationships and dialog will be sufficient to address the pathologies of polarization, but we do regard it as a necessary part of the equation.