Cato Unbound: An Appreciation of Partisanship

This month’s Cato Unbound is up, featuring a lead essay by Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum. She discusses themes developed more fully in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. Rosenblum makes the case that political parties have gotten an undeserved bad reputation, and that they do useful, unappreciated coordinating work in democratic politics.

In the first response essay, Brink Lindsey replies in essence that political parties are much better than they used to be, but there’s still plenty to complain about. Response essays by Henry Farrell of George Washington University and James Fishkin of Stanford University will appear on Friday and Monday, respectively, followed by a blog chat among the authors.

My own biggest questions on the topic are as follows.

First, is it even meaningful to say that we are “for” or “against” partisanship? Or, when we say this, are we really just saying that we’re for or against certain aspects of partisanship? Political parties seem to appear wherever we find the concepts of representative democracy and loyal opposition. Complaining about political parties is a bit like being against the weather.

We may hate many of the things that political parties do, but their main alternatives seem to be dictatorships and death squads. Even the most committed anti-partisans wouldn’t go that route. And even those who cheer for partisan politics may seem to be making a virtue of necessity.

Second, what about the legal regime that sustains the two-party system? The rules that support partisan politics were written by partisans, after all. Certainly we can’t just take them as a given. Ballot access regulations, campaign finance rules, and the incumbent advantage help to give us the specific type of partisan politics we have. Who else gets to write their own ticket like that, and should we let them?

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