Partisanship Is Democracy By Another Name

Yuval Levin has why “partisanship” is a healthy thing in a democracy:

Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.

To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that “the time has come to set aside childish things” is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries. These arguments—about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen, about America’s place in the world, about the regard and protection we owe to one another, about how we might best reconcile economic prosperity and cultural vitality, national security and moral authority, freedom and virtue—are divisive questions of enormous consequence, and for all the partisanship they have engendered they are neither petty nor childish.

Levin’s words match my own thoughts on the issue. Our current working definition of “non-partisan” seems to be more based on shutting up and getting with the program than anything else. When the President calls for an end to “childish” partisan disagreements, what he means is that everyone should accept his views on the proper role of the state and be done with it. The problem with that is that a large segment of the American population doesn’t accept the basis of his worldview, and they have a legitimate right to have their voices heard.

We don’t need “non-partisanship” at this point in our history. We need vigorous partisan debate. Democratic debate is a crucible that helps extract the truth—and today’s society is becoming less about democratic debate and more about cultural balkanization. We have a media elite that is overwhelmingly uniform in their worldview. With the exception of specialized media outlets like Fox News and talk radio, conservative voices are marginalized and diminished. Not only does this harm conservatism by denying it a forum, but it diminishes liberalism as well. Without a counterbalancing force, any ideology becomes stagnant and increasingly irrelevant. Liberalism, by constantly defining itself as the only valid worldview, has ceased being a vital political philosophy. Is it any wonder than that the banner of today’s liberalism is the empty slogans of “hope” and “change” and it’s ultimate rationale the accumulation of power? When President Obama spoke with GOP members of Congress his message was simple: “I won”. While that counts for a lot in politics, winning an election does not vindicate the rightness of a worldview.

This isn’t to say that conservatism is perfect. Many, if not possibly most of conservatism’s wounds are self-inflicted. Conservatism stopped, by and large, being intellectually vital during the Bush Administration. By going along with Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, the conservative movement lost sight of it’s small-government origins. By becoming more stridently anti-gay rather than pro-family, conservatives alienated much of their own audience. The Republican leadership that has become the standard-bearers for conservatism lost the ability to connect to the American public because they became too ingratiated with power and defending their own record. That President Bush spent most of his second term allowing the opposition to control the public imagination helped bring conservatism in America to a new low.

But liberalism is making the same mistake. At this moment, liberalism is embodied in President Obama in a way that is fundamentally unhealthy. Just as conservatism tied itself to the political fortunes of President Bush, liberalism has become the Ideology of Obama, with the President as its pontifex maximus.

This is particularly unhealthy for a democracy. The combination of ideological arrogance and a cult of personality surrounding one great leader is a dangerous thing. The President, much to his credit, has tried to create a “team of rivals” to challenge his beliefs, but has yet been able to demonstrate more than a token commitment to that end.

Instead of trying to be aloof and above-the-fray, Obama should embrace respectful partisan disagreement as part and parcel of democracy. Instead of putting himself in an ideological cocoon, Obama should engage with the conservative movement. Instead of having The Huffington Post ask him pre-approved questions at his press briefings, he should invite prominent GOP and libertarian bloggers to grill him. It would be interesting to see how he would respond to questioning from someone like Glenn Reynolds or William Safire.

Obama has the bully pulpit of the Presidency, and he has a large hand in setting the tone. If he is serious about leading this nation, and he certainly is, he should be embracing partisanship rather than decrying it. The past President was accused, probably with merit, of living in an ideological bubble. He, like Obama, promised to be a unifying leader. If the President wishes to avoid the same problems that befell his predecessor, he needs to realize that you can’t strengthen your arguments without accepting the arguments of others as valid. For all his promising talk in this regard, his Administration has scarcely wavered from Democratic politics as usual.

Democracy cannot survive in a political monoculture or in a state where only one side is given legitimacy. Liberalism needs conservatism and vice versa. Partisanship is a crucial part of a healthy democracy, and right now American democracy is increasingly unhealthy. If we are to set things right, we need more reasoned disagreement, not mindless and rigid ideological conformity.