In fact, political parties and a reasoned loyalty to them are essential to the functioning of a democratic system. At their best, parties organize conflict and channel it down constructive paths. In any healthy society, people will disagree about what they value most — think, for starters, about the relative priority of liberty, equality and community. Even when they agree on values, citizens will differ over which policies will best advance them.
As I have occasionally written to readers exercising their right to complain about my views, disagreement is one of the joys of freedom.
In her book “On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship,” the political philosopher Nancy L. Rosenblum notes that partisans accept “pluralism and political conflict” as a positive good. Partisans, she writes, “see themselves as firmly on the side of the angels,” but acknowledge their partiality. This encourages them to embrace both “political self-restraint” and “mental and emotional discipline.”
And that gets at our problem now — not partisanship as such, but a flight from those disciplines. And while you are free to accuse me of partisanship, I’d insist that what is happening in the Republican Party is objectively a grave threat to the proper functioning of the party system.
Functional partisanship demands, at the bare minimum, commitments to abide by the results of free elections, to tell the truth about those elections and to offer all citizens equal opportunities to participate in the electoral process.
Large sections of the Republican Party, led by former president Donald Trump, are failing on all three. Trump and a majority of self-identified members of his party have still not accepted President Biden’s election. At least as bad is the refusal by a large number of Republicans still serving in government to say the simple words: Biden won fair and square.
The shameful squirming of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday was just the latest example of a Trump supporter refusing to repudiate his Big Lie.
The best Scalise could do was to say of Biden that “once the electors are counted, yes, he’s the legitimate president.” Scalise then flipped into a lot of folderol about doubts about the election, including the assertion that “there are people concerned about what the next election is going to look like. Are we going to finally get back to the way the rule of law works?”
Scalise’s “get back to” stuff is double talk to rationalize the efforts of Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere to roll back advances during the pandemic that made it easier for Americans to vote. Some of the GOP moves (such as getting rid of Sunday voting) are designed specifically to disempower Black voters.
Stopping these attacks on participation will require action by Congress through the provisions of the democracy reform bill the House is expected to pass soon, and a renewal of the Voting Rights Act gutted by Supreme Court conservatives.
Voting rights were once a cross-party cause, but no longer. Yet if basic constitutional guarantees can pass only by a “partisan” vote (and by pushing back against the filibuster), are we supposed to abandon them because they fail to meet some “bipartisan” golden mean?
Of course not, and former congressman Tom Perriello (D-Va.) explains why. “The unity America needs is not between two parties but among all of those who are committed to inclusive democracy governed by the Constitution, fair elections, and the rule of law,” he writes in Democracy (a journal with which I have a long association). “Ironically today, these values are considered universal but not bipartisan.”
The best kind of partisanship, based on those universal values, promotes fierce but constructive arguments. It acknowledges that in a good society, most political differences involve not a choice between good versus evil, but among competing goods — efficiency, security, entrepreneurship, fairness, individualism and solidarity, to name a few. Compromise (along with, yes, bipartisanship) is easier when we’re honest about the trade-offs we’re making.
But that brand of small-D democratic partisanship requires agreement on certain fundamentals, not the least being a shared commitment to truth and a willingness to let the voters decide — all the voters, not an electorate rigged through voter suppression.
So our fight should not be against partisanship. It should be in favor of rehabilitating the vibrant and honest partisanship on which democracy depends.