Partisanship and citizenship

by Henry Farrell on January 6, 2009

I’ve a piece in the current issue of the _American Prospect_, which is “now available”: on their website. The argument, in a nutshell, is that there is likely to be a clash between Obama style post-partisan politics (which builds on a general anti-party sentiment in American political thought and in recent arguments from Putnam, Fishkin etc about civic renewal), and the quite partisan electoral machine that he built in order to win the election.

The rebirth of civic participation this year is not a product of experiments in deliberative democracy or a new interest in league bowling. Rather, it is based on party politics, coupled with and accelerated by new opportunities provided by the Internet. Skocpol’s claim that “conflict and competition have always been the mother’s milk of American democracy” tells part of the story.

The one regret I have is that I hadn’t read Nancy Rosenblum’s _On the Side of the Angels_ (Powells, Amazon) before writing it. Rosenblum’s new book is the first serious political theoretic defense of partisanship that I’ve ever read. More on that when I work my way through the other items on my queue …



Mark Bahnisch 01.06.09 at 3:31 pm

Rosenblum’s new book is the first serious political theoretic defense of partisanship that I’ve ever read.

You’re not familiar with Chantal Mouffe’s work on agonism and radical democracy?

Nice piece, btw!


Barry 01.06.09 at 6:59 pm

I’d add that the ‘post-partisan’ style will die a fast death. There’s probably a limited number of GOP Senators whom Obama can peel off with anything less that unconditional surrender. He needs to be able to peel off a consistent half-dozen for each bill that’s going to pass, but it’s going to get hard to do more. IMHO he does it’s more a sign of Democratic dominance and GOP weakness than non- or post-partisanship.


bartkid 01.06.09 at 7:26 pm

>Skocpol’s claim that “conflict and competition have always been the mother’s milk of American democracy” tells part of the story.

Skocpol is mistaken, it is not conflict and competition that are mother’s milk, it is money.

Howard Dean’s and Barack Obama’s machines just figured out a way to competently aggregate individual small donations rather than to depend on the big-ticket corporate or PAC-bundled donations.

And, Mr. Dean also figured out the second half of the equation: Don’t just bring in money to your own machine, but cause your opponent’s machine to bleed that money’s milk. The 50-state strategy forced Republicans to spend in previously uncontested states (hello Montana, hello Arizona), drying up funds for other states (goodbye Michigan).


Seth Finkelstein 01.06.09 at 10:24 pm

I would like to follow your call as a public intellectual to participate in American politics, by taking a partisan stance about your article. Unfortunately, I (along with, I suspect, large numbers of people), find my ability to engage in such “real and lively democratic debate” is severely curtailed these days by the necessity of earning a living during a recession. “The distributed [ranting] of the blogs, in contrast, involves millions of people [maybe!]”, who either make their living as the chattering class, or are well-educated and have enough leisure time for it to be a hobby.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.07.09 at 4:11 am

Excuse me, Henry – but I’m unclear on what Fishkin and Ackerman mean by “partisan”. Is it an unwillingness to compromise on issues, or is it simply “My party, right or wrong?” They’re two different things, of course.


Tony Greco 01.07.09 at 4:46 am

I enjoyed your TAP article, but one point that I would have added is that partisanship is a uniquely useful way of organizing (“framing,” if you prefer) political arguments in an ideologically coherent way. Obama the post-partisan repeatedly argued during the campaign that McCain represented “the same philosophy” as Bush. He was successful, it’s true, but it would have been simpler to most voters to argue that McCain and Bush are essentially similar because both are Republicans, and Republicans do stand for certain things (trickle-down economics, etc.) that generally distinguish them from Democrats.


c.l. ball 01.07.09 at 9:30 pm

The TAP piece is quite thoughtful, but it really depends on what you mean by “partisan.” If it means “party identification,” is not partisan in the usually sense. Indeed, Matt Bai’s point is that and others represent an attempt by self-styled progressives to break away from the Democratic party centrism, or Clintonism, and party control. If by partisan, we mean that they have an ideological agenda, OK.

But Obama’s “post-partisanship” is based on partisanship as party ID. Obama attracted a fair number of independents (and some Republicans) to volunteer, vote, and donate via the Internet-based system. How do we code them: are they “partisan” or not? According to CNN’s exit poll McCain and Obama got almost identical shares of their parties voters, but Obama took independents 52% to 44%. In this sense, non-partisanship in the party ID sense is what got him elected.

Henry writes: “Statistical evidence suggests that readers of left-wing blogs are more likely to participate in politics…” What does “participate in politics” mean here? Are they more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer, or more likely to donate?


Henry 01.09.09 at 2:06 pm

sorry c.l. – didn’t see this comment until now. This is from the paper with my colleagues Eric Lawrence and John Sides. We take three common measures of participation – voting, donating, and trying to persuade others to vote and use them to construct a simple scale. We then find that left wing blog readers have significantly higher participation than right wing blog readers controlling for the usual kinds of things that you would want to control for.

On the party ID thing, my best bet (and I could be wrong here), is that the percentage of Obama voters who were either independents or Republicans is going to be much, much higher than the percentage of Obama volunteers who fell into either category. And while I think that Bai is right in saying that the MoveOn/netroots crowd are much more leftwing than the average Democrat (this is something I used to think differently on, but the data in our paper is pretty emphatic on this), I also think that there is a specifically partisan tinge to their view of the world. That is, they tend to be strongly opposed to many forms of bipartisanship, and believe that the Democrats ought to be more vigorously partisan in fighting back against Republicans. That, more than simple party ID is what I was trying to get at in the piece.

Many thanks for these thoughtful and useful criticisms.

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