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Partisanship is good for us
A panel discussion on March 2 in the Murray Room posed the question, “Is Partisanship a Bad Thing?” to which most people and certainly most pundits would reply straightaway, “Yes.” The three political scientists who spoke at the late-afternoon forum sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy offered an equally swift answer to that question, but a less conventional one. “No,” said political scientist R. Shep Melnick of Boston College, flat out at the start of his opening remarks.
Melnick went to another level of political incorrectness by quoting, with one substituted word, a portion of the memorable “greed is good” speech delivered by antagonist Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street. “Partisanship, for lack of a better word, is good. Partisanship is right. Partisanship clarifies, it cuts through, and it captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
The speakers who followed—Harvard University’s Nancy Rosenblum and Dartmouth College’s Russell Muirhead—also departed from what Melnick had declaimed as the “mealy-mouthed, pussyfooting academic” way of neutrally dissecting differing positions and arguments. They too paid homage to the factional life. By forum’s end they were agreeing that recent hailstorms of partisanship, including the embroilments in Wisconsin between a Republican governor and pro-labor Democrats, were salutary overall. It would be good if the lines were drawn as sharply between the parties on some other questions, they submitted to their not entirely persuaded audience of nearly 50 students and faculty members.
In the background of this discussion were dueling traditions of thought represented by political philosophy, on the one hand, and political science, on the other.
Political philosophers dating to Aristotle have held that factionalism and political alignments (in a word, parties) are anathema to public harmony and the social good. Such was the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that if he could get to heaven only by going with a political party, “I would not go there at all,” as Melnick related. Political science, as an empirical discipline that took notable shape in the early 19th century, has looked more soberly upon political realities. The view from this field has been that strong parties and lively partisanship are necessary if not noble, essential to the workings of a pluralistic, representative democracy.
Reeling off what he sees as the virtues of such alignments, Melnick, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., Professor of American Politics (and author of Between the Lines: Interpreting Welfare Rights, 1994), argued: “Parties aggregate interests, they articulate interests, they form governments, they create majorities capable of governing, they recruit and socialize leaders, they promote stability, they offer choices, they inhibit demagoguery, and they create barriers to elective tyranny.”
Complicating matters, many members of Melnick’s own discipline have lately expressed their distaste for the growing polarization of American politics and the dearth of bipartisanship. Those, however, are fairly new laments, Melnick noted. In times past, pundits and academics alike were in fact displeased with the ideologically indistinct quality of the two major parties, each of which, for example, was at one time hospitable to both northern liberals and southern segregationists. The parties didn’t offer Americans a real choice at the polling booth, critics complained. “Finally in the 1990s, we got what most political scientists had long demanded—and they were aghast,” Melnick related, alluding to fractious debates during the Clinton administration. “Apparently there is no way to please the chattering class.”
Following Melnick’s rebuke of bipartisanship (those who consider themselves above the fray should “jump off the fence and get off your high horse,” he intoned), Muirhead, the author of Just Work (2004), asked for a show of hands on whether partisanship is such a bad thing. Understandably, a number of lecture-goers looked warily around the Murray Room, hands half-raised in opposition to factionalism. The poll was inconclusive.
Muirhead proceeded to critique what he sees as the shibboleths of nonpartisanship, dictums including “Vote for the person, not the party,” and “Better to be patriotic than partisan.” Such sentiments do not produce strong outcomes such as health care reform—or successful opposition to health care reform—which normally involve galvanizing partisan forces on one side or the other. “To accomplish something in politics, you have to win in the face of opposition,” he stressed.
Both Muirhead and Rosenblum, whose book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship appeared in 2008, took special aim at the most sought-after voters—Independents. These swing voters are acting on the deeply rooted American ideals of self-reliance and free agency, Rosenblum pointed out, but they are far less likely than others to participate in politics, to vote or volunteer for candidates. That was her benign assessment. Rosenblum also described the Independent position as a form of “degraded citizenship,” in which those professing it not only participate less but also hold views that are “chaotic and ad hoc.” For good measure she referred to the “weightlessness of Independence.”
Applications to real-life politics and current affairs came primarily during the Q&A, and particularly in response to questions from two undergraduates sitting next to each other in the second row.
James Sasso ’12, a double major in history and political science, said that Democrats and Republicans often aren’t even talking to each other, as in Wisconsin where 14 Democratic lawmakers fled the state in mid-February, in an ultimately failed effort to deprive the governor and Republican-controlled legislature of the quorum needed for a vote on anti-union legislation. “Is that a good thing?” Sasso asked skeptically, noting the widespread impression of havoc in the statehouse. Yes, according to the panelists. Muirhead welcomed a “real debate” nationally about organized labor, while Rosenblum called for starker choices between Democrats and Republicans on other issues (Afghanistan being one). Sasso remained unconvinced, telling a reporter that the Wisconsin standoff went “beyond partisanship.”
Christina Spiliakos ’13, a political science major, voiced concern about a perceived trend toward Supreme Court justices voting strictly along Republican or Democratic lines. On this point the panelists agreed: “Partisanship is a bad thing for the judiciary,” Rosenblum allowed.
For all the paeans otherwise to partisanship, each presentation was unmistakably nonpartisan. There seemed to be no way of locating panelists on any particular point of the ideological spectrum, except perhaps the broad middle. After the forum, most audience members continued the conversation with speakers or one another, discussing issues mannerly, without evidence of factional strife.
Read more by William Bole