Defending Partisanship (Without Honesty)

I just read Yuval Levin’s defense of partisanship in the latest issue of Newsweek. It bothered me for several reasons and I had planned on writing about it, but I see that Andrew Sullivan has already posted the proper rejoinder.

Update: The very smart Reihan Salam also has a post up about the same piece over at The American Scene and diverges from Sullivan’s take. Salam writes:

But seriously: Andrew goes on to note that the Republican party has badly misgoverned the country, and that it has failed to live up to the principles he identifies. This is an interesting and important point. I don’t, however, think that it is responsive to Yuval’s argument, which is less an apologia for the Republican party and more a case for why “factions” can be a good thing. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that Yuval would concede many of Andrew’s points — that Republicans have strayed from their core principles, etc. Now for Yuval’s argument.

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.”

This suggests that individuals who identify with a party have an obligation to argue with and persuade those in their own faction about how best to realize their shared worldview. Loyalty to a party recognizes that politics is an iterative game, and that loyalty is rewarded over time with trust.

This is all true, but I think, again, that the real issue here isn’t partisanship per se but rather the tone of our partisanship and the general assumption that a person who has different political beliefs is acting in bad faith when they voice their opposition to specific policies. I don’t believe that Barack Obama actually thinks that there is no space in our public life for the legitimate airing of political differences. Obviously, a robust democracy needs to foster informed debate that allows competing points of view to be known and political parties generally foster for this kind of exchange (the effectiveness of that exchange is, of course, debatable). But I think that we’re moving past the mere airing of differences and into something darker when the only reason Obama and Democrats in Congress could support the stimulus was because they’re obviously Socialists (a favorite scare word in American politics) or that Democrats who want more money for contraceptive funding and abortion clinics are obviously God-less baby killers. You can of course make counter arguments for Democratic demagogy of conservative positions. The point is, there’s a lot of open space between, say, Glen Beck on the right and Michael Moore on the left (though I don’t believe this is a great comparison as Moore is nowhere near the bomb thrower that Beck is). If our public debate had a tendency to elevate people, like, say, Reihan, who is conservative but not dogmatically so, or a Matt Yglesias over people like Bill O’Reilly, then I don’t think you would have heard Obama speak about this very much.

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~ by uvasig on February 21, 2009.

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