September 18th, 2018


The Virtue Of Party Politics

Harvey Mansfield

By Harvey Mansfield Defining Ideas

Published October 11, 2017

Our political science today has difficulty with the difference between party and faction. It is not felt to be a fundamental difficulty, but a mildly troubling one. Unlike many citizens, especially those who avoid a party designation, political scientists are without dissent convinced that party is on the whole a good thing. They do not care for the frequent pejorative use of "partisan" that many politicians resort to when the other side becomes insistent or too personal. "What do you expect?" they think.

Yet if party is on the whole good, it must sometimes be bad, and that would be when it is too partisan, when it is faction. Political scientists do not care for the term "faction," which, unlike "party," is altogether pejorative and cannot serve, under the rules of science, as neutral or objective description. So instead they speak disparagingly of "extremism" or "negativity" when parties go too far or push too hard, thus implying a distinction in kind if not name between party and faction.

The reasoning behind this language merits attention. Party is good because it serves a function in democracy, say the political scientists. They assume that democracy is good, either because it is based on the natural equality of men or because it works passably well, using the minimal Churchillian formula that all other governments are worse. As a rule they have not reflected on the theory of equality, nor have they examined the history of all other governments to see that democracy is the least bad. They think they see enough in the practice of democratic parties without delving into theory or ranging into history to say that parties perform a useful function in democracy.

The useful function of parties is to mediate between two separated entities: individuals who are isolated from one another, each of them weak and unable to act on his own; and the government that faces them, a large mass unable to know what they think or how to act on their behalf so as to "represent" them. Parties gather isolated choices of individuals into chosen policies, making individual representation effectual in representative government. Parties do the necessary work of organizing opinion.

This is as far as the political scientists normally go. Organizing is a behavior that can be observed when Democrats and Republicans act together. What is observed is actually a visible form of behavior. One can see that individuals act differently because they are in a party. But then the term organizing does not go far enough. What the political scientists mean is that parties are publicly organized and accepted as respectable, regarded by political scientists as legitimate, and this is why they can be observed so readily; they announce themselves. Political scientists call them "legitimate," an academic word they picked up from Max Weber, but in doing so they are merely reporting that people generally accept parties (though sometimes deploring them). But there is another form of organization not so apparent, and not accepted as legitimate but indeed denounced as illegitimate, which is rarely discussed by political scientists and never in books on political parties. This is conspiracy.

In our time, one thinks immediately of Hillary Clinton's 1998 accusation of "this vast, right-wing conspiracy" militating against her husband, the President, since his coming into office. A political scientist might dismiss the charge as exaggerated, just another "conspiracy theory" to be disregarded-but why? Is it because parties boast or is it because political science cannot, again according to the rules of science, identify the difference between party as legitimate and conspiracy as not?

Abraham Lincoln once identified a "tendency if not a conspiracy" of "Stephen and Franklin, and Roger and James" to make "slavery perpetual and universal in this nation." Here is a "near-conspiracy theory" from a respectable source. Should not the resemblance to conspiracy be investigated by historians, with the aid of political science and Lincoln's interesting remarks? And how could this investigation proceed or conclude without considering whether this was a conspiracy to evil or to good? To conspire means to act in secret, whether for good or evil, and acting in secret is surely different behavior from acting in public, though both are organized.

It cannot have escaped the notice of political scientists that some of the behavior of parties is kept secret, at least for a time, even though most of it is in public. This fact ought to suggest that every public organization, even the ones set forth as official in the Constitution, has a secret or conspiratorial aspect to it, when it meets in private. In Congress committees often meet in "executive session," meaning in secret (because "private" means "secret"), so-called because the executive branch of government especially has a paramount need for secrecy.

However transparent representative government claims to be, and is in fact, all agencies of government and all those having to do with government practice secrecy in the manner of a conspiracy. This is an important fact of "organization" not made transparent in that vague word. It is an important fact of "party" that it once was regarded, and even in free societies, as illegitimate because it was necessarily conspiratorial in behavior and form. Party is still not mentioned in the U. S. Constitution, though it figures in certain Supreme Court cases as a quasi-constitutional body. Yet these facts and their significance are not considered in today's political science.

Thus in the political history of both England and America parties moved from private institutions that were secret or at least not publicly acknowledged, and branded illegal or at least frowned upon and denounced, to public institutions regarded as respectable and at last worthy. This movement might be regarded as evolution necessary to a free society, in which politicians first do what they see to be necessary and then reason or rationalize their way to comfortable consciences. In this view justice in opinion obeys the behavioral necessity of organization, and the reasoning of thinkers accommodates itself to the facts it encounters. This is what political scientists appear to believe and historians tend to confirm.

But ordinary citizens and politicians too, we have seen, still have or respond to doubts about appearing to be partisan. Many are proud Democrats and Republicans, but many others disdain the parties and identify themselves as "Independents" even when they habitually "lean" to one party or the other. To win an election one usually has to convince those who are not partisans of one's own party to vote with one's partisan supporters. One cannot afford to appear too partisan or, as it is often said, too "political." "Political" in this sense means pandering to the interest of the party as opposed to that of the community, the bad sense of "partisan." For there is obvious danger in the claim that part of the community-and a party is a part-stands for the community as a whole. Who says that a party is not just another "special interest"? The term expresses dislike of that very claim, which is the claim of oligarchy that the few know the common good better than the many.

It was Edmund Burke, in a pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in 1770, who first made the argument that party was a necessary and respectable tool of free government. The free government was the British constitutional monarchy, not a democracy, and Burke argued that party was a respectable measure of gentlemen, the most respectable of citizens. Of course the nobles would gather a party against the party of the plebs, as in the ancient Roman republic, but here Burke was proposing a party to oppose other gentlemen, who thought party was an unconstitutional attempt to force the King's consent to a "formed opposition." In their view it was acceptable to oppose the King's policy and his government, but not in openly organized fashion, only by oneself. Burke's party was illicitly attempting to force itself as a party on the King's choice of a government, a cabinet.

Burke defended that action, and defined party in memorable words: "Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle on which they are all agreed."

Party has the function of imposing principle on politics, and so differs from "faction," in which politicians seek to satisfy their individual ambition. "Some particular principle" is required, but which one principle is not prescribed. Burke does not say "good principle," just "some particular principle," differing from another such principle. So there could be a competition of principles, not between party and faction but between two parties, both principled. In this definition Burke's party does not have the legitimacy of the sole true party, as there seems not to be a single true principle.

We see this idea in present-day usage of "principled," praising action on principle without specifying the worth of the principle. Or the worth of the principle is sufficiently attested in the consistency of acting on it, since principle will sometimes clash with interest and one's integrity is in one's principle, not one's interest. In this case in 1770 Burke was using principle to urge his own party not to splinter into the personal interests of its members in holding office.

Moreover, the definition requires that a number of men be agreed and united. Here is a behavioral test of party principle: can you get others to agree to it? A greater individual with greater ambition might think himself entitled to choose his partners for their utility, as opposed to principle, because the better principle is his. Examples in Burke's day would be the two Pitts-Lord Chatham at this juncture, and William Pitt later on. Burke's definition of party is oligarchic or aristocratic in opposition to the power of the King to choose the ministers he pleases. Our democratic notion of party as a principled institution appealing to the people began from a non-democratic resistance to monarchical power. As things turned out in the next centuries, party government installed a prime minister with power to choose his associates, not always as he would prefer but also not bound by previous party allegiance. As Britain became more democratic, the King was replaced in power (though not in name) by a prime minister, with a party behind him, rather than by a partisan association of a few gentlemen.

In America, party arrived as a democratic principle, rather than as principled aristocratic association, in Thomas Jefferson's assertion of true republicanism against the fatal danger arising from the aristocrats, dubbed by him "monocrats" among the Federalists. Jefferson's principle was the true one, not merely "some principle" as with Burke, and his partisan action on its behalf had the effect of impelling the Federalists to become a party, unwillingly and almost unwittingly, by reaction. Thus when Jefferson pronounced in his First Inaugural Speech that "we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans," it did not mean that the two parties were of equal legitimacy, rather that they were coming together under the aegis of Jefferson's democratic republicanism. That was the sole legitimate party, the one calling upon Americans to conserve their radical tradition of republican equality, and not to strike ahead toward greater equality as did the Progressives a century later.

Thus if Jefferson's party was not a professed anti-slavery party, still less was Jackson's. The First Inaugural speech of Martin Van Buren, Jackson's successor, contained a promise to veto any bill from Congress hostile to slavery. But in a book of memoirs, Van Buren went on to argue for the equal legitimacy of Democrats and Whigs as parties of sincere patriots, even though he excoriated the principles of the latter. He engaged John Quincy Adams in debate as if this were a contest of principles that would continue not just to haunt, but to inspire the American republic positively.

At this point one could say that party was no longer tainted as such with suspicion of conspiracy, and that party government in the contemporary sense had arrived in America. And yet, as the party debate in the 1850s came to focus on the extension and, by implication, the existence of slavery, party government foundered on the impossibility of a "house divided," in Lincoln's phrase. In the speech referred to above, he almost accuses the Democrats of acting in a conspiracy. After the Civil War, the Democratic party was able to attain respectability as a party only by renouncing slavery, whether it was directly defended as positively good or indirectly sheltered by the Stephen Douglas doctrine of "popular sovereignty," leaving it to be decided by a vote.

This very sketchy history suggests that party is not only functional in democracy, mediating between government and people abstractly, but helps to achieve democracy and create the condition for party government, by abolishing slavery and thus removing it as an issue of contention. The party of democracy in America began as Jefferson's and then became Lincoln's, defeating first the aristocracy of the Federalist framers of the Constitution and then the party of the Jacksonian Democrats, defenders of slavery. In these transformations the winning party attacked its opponents as conspiracy or faction, untrue to American principle, republican or democratic.

To make party respectable, the respectable party had to overcome the opponent it declared unrespectable, and hence to have recourse to the distinction between party and faction. Not only was that distinction necessary to the founding of party government, it remains in the functioning of party government today. Political scientists are prone to dismiss that distinction from their analyses because people differ in how they apply it, and science cannot find agreement where none exists.

Yes, agreed! But people of whichever party agree that there is a distinction between their party and its opponents, and they act accordingly. They attack their opponents as wrong or as "partisan," meaning too extreme, too factious, to be respectable. Somewhere between their own principle and the principle of the republic as a whole, they find room for the respectable disagreement that makes possible party government, that is, parties in the plural as we know them today. When political science rules out the distinction between party and faction because their science cannot validate it, it blinds itself to the thoughts, and hence also to the behavior, of partisans. It cannot explain how party government, the respectability of more than one party, came to be, nor can it understand the hesitation of responsible partisans and the disgust their partisanship arouses in many citizens. In sum, political science needs to explore the ideas that inspire parties.

Then what does it mean to explore ideas? Does it mean to explore their truth? Is it true that a free society needs party government? Party government depends on a relaxation of the requirement of truth, as when Burke allows for "some particular principle" in a party, not necessarily a true one or his. But is this relaxation viable? Will it not lead to a "house divided" that cannot stand? Today, can one understand the Democrats and Republicans without considering whether the progressivism of the first and the conservatism of the second are sound?


08/07/17: Are All Men Created Equal?
08/08/16: The Dems: How progress became drift

Harvey Mansfield is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution as well as the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard.