Symposium | Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics

Yes, Labels!

By Nancy L. Rosenblum

Tagged partisanship

Anti-partisanship is a permanent feature of American apolitical thought. It will mark American politics in 2024 as it does today. While party activists battle one another, each claiming they are on the side of the angels, critics demonize them all and praise independents as their undisputed moral superiors. As in our time, proposals for institutional changes designed to eliminate, thwart, or circumvent parties—standard ones like state-run nonpartisan elections, fantastical short-lived ones like “Americans Elect” or “No Labels,” and gestures toward new parties and independent candidates—will flourish in 2024. As in our time, “partisan” will be used as a pejorative. Independents will remain the darlings of pundits and reformers, saviors of the republic from arrant partisanship. The result will be a diminishment of democracy.

Why? On a fundamental level, anti-partisans misunderstand and inhibit the vital business that only political parties can perform—forming stable democratic majorities, framing a comparatively comprehensive account of public issues and of the public good, drawing comparatively coherent lines of political division, communicating the stakes, and providing popular support for policies that lasts beyond the current election. I predict continued sharp ideological division between the two parties, “principled” uncompromisingness, and mistrust that can then be blamed by anti-partisans for the rise of antipartisanship. But revulsion ran just as deep not long ago when Democrats and Republicans were charged with lying “dead center” rather than “off center” on the political spectrum and were described as indistinguishable Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Anti-partyism is not just of the moment.

In 2024, independents will continue to be as large a percentage of the voting population as Democrats and Republicans, most likely larger than the current 41 percent. True, most independents are “leaning voters” or “closet partisans”; true, they may not swing many elections (few “facts” are as contested by political scientists as the consistency of their inconsistency); true, they are not an undifferentiated group or a group at all. But independents and their advocates not only perpetuate a misunderstanding of the significance of parties, they shape the temper of politics and will continue to. Independents depreciate the necessary “we” of politics. They rail against the repulsive force of “teamism,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks did when he wrote that partisans “crush their own personalities and views in order to fit in with the team.”

Behind independents’ rejection of partisan identity lie three different apolitical dispositions. In 2024, as is also true today, fundamentalist independents will decry party divisions as inherently too rigid to accommodate their personal judgments; circumstantial independents will decry parties as creating the wrong kind of divisions—though without agreeing on what the right configuration should be; pragmatic independents will decry parties as the obstacle to practical solutions to problems: Their apolitical mantra is “just fix it.”

When voters boast of their inconstancy and view partisanship as morally and politically compromising, they encourage parties and candidates to take a short-term, ad hoc approach to elections, with real costs to democracy. Consider this scenario. In 2024, Texas will be a majority Hispanic state—and the Republican Party will have not one big-population state firmly in its column. Of course, the Democratic Party will register voters, calibrate turnout, narrowcast to slivers, and cobble electoral coalitions. But I predict that the party will not raise and expend resources to engage in the patient organization and education necessary to build a standing political force that provides support between elections and over time, because catering to the ever-growing numbers of independents will be seen as more important to winning the next election than cultivating a vibrant base. In point of fact, the young, minorities, and the economically stressed should be the core of the Democratic Party as older whites will be of the Republican Party. But only if Democrats recruit and create identified partisans, and—this is key—only if citizens are willing to become committed partisans, can this social and demographic change alter the menu of policies in a progressive direction.

What of the eruptions of popular protest against politics as usual today, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party? The transition from festivals of protest to political organizations with the numbers and durability to earn the title “movement” requires long-term goals, interested media, advocacy and research groups, leadership, and resistance to premature disappointment. But above all, effectiveness depends on incorporation in party structures. These transitions are stronger on the right today. Occupy Wall Street cannot have the Tea Party’s impact precisely because the conservative protest was (for a time) taken up by Fox News and taken into the Republican Party. Conservative groups have aimed in a disciplined way at state and local elections, where mainly partisans vote for governors, attorneys general, state legislatures, judges, and school committees. Partisan organization at every level gives them potency. Progressive challengers may mobilize in 2024, but demonstrations will be ephemeral—a mood, not effective politics—unless protesters are converted into active partisans. The progressive force most likely to be effective in 2024 are women’s organizations, with their consistent, articulated goals, the predictability of continued assaults on women’s rights, and the groups’ integration in the Democratic Party. But they alone cannot provide the ballast, continuity, and loyalty of partisans who support progressive goals.

The Republican Party seems to grasp all this; the Democratic Party needs to catch up if it hopes to shift the country in a more progressive direction by 2024. The lesson then will remain the lesson now: What democracy needs is not more independents and post-partisanship, but parties with the resources and determination not only to win the next election but to create, organize, and justify partisanship.

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Nancy L. Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and author of On the Side of Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.

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