Party Tricks

There’s a new blog in town: The Mischiefs of Faction. It’s written by a group of academics with political experience, “devoted to advancing and debating our knowledge of political parties,” and looks great. The name comes from James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, and some of the early posts from Hans Noel have been exploring what Madison might have to say about our current political parties. On the much-discussed issue of partisanship, Noel writes:

Rather than trying to fix our party system, Madison would advocate fixing out institutions, so that they would, in his words from Federalist 51, “oblige [government] to control itself.” In short, we shouldn’t be trying to fix our parties to make them work within our institutions. We should be trying to fix our institutions so that they can handle our parties.

Over at Plain Blog, Jonathan Bernstein weighs in with a breakdown of hazards to Madison’s view of democracy, which among other things breaks government into branches to avoid a domination of any one faction (i.e. party). The threats:

1. Everyone begins to care deeply about the exact same issue, especially one which appears to everyone to have only two choices. This is, essentially, the story of slavery; we can think of the Civil War as the consequence of everyone believing that everything hinged on slavery and all compromise positions disappeared, leaving only two choices.

2. The party one: everyone begins to be passionately partisan. In this case, not only are the stakes very high if your side loses and election, but a loss threatens to be permanent, because if everyone is partisan then there will be few if any swing voters.

3. Ideology. Everyone becomes convinced that all issues are linked together in some fashion so that if you support X then you also support Y and Z and A and B and C.

As Bernstein sees it, we don’t have #1 or #3 in our society right now, and he says that we don’t have a #2 situation but “we’re closer to it than we once were.” That seems about right to me, although I think it probably makes more sense to view it as a spectrum rather than a situation that “does or doesn’t” exist. I also think #2 and #3 can be linked: someone who identifies passionately with a party (as in #2) can look to the party’s stance on a given issue to help inform their own, linking issues together (#3). People sometimes form a party identity because of their stance on various issues, but sometimes take stances on certain issues because they see themselves as members of a party.

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