What's so bad about partisan politics?

Obama's recent selling out of the Constitution and the rule of law has served as a wake-up call for me. If you think that means I'm not going to vote for him, though, you are mistaken. Rather, it has helped me to put his claims of a new kind of politics into a more helpful perspective.

Part of Obama's appeal, which I until recently was also influenced by, is his renunciation of the old way of doing things in Washington. His call for a new kind of politics he likes to bill as post-partisan, as transcending the divisions of red and blue, Republican and Democrat, and the like. While he identifies the proper source of frustration, he misinterprets what is objectionable about it. What we need is not less partisanship, but more. Here's why.

Following Chantal Mouffe--whose work, specifically her 2005 book On the Political, I was prompted to return to after recent events--I would distinguish between three models of democratic politics: the aggregative, the deliberative, and the agonistic. The first two are versions of liberalism, in the sense it is used in political theory, an individualistic, rationalistic view that sees the goal of politics as compromise (aggregative) or consensus (deliberative).

The precise differences between the two views are not important for my purposes here. The primary distinction I wish to draw is between the liberal and agonistic models. Mouffe advocates what I like to call the "Ant-eater Model of Democracy" (to my knowledge, this is an original formulation, the cleverness of which is no small point of pride, as shall be seen). Partly following conservative theorist Carl Schmitt, Mouffe defines the political realm as the space of conflict and antagonism. People disagree about how society is to be organized, about how things ought to be arranged to allow for human coexistence. Politics is the set of practices designed to make decisions in this realm among options which are mutually exclusive.

The problem with consensus-based views, such as the one advocated by Obama and many Democrats, is that they fail to recognize that any consensus is necessarily exclusive. Dissent does not disappear in this model; it is merely concealed, relegated to the margins. This has dangerous consequences, because it leaves those who do dissent with the feeling that they are not being heard, leading to disillusionment and apathy toward the political process.

Take the example of the American military empire. No national politician of any prominence can argue that we should drastically reduce military spending and close all of the unnecessary bases that we maintain around the world. This view as seen as illegitimate, as out-of-bounds for "serious" political discussion in the US. Consequently, those of us who understandably question this state of affairs, have no real political outlet for our dissent. (I'm not saying that we're right about this necessarily, but simply that it should be regarded as a legitimate point of disagreement.)

What recourse are we left with? We can rant and rave on the Internet, call our elected representatives, picket and protest--but to no real effect. It's not surprising that people with strong principles find themselves frustrated with our political process, and become disillusioned and apathetic. This is where we come to Mouffe's Ant-eater Model. She makes a distinction between antagonism--a relationship between enemies who view their opponents as a threat to their coexistence, meaning they can only be dealt with by force--and agonism, a relation between adversaries who view their opponents as having legitimate dissenting views, and who participate in a process which decides between their conflicting positions.

If you are my enemy, I cannot engage you as an equal; I either ignore you or push you aside or, in the worst case, try to kill you. If you are my adversary, the way we resolve our disputes does not involve violence or coercion, but the use of practices and institutions which resolve conflicts and make decisions non-violently. Democracy, on Mouffe's formulation, seeks to transform antagonism into agonism (hence, democracy as "ant"-eater). Democracy is the legitimation of dissent, to borrow a common formulation. It's how we coexist without having to resort to violence.

Returning to our central question: what exactly is so objectionable about the way national politics has been done in this country? The problem is not disagreement per se, but the form which that disagreement takes. Arguments ignore the issues, focus on the petty and the superficially personal; we get "spin" and sniping between parties, the elevation of minutiae to a position of eminent newsworthiness. The differences between the two political parties are often blurred or effectively non-existent--this certainly seemed to be the case in 2000, and while things have changed, the range of opinion that is deemed legitimate is still far too narrow.

While governing coalitions, blocks which can make up majorities, are necessary parts of a parliamentary system, there's no reason that these coalitions must be single political parties. In other democracies with multiparty systems and proportional representation, people in specific minorities can find politicians and parties who come much closer to representing their views. Our choice, however, is between Coke and Pepsi, which does us little good if we don't particularly care for either. Sure, there may be substantial differences between the two on important matters (like who, if anyone, we to go war with) which make it reasonable to prefer the one to the other, but that doesn't reduce our dissatisfaction if neither cares about certain issues of great personal importance to us.

This is not to say that, in the US case, one must then side with the various ineffectual third parties. We at least have a primary election system which allows us to influence the shape that the different political parties take. I'm inclined to think that proportional representation, public financing of elections, viable third parties, and other such reforms would make for a stronger democracy, but unfortunately we don't have the option of starting over again from scratch. (Should something drastic like this occur, it would undoubtedly not be a matter of choice.)

Working within the system and changing the system needn't be mutually exclusive. I think a lot of the leftist "netroots" enacts such a philosophy by supporting those Democratic Party candidates who most closely share their vision. Similarly, it's possible to have legitimate disputes on issues, and substantive differences between parties, without resorting to spin, personal aspersions, and all of the other objectionable tactics that color contemporary political discourse.

In short, what we need is not a post-partisan politics. As this most recent debacle has reminded us, there will always be differences of opinion, even among allies. Rather, we need a kind of smart partisanship, that eschews the dirty tactics and the commitment to pursuing political power at any cost, and gradually replaces it with a system that gives voters more real choices, by means of electoral and media reforms and the like.

(And if that doesn't work, that's when I call in the robots.)