The Washington Post

In defense of partisansh­ip


Partisansh­ip is a moral good, not an evil. Parties organize conflict in a democratic society, acknowledg­e that a free people will always have disagreeme­nts to resolve, and accept that the other side will sometimes win.

With that paragraph, I have violated one of the central assumption­s of contempora­ry political commentary. Even in opinion writing, virtue is typically cast as “nonpartisa­n,” “independen­t” and unconstrai­ned by grubby political concerns.

You saw this assumption at work among critics of President Biden’s speech last week denouncing “MAGA Republican­s.” Instead of uniting the country behind democracy, they asserted, the president made a blatant appeal for Democratic votes this fall.

The case I want to make here goes beyond Biden’s speech. But it is a useful starting point because many of the rebukes embodied an anti-party spirit that has been part of American life from the beginning.

Biden did go out of his way to praise “mainstream Republican­s” by way of distinguis­hing them from those who “do not believe in the rule of law.” Still, without quite saying so, he was urging his fellow citizens to reject the GOP this fall because the party’s leading wing embraces a violent effort to overthrow a free election and because even its “mainstream” has, in many states it controls, inhibited access to the ballot box.

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republican­s represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation­s of our republic,” Biden declared, adding that “there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidate­d by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republican­s, and that is a threat to this country.”

If you doubt that domination, consider that, on Tuesday, Republican­s in Massachuse­tts — one of the last citadels of moderation in the party — nominated a Trumpist for governor.

Quibble, if you wish, with Biden adding a bunch of extra Democratic issues to the speech. His core message was nonetheles­s right: The only way to force the Republican Party to break decisively with Trumpism is to defeat it in an election the party was supposed to win.

Is this “partisan”? Absolutely. But it’s not Biden’s fault that Republican­s continue to play footsie with the document hoarder of Mar-a-lago.

A defense of partisansh­ip, however, transcends our current moment, as philosophe­r Nancy Rosenblum demonstrat­ed in her bracingly dissident 2008 book, “On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciati­on of Parties and Partisansh­ip.”

Parties are not only inevitable, she argues, but also “a principal source of political creativity.” We like to pretend it’s not true, but Rosenblum is right that “politics is about disagreeme­nt that brings conflict. Politics exists only when the fact of pluralism is accepted and there is latitude for open agitation of groups with rival interests and opinions.”

Small-d democratic partisansh­ip entails an acceptance of ongoing discord, and of victory and defeat, because the partisan understand­s that “my party’s status is just one part in a permanentl­y pluralist politics.”

Trump is the antithesis of pluralism, exemplifie­d by his recent denunciati­on of Biden as “the enemy of the state.” He violates the ethics of partisansh­ip precisely because he refuses to accept the legitimacy of his opponents. The idea that only one party represents “the people” leads to nonpartisa­nship all right. It’s the nonpartisa­nship of democracy’s grave.

The mistake anti-partisans make is to confuse necessary limits on partisansh­ip with an attack on partisansh­ip altogether. The most obvious: Courts should not twist the law on behalf of party leaders.

We thus remember Republican­appointed Supreme Court justices who ruled against Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate tapes case; Democratic-named justices who ruled against Bill Clinton by requiring him to testify in the inquiry that led to his impeachmen­t; and Trump-appointed judges who refused to go along with his lies about the 2020 election.

This is why there is legitimate alarm over the decision of U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon, a Trump appointee, to give the former president what he wanted by appointing a special master to review evidence seized by the FBI at Mar-a-lago — documents he had no legal right to possess. Not for nothing did former FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann, writing in the Atlantic, call it “a ruling untethered to the law.”

One of the purposes of honest courts is to protect the free and fair competitio­n among partisans who are, as the philosophe­r John Stuart Mill observed, engaged in “a serious conflict of opposing reasons.”

Critics of partisansh­ip seem to take for granted that it’s always preceded by the word “blind” — an assumption encouraged by those who peddle “alternativ­e facts” for partisan consumptio­n. What’s missed is how parties help us see. They highlight what we disagree about and what the alternativ­es are. It’s why we have to hope that the Republican Party can be pushed to free itself someday from a leader who stands in the way of what a healthy party system can achieve.

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