In Praise of Partisans

The charges are familiar. Political parties are too responsive to powerful minorities, insufficiently responsive to powerless minorities, and routinely unresponsive to majorities and ordinary Americans. Martin Gilens confirms this with fresh evidence.

We know, too, that the rich are different, and Gilens directs attention to the policy areas where the opinions of the rich diverge from those of the poor and middle class. Gilens’s affinity for progressive attacks on the power of “big money” and captive politicians is plain. Also in the progressive tradition is his (correct) focus less on political equality than on entrenched representational inequalities. He does not, however, share the progressive confidence in either civic associations or technocracy as correctives.

That is where his essay becomes fascinating and provocative. If Gilens is right, we should abandon the illusion that the way to produce democratic outcomes supported by progressive Americans is through progressive politics. Responsiveness to preferences is the democratic standard Gilens employs.

First, however, should we accept survey data as a reliable indicator of policy preferences and a standard measure of democratic responsiveness? Can it bear the weight of a grand narrative of 50 years of democratic failure? Is it meaningful when public opinion is split between budget proposals no one understands? A variety of forces shape and skew public opinion, suggesting another reason for skepticism. So does deliberative democratic theory, which argues that preferences are tainted by their causal origin and should not drive outcomes without consideration of self-interest and the public interest.

And what does responsiveness mean? Gilens clearly thinks that legislators should give greater weight to the policy views of the poor and less affluent. How much? Would he approve of plebiscites as a way of choosing policies? He raises a caution about matching outcomes to survey preferences with regard to minority rights, so he concedes some constraints on responsiveness to the people.

Why not argue for strong progressive majorities?

Most important, what does his conclusion—that policies designed to serve the poor and middle class are enacted only when the parties are highly competitive and when no party enjoys a stable institutional majority—imply for politics on behalf of the interests of ordinary Americans? It suggests, encouragingly, that political polarization per se is not an insuperable obstacle to major policymaking. It confirms the value of political compromise. And it suggests, implicitly, a wickedly complex electoral strategy for producing the “congenial” political circumstances that, on his account, enable public business to get done. For Gilens, competitive elections, partisan instability, and small majorities serve ordinary Americans best.

Are there other options? Gilens does not argue for either of the two standard but implausible antidotes to the influence of affluence: first, cordoning politics off from big money and, second, insisting that democracy requires greater economic equality overall. He gives a nod to organized advocacy and interest groups, which he believes can be effective. (Think women’s organizations, warding off some of the worst injuries to reproductive rights and privacy.) What about eruptions of popular outrage against unresponsive politics as usual: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party? The transition from festivals of protest to political impact requires leadership focused on long-term goals, sympathetic media, resistance to premature disappointment, and, above all, conversion of protesters into active partisans.

Why not argue for strong progressive majorities? For Gilens, beyond downwardly redistributive economic commitments, Democratic policies too are geared toward the affluent. But is his prescription better than enhancing support for the party with core commitments to the poor and middle class?

There is something to be gained from investment in the parties. Their essential business is creative, not just responsive: to form stable democratic majorities, frame a comprehensive account of the public good, draw coherent lines of political division, and communicate the stakes. In addition, parties should build organization, educate citizens, and create partisans. It does not suffice to register voters, calibrate turnout, and cobble together coalitions for each electoral cycle. The ephemeral and increasingly independent youth vote makes my point. A generational cleavage is emerging at the heart of political conflict in the United States, aggravated by the fact that it overlaps with race and by the strains of economic austerity. This could be the core of a Democratic Party more responsive to poor and middle class concerns—if these voters could be converted into consistent partisans, akin to the older whites who are the steady core of the Republican Party.

Strong partisans comprise the standing political force that survives beyond the current election (indeed, given the permanent campaign that is politics today, beyond next week). Without them, legislators are more vulnerable to the influential affluent. They are more fearful of proposing substantial legislation. They are more prone to take a short-term, ad hoc approach to both elections and governing, with the grim costs to the majority of Americans Gilens tallies up so well. More and better partisans don’t solve everything, but they are a resource for those who would correct representational inequality if they could.