December 23, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

In policy and legal academic circles, political parties have come back into vogue. If a New Year’s “in” list was constructed, the parties would have a fair chance of being included. In discussions of polarization, in particular, parties are increasingly thought to have something to offer to a solution or an improvement: stronger parties, better funded, would offer their leadership more control over their membership, and with that control might come the capacity to induce bi-partisan compromise and achieve better governance. 

But in an original paper just posted, Cass Sunstein warns about the spirit of contemporary “partyism”, a pathological version of partisanship that holds that the other party is not merely wrong but dangerous–so dangerous that it would be unacceptable to have one’s child marry into it.  Cass R. Sunstein, Partyism, University of Chicago Legal Forum (forthcoming December 14, 2014). Professor Sunstein is speaking to a fixed outlook or habit of mind, which he believes exacerbates conditions of polarization and gridlock. While he is not spinning a theory of party institutions, his view might have implications for arguments over party reform: stronger parties might risk spreading this toxin of partisan antipathy. One could imagine that invigorated parties would take full advantage of partyism, keeping their troops agitated, passionately engaged and giving plentiful sums of money.

Sunstein does not express a view on this issue, but instead argues that in conditions of partyism, the executive should receive expanded discretionary authority. Only in this way, when parties are unable to agree even on basic questions of fact, can government be made to work. He proposes that we consider more action- forcing events or “precommitment strategies,” like base-closing commissions, and he also makes the case for giving administrators expanded Chevron–type discretion to construe statutes and write rules.

It is not difficult to find instances of unreasoning partisanship to which a label like “partyism” might be attached. But it is less clear that Professor Sunstein is describing anything entirely new or explaining how, if it is new, it came about; and he does not answer the fundamental question of how this conception can serve as the basis for reworking the boundary lines of executive authority. Its significance for the party reform debate seems also limited.

When explaining origins, Sunstein speaks about factors like negative advertising and suggests an electorate exposed to poisonous political dialogue can lapse into partyism. Others have noted, however, that negativity in political discourse is not new. So how it accounts now for partyism is unclear. A deeper question is whether Sunstein is here treating as causal what is symptomatic. The same questions arise in his discussion of the part played by the “fragmented media market, with clear political identifications,” exemplified by Fox and MSNBC, which may be more a market response to partyism than a reason for it. Id. at 9.

But whatever its origins, is partyism new? The country has experienced hard-core partisanship before. Late 19th century politics exhibited features of partyism as Sunstein describes them: party affiliation as integral to group and individual identity, and a predisposition to pick and choose among facts and opinions mainly those that were acceptable to their “side” and consistent with its interests. Michael E. McGerr, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928 (1988) (“Americans [were] quite content with party journalism and altogether caught up in its slanted view of the world.”) at 22.

Sunstein acknowledges that “the nature and degree of partyism are not static.” In fact, he writes that “partyism … might turn out to be much lower in 2035 that it is [ in] 2015.” Variations in its intensity would be:

 A function of an array of social forces, including emerging technologies, invisible-hand mechanisms, and the decentralized decisions of a wide range of private and public actors.   

Sunstein, Partyism, at 13. The evident complexities of this notion of partyism, both its genesis and its staying power, make it difficult to see the ways it can be practically useful. If it cannot be known how long it will be with us, who decides when it terminates or has eased—and would this result in revocation of a special grant of discretionary authority to the executive? How, while it lasts, is partyism used in practice—is it a background principle that we introduce into constitutional analysis, and if so, in what way? Professor Sunstein refers to its value in “strengthening” otherwise “standard claims on behalf of executive authority,” id. at 18, but how it adds strengths to this claims is unspecified and not easily conceived.

Similarly unsettled is the relationship of partyism to the operation of party institutions. Partyism as described by Cass Sunstein seems to have established its grip on the electorate over a period when formal party organizations have lost ground to competitors to other actors, the ones often called “outside groups.” It does not appear to have taken root or thrived in strong party structures.

So while reinvigorated parties might feed off partyism, they might also harness powerful partisan feelings to institutional objectives—winning elections by winning over the undecideds, and devising effective governing agendas in the search for sustainable majorities. But that is a consideration only if we are confident that we understand fully what to make of “partyism.”

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