Parties have long been respectable features of modern liberal democracy. But that is not to say that in America our current political parties are respected. The summer of Donald Trump, which may finally be fading, suggests a craving for leadership and boldness that is larger than partisan affiliation: Americans increasingly doubt that either party is representative of the people themselves. And the parties are often blamed for political polarization and the dysfunctional government it seems to bring about.
Yet there is no doing away with parties. Despite deep political divisions, indeed because of them, partisanship is a healthy feature of American democracy. We cannot assume that we will all agree, or that we can dissolve political conflict by simply turning to reason or the common good. In fact, we ought to be far more concerned about the temptation to turn to “leadership” that dispenses with the difficult business of politics and disagreement—promising, as Trump does, “to go in and get things done.” For the rare statesman, we might prefer to forgo parties and be ruled in such a manner. But a Trump is more likely than an Abraham Lincoln. (Besides, our great 16th President was, like most U.S. Presidents, a partisan.)
Harvey Mansfield’s Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, is helpful in recovering the origins and logic of a party system. Parties, as Mansfield shows us, have a long and disreputable history in political thought. Edmund Burke helped make parties respectable. His doing so was not an accident but a matter of careful thought, of design and choice. Returning to the logic of Burke’s party government can help us better understand the origins of our own democratic politics. Burke’s argument for party can also be helpful in revealing the shortcomings of our form of politics. Even if we recognize the necessity of political parties and partisanship, we might disapprove of the current state of our parties and of imprudent and immoderate forms of partisanship. We need, as Russ Muirhead argues, to become wiser partisans.
Mark Blitz’s Liberty Forum essay, a credit to his teacher Mansfield, is particularly insightful in contrasting the modern logic of parties with the classical understandings of statesmanship that it replaces. And while Burke’s party government still requires some virtue, it is, as Blitz argues, a profoundly different understanding of virtue. Yet the modern development of party government could only have occurred once the “religious issue,” in Mansfield’s language, was settled. Religious conflict disrupted the civil peace and wreaked havoc on European for centuries. Overcoming religious conflict was central to the creation of modern constitutional government—indeed, we can scarcely separate the creation of liberal democracy from the attempt to overcome the problem of religion.
This problem, as Blitz notes, was bound up with the problem of great parties. Great parties, which were often religious parties, conflicted over “abstract speculative principle.” Compromising with such parties was impossible and there was no tolerating difference: victory was complete and total, which made the stakes of politics impossibly high. Settling this issue was central to the creation of democracy and modern party government. As Mansfield argues,
Modern party government was made possible, in Burke’s view, by the settling of the religious issue. Therefore modern party government presupposes the raising of the religious issue. It presupposes the existence, before the destruction, of “the most extraordinary and unaccountable” great parties, “know only to modern times.”
This required toleration of religious differences and the extension of toleration to political freedom. No doubt this is familiar ground, partly due to Mansfield’s book, which is particularly illuminating in linking the development of parties to the settling of the religious issue. The fact is that modern political parties, while disputing about government and politics, will share much in common—their clashes are no longer fundamental. Understanding the intellectual and historical roots of party government reveals something about the character of our politics today. Before turning there, I want to consider the religious issue in contemporary terms. For while our politics has been shaped by this settlement, we can fail to grasp the importance of the conflict between politics and religion because we take our accommodation for granted.
That accommodation may today be under strain. Certainly, there are those on the secular Left who have begun to raise the question: Why tolerate religion? Many traditional religions are at odds with same-sex marriage. Should they be forced to accord with civic principles of equality even within their own, which is to say the religious, sphere? Should Catholic priests have to perform same-sex marriages? Can Catholic schools refuse to provide benefits to same-sex couples? Against such questions, religious institutions fear that they’ll be forced by the state to recognize practices at odds with their religious beliefs.
Just as surely, there are those on the religious Right who seem to think that their understanding of God’s law must trump civic obligations. Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky, refused to issue marriages licenses to same-sex couples because doing so “conflicts with God’s definition of marriage.” Davis, though, was not being asked to approve of such marriages—and her personal understanding of marriage was not at issue. Indeed, if we take Davis’ insistence that her religious conscience can trump civil law seriously, then we would allow a Catholic who believed that God’s definition of marriage did not permit divorce to deny Davis and her fellow divorcees a marriage license. A Mormon could deny a Catholic couple a license because by the Mormon’s lights, they were not married in the eyes of God.
Going down this road opens up the very sort of religious conflict that the settlement of the religious issue meant to avoid. We tolerate different understandings of marriage—and recognize the difference between a civil marriage and a religious marriage—as part of the accommodation between politics and religion.
Yet Ted Cruz insisted that the “government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith.” Mike Huckabee, another contender for the Republican presidential nomination, posited that in finding Davis in contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses as a governmental agent, we were on the verge of tyranny and taking freedom of conscience away. Huckabee went so far as to insist that we were attempting to “criminalize the Christian faith.” These cavalier statements about religious liberty lack an understanding of the grounds of religious liberty—of natural rights in Blitz’s terms. The precondition of religious liberty is accepting the civil roots of religious liberty, which demands tolerance in the civic sphere. That includes, as Blitz argues, an understanding of “equal natural rights.” The basis of religious liberty in the American scheme requires tolerating your fellow citizens as equal—even when profoundly disagreeing with them.
So while I am somewhat skeptical that our current dilemmas spring from a failure to understand natural rights as taught by the great books, I certainly think that Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee would benefit from reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). This applies, as well, to those on the secular Left who would deny religious institutions the right to determine their beliefs based on voluntary association. Both of these extremes threaten to reopen the conflict between politics and religion in a manner that could undo the American achievement and pull us back into the conflict of “great parties” that Burke sought to avoid.
Rejecting “great parties,” Burke’s defense of party government is a defense of popular government. Blitz speaks to Burke’s insistence, contrary to Aristotle, of the primacy of the political regime to even the most virtuous of men. Burke, as Mansfield puts it, “subjects the best men to the ‘form of government” Burke’s fear was that a dependence on great men was also a weakness—it opened the political order to the unscrupulous and the immoderate. Not only are statesman, as The Federalist pointed out, not always available, but we must guard against the would-be demagogue who, using the “popular arts,” flatters the prejudices of the people in a manner that betrays their interests. Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, anyone?
Party government, in Burke’s hands, was a “remedy for the weakness of popular government.” Party government, while resting on popular opinion, was also a way to direct and channel popular prejudice. Parties, among other devices, would temper the vices of a popular government aimed at securing liberty. As Burke put it in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.
America found such a mind in James Madison. Madison’s complex constitutionalism sought to balance different elements in a manner that would temper popular government. And if Madison began as a skeptic of parties, sharing the view of Thomas Jefferson and Burke’s intellectual adversary Lord Bolingbroke, he ultimately accepted and defended the role of political parties. Madison argued, along Burkean lines, that insofar as differences in interests and ideas would persist, parties were unavoidable. But this reality could be turned to political advantage by “making one party a check on the other.” The parties themselves could articulate, temper, and refine popular understandings. The parties would become a source of popular education and empowerment—taking on the Burkean role of statesmanship.
While profoundly different from the classical view of statesmanship, Madison’s understanding, like Burke’s, did not dispense with political leadership altogether. Indeed, in Federalist 57, Madison argued that
the aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who posses most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.
Notice that Madison places containing ambition second and securing political leadership first. While the Constitution was contrived in a manner that would help foster such leaders, there was a crucial role, as well, for parties, newspapers, and educational institutions. As Blitz notes, the nature of American life would be largely commercial and, therefore, most citizens would be busy in private life. What Burke called “the less inquiring” in public affairs would take their cues on civic questions from the ideas generated by political and intellectual leaders.
But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be represented by the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class lacks the sort of political education envisioned by a Madison? What if our political institutions exacerbate the problems of party polarization?
Burke’s defense of parties, like Madison’s, rested on shared fundamentals. While public differences of principle can be deep and wide, there must be some common understandings. Recall that settling the religious issue was necessary for just this reason: if disagreement was so deep we could not occupy the same political space, then disagreement threatened the constitutional order itself.
Alongside Madison’s defense of parties, we might place his insistence on fostering a shared “political creed” by way of “learned institutions.” Madison thought education could cultivate the habits of mind popular government depended on: “national feelings,” “liberal sentiments,” and “congenial manners.” (See here for more on this sort of education.) For Madison, this would be a sort of partisan education in the political regime not unlike what Burke referred to as “prescription.” Yet this did not prevent partisans from clashing. Indeed, in an essential way, it would nourish our partisan disputes about how best to realize the principles we shared in common—while also reminding us of what we shared in common.
We can see, by considering the matter in this light, the way in which Progressives’ eagerness to overcome partisanship is misguided. Like Bolingbroke, they may long to be the party that ends partisan conflict: If we all just reason about things in a “reasonable” manner we will overcome our partisan division. This too readily assumes that “reason” will easily settle things, that rational thought can do the difficult work of politics. Not surprisingly, and much to the annoyance of conservatives, it also tends to align the Progressive view with a view of History as a forward march of rationality that forecloses once-nagging political questions. Progress is necessarily to leave certain understandings behind.
Yet in fairness to the notion of progress, do we Americans, at this point, really need to rehash all partisan conflicts? Do we need to debate the equality of the races? Do we truly need to entrain comparisons between homosexuality and pedophilia? Or can we leave such debates in the past?
Republicans, too, are tempted to dispense with party. Many in the GOP seem to think all we need is a recurrence to “first principles.” That founding principles, and the Founders themselves, answer all our questions. (Let us put aside the fact that just what these principles are can be contested and that many conservatives who would speak in the name of the Founders in fact have little understanding of their thought.) Yet this is another way of dodging the difficult work of applying political principles to altered circumstances. Conservatives could especially benefit from Burke’s historical understanding and acknowledgment that maintaining a Constitution is an ongoing process: we cannot escape the difficult work of thinking through contested political principles in light of our fundamental commitments and applying them to new conditions. It is interesting, along these lines, that no Republican running for President has ventured to make a conservative case for same-sex marriage. One could imagine Burke doing so.
Our current political parties tend to misapprehend their importance. Parties, at their best, do not simply discover and articulate static interests and divisions. Rather, they are actively engaged in forming and organizing beliefs that seek to articulate disagreements among Americans that are important. At the same time, they play, or can play, a moderating role in recognizing that politics requires compromise. At their best, they are educative. While Burke’s parties are different from our own, Mansfield’s study of Burke’s defense of parties can help us recover a sense of why parties matter to a healthy democracy. Burke is also a telling reminder that we cannot do without the political leadership or the prudential judgment that, given the circumstances, may soften and moderate partisanship to find common ground.