Can Partisanship Save Citizenship?

Public intellectuals don't agree on much. However, in recent years they seemed to nearly unanimously believe that American public life was in terrible shape. Political scientists debated whether voter turnout in national elections was merely stagnant or was actively declining. Sociologists suggested that television, overwork, and a breakdown in communal ties were undermining participation in both public and social life. There was chronic hand-wringing about the state of political debate, with civic activists proposing that America needed more deliberative dialogue among people with different points of view.

These worries blossomed in the 1990s and continued to grow in the Bush years but now seem badly off target. Voter turnout in 2004 and 2008 was higher than it has been since the 1960s. The Obama campaign mobilized unprecedented numbers of volunteers. A thriving, if contentious public sphere has emerged on the Internet. Young people who a decade ago were volunteering in direct-service organizations but were otherwise disconnected from public life and electoral politics are now fully engaged and activated, not just as voters but as activists.

The movement to reinvigorate citizenship had roots in academia. Harvard's Robert Putnam identified the decline in political participation as a symptom of a broader collapse in civic organizations. In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, he drew on survey data showing declines in membership in local organizations like the Elks lodges to argue that "social capital" -- the resources that enable trust and cooperation -- was drying up. Benjamin Barber of Rutgers and later the University of Maryland was among many who advocated for efforts to strengthen civil society, the realm of life between government and the market. James Fishkin, now at Stanford, sought to construct models of informed deliberative democracy. Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota argued for expanding opportunities for public involvement in community decisions. Putnam's Harvard colleague Theda Skocpol described the shift from political organizations based on active local participation toward large and distant direct-mail membership groups, dubbing this shift "diminished democracy" in a book of the same name.

This academic movement to reverse civic decline had an unusual level of impact outside the ivory tower, because politicians were struggling with the same problems. Bill and Hillary Clinton invited many of the movement's key academic and civic figures to a series of meetings in the White House and at Camp David. Before long, however, the impulse to redefine citizenship was lost in the partisan warfare of the Clinton era.

At roughly the same time, though, a promising young organizer-turned-politician from Chicago joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, which brought together religious and civic leaders to explore ways to rebuild civic engagement in America. Today, when Barack Obama speaks about how citizens can transcend their political divisions to participate in projects of common purpose, he is drawing on the arguments and ideas from these intellectual debates of a decade ago. Ironically, while his election revives this dormant tradition, it also reveals the limitation of the underlying theory of civic decline.

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None of the civic-decline academics, whether they focused on voter participation, social capital, or the quality of deliberation, saw much use for political parties or partisanship. Putnam, in seeking to define American politics broadly, systematically underplayed the importance of partisan competition as a mobilizing force. While he surely acknowledged the significance of party-focused participation, he depicted it as merely one form of civic participation among many. In his view, joining a local Democratic organization was no different from joining local civic groups like the Jaycees, and both seemed decidedly retro. Fishkin and his colleagues actively depicted partisanship as part of the problem. Fishkin suggested that deliberative democracy went hand-in-hand with a Madisonian vision of politics that had been partly subverted by the rise of political parties. Together with Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, he claimed that the current political system encouraged parties to mobilize partisan extremists at the expense of the moderate center and tried to design deliberative exchanges to minimize the role of partisanship.

The civic declinists further worried that new technologies were hurting civic participation. While they had harsh words for television, they dismissed the Internet as an insufficient substitute for local groups. Putnam suggested that the Internet was insufficient on its own to support dense community ties. While he acknowledged (with significant provisos) that the Internet could help shore up existing structures, he was skeptical that it could create its own forms of civic association. Fishkin and Ackerman were harsher. They pooh-poohed what they saw as the current "infatuation" with the Internet, complaining that it threatened to "exacerbate the consequences of civic privatism."

Skocpol likewise failed to anticipate the current resurgence in participation, but unlike Putnam and Fishkin, she recognized the importance of political conflict. Skocpol pointed to institutional problems -- and in particular the declining interest of elites in organizing popular participation -- as the major explanation for "diminishing democracy." For Skocpol, a real participatory democracy would not involve citizens coming together to create spaces with a new common purpose. Instead, it would involve lively and vigorous contention between parties and organizations, each struggling to get as much recognition and distributional benefit as possible for its members.

The rebirth of civic participation this year is not a product of experiments in deliberative democracy or a new interest in league bowling. Rather, it is based on party politics, coupled with and accelerated by new opportunities provided by the Internet. Skocpol's claim that "conflict and competition have always been the mother's milk of American democracy" tells part of the story. Just as social-movement theorists might have predicted, the major innovations came from outsiders, like members of MoveOn.org, who wanted to challenge the system. At the time when it led opposition to the Iraq War, MoveOn represented a point of view that had little support among political elites, which meant it wouldn't have been able to use conventional tools of interest-group politics even if it had wanted to. Instead, it turned to the Internet and created a new model of mass mobilization.

Unlike the mass-membership national organizations that Skocpol described, which asked for a single act from each member -- a donation -- MoveOn engaged its members through a never-ending flow of transactions -- petitions, letters to Congress, polls, contests. In his book The Argument, Matt Bai writes that MoveOn's members were typically ordinary suburbanites who have been "isolated for too long, entirely disconnected from each other and despondent over the rise of Republican extremism." Thus, MoveOn built exactly the kind of dense local networks Putnam dreamed of and connected them to national debates as Skocpol hoped.

From MoveOn grew Howard Dean's 2004 campaign and from there, the Obama campaign, which extended the earlier models to create a campaign that kept on expanding, drawing in donors and voter contacts by the millions and turning Internet relationships into offline interactions, such as the 200,000 events organized through MyBarackObama.com and millions of voter contacts made by volunteers.

While the Republicans are well behind the Democrats in their use of these new forms of technology-based participation, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they will lag behind forever. Republican activists (such as those affiliated with The Next Right blog) are already thinking about how to borrow and reinvent Democrats' organizing strategies. The lasting impact of the Obama campaign's volunteering model will be to create a new paradigm of party competition in which each party builds mechanisms that increase grass-roots participation to avoid falling behind the other. If parties and interest groups need high levels of participation among their supporters to win political battles, then we can expect participation to thrive in American politics as it never would have if it were based on civic good works alone.

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Technology and partisanship aren't only increasing participation. They're also leading to a burgeoning of public debate, albeit not the kind that Fishkin and other academics imagined. Political blogs don't fit well with deliberation theory. They are rough, raucous, and vigorously partisan. Yet they have been far more successful than any deliberative experiment in encouraging wide-scale political participation and involving large numbers of people in real and lively democratic debate. Successful deliberative experiments have typically been small-scale, leading to real doubts about whether they can be scaled up to even the level of a state. The distributed conversation of the blogs, in contrast, involves millions of people, arguing vehemently about politics and other issues in interconnected forums of debate.

The blogosphere is far more disorganized than the typical campaign. Even so, debates between political bloggers tend to be structured in certain ways. Most substantive argument occurs within partisan boundaries rather than across them. There are few nonpartisan political blogs in the U.S., and none is very successful. Systematic efforts to encourage bipartisan conversation, such as Hotsoup.com and Left2Right (which was set up by distressed left-wing philosophers to encourage dialogue with the right in the wake of the 2004 elections), have invariably failed. Research suggests both that bloggers tend overwhelmingly to link to other bloggers who share their partisan views, and that readers tend overwhelmingly to read blogs that reflect their political affiliations.

Yet this likely reflects the enduring realities of politics more than any particular failure of blogs. As Jack Knight and James Johnson argue in their forthcoming book, Politics, Institutions and Justification, deliberation can neither magically smooth away deep-rooted political differences nor replace voting and elections in large-scale democratic systems. In a country like the United States, where people's interests and political viewpoints often differ starkly from each other, argument and persuasion are unlikely to transcend partisan affiliations. Political discussions of issues where people strongly disagree are less likely to result in consensus than in winners and losers.

On this more realistic standard, blogs play an important and often valuable role in shaping democratic arguments between the left and the right. "Netroots" blogs, such as DailyKos and FireDogLake, which are oriented toward partisan politics, have reshaped internal debates about how Democrats should respond to the Republican Party. Even if these blogs are not systematically ideological, they have helped rebuild a more vigorous Democratic Party that is less abashed about its philosophical liberalism. These blogs may have also helped encourage Democrats to get involved in politics. Statistical evidence suggests that readers of left-wing blogs are more likely to participate in politics than either nonreaders or readers of right-wing blogs (even if the direction of causation is uncertain). The same is not true of broadly based deliberation; if anything, the evidence suggests that deliberation across party lines actively hurts political participation.

Moreover, while some politicians in the 1990s hoped for a more engaged citizenry, this level of participation also holds those same politicians accountable in new ways. For example, Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo blog forced centrist politicians to stop prevaricating about their preferences over Social Security reform, stymieing their efforts to glide through the debate with mealy evasions. This may not be the kind of accountability that Fishkin favors, because it reflects partisan preferences more than an effort to reach bipartisan consensus, but it is none the less valuable for that.

That said, however, there remains a tremendous inequality in participation and political knowledge. While millions of Americans are engaged as never before as volunteers and debaters, millions more lack the time, the passion, or the patience for such intense engagement. We may be moving toward two economies of political information, one in which voters are intensely involved and informed, and the other in which they are not and are perhaps turned off by the strong opinions and intimidating voices of the well-informed.

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This isn't the first time that scholars have misunderstood the basis of civil society. Scholars of civility and debate have held up the London coffeehouses of the 18th century as models. Political theorist J├╝rgen Habermas depicted these coffeehouses as the paradigmatic example of an emerging "public sphere" of discursive political participation. However, these coffeehouses were less the occasions of civilized and genteel discussion than they were the sites of vigorous partisan contestation. As the historian Brian Cowan argues, London coffeehouses, like blogs, often identified with one of the two major political parties of the era. These parties' adherents sometimes came to blows with each other. Nor was this partisanship accidental to coffeehouse culture. Cowan claims that the "public sphere" of coffeehouse debate was actually "born out of the practical exigencies of partisan political conflict."

This isn't merely an academic point -- it has implications for national politics. Obama's political project faces a dilemma that goes back to his own roots in the civic movement. Despite his efforts to build consensus with moderates and conservatives, his campaign's organizational innovations depended on and may be helping cement the politics of partisan division. As Obama shifts focus from electoral politics to administration, he is trying to take online structures that were built around decentralized partisan participation and reorient them to a less partisan national agenda.

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama's own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly "moderate" decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

This may be a headache for the new administration. It isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself. Political conflict between parties with clearly diverging political platforms has its own pathologies, just as does the bipartisan-consensus politics it is replacing. However, it has the decided advantage of giving voters real choices. It should not be surprising that people are more inclined to participate in politics when they strongly identify with one political party and believe that it is important for that party to win elections, even if it cuts against a persistent anti-partisan bias in American political thought.

For generations now, public intellectuals have been asking for more participation in American politics. Like it or not, they're getting their wish.

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