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Nonpartisanship is the notion that governmental decision making and even the selection of public officials should properly be based upon neutral principles of merit rather than the partisan interests of clashing forces.
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1. Origins Of Political Parties
Political parties developed in the United States at the end of the eighteenth century and, with the advent of democratic systems of governance, in Western Europe during the mid-1900s. Parties linked office holders in national capitals with political organizations in the countryside and, through these organizations, with popular electorates. By the end of the nineteenth century, well-organized party ‘machines’ dominated politics and government in the US, while in Europe socialist and labor parties, in particular, created cohesive networks through which to mobilize their supporters for political combat.
Through their competition for votes, parties helped bring about full electoral mobilization and the advent of popular democracy in the West. This process is described by what might be called the ‘neo-classical model’ of party competition. As developed by political scientists V. O. Key and E. E. Schattschneider, the neoclassical theory asserts that in a democratic polity, high levels of elite conﬂict will inevitably lead to increased rates of mass participation as contending forces organize and engage in competitive efforts to mobilize political support. V. O. Key credited Thomas Jefferson with setting the stage for large-scale popular mobilization in the US when he built local party organizations and ‘lined up the unwashed’ to defeat his Federalist foes (Key 1942). The Federalists followed suit, albeit reluctantly, and built party machines to mobilize the ‘unwashed’ for their cause. Writing during the 1950s, Schattschneider referred to this phenomenon as ‘expanding the scope of the conﬂict’ and claimed that it was a central feature of democratic political processes. Schattschneider argued that popular mobilization was most likely to be initiated by the losers in inter-elite struggles who hoped to change the outcome by enlarging the universe of participants (Schattschneider 1960).
2. Opposition To Parties
Opposition to allowing political parties to play a major role in the political process has been an important element in the political ideologies of two types of political forces. The ﬁrst of these, which political scientist Shefter calls an absolutist coalition, denies both the validity of popular representation in governmental decision making and the legitimacy of differences in political opinion, and looks to a leader or ruling elite to identify and implement the most appropriate and effective programs and policies for the entire nation (Shefter 1994). In the nineteenth century, absolutist coalitions were formed by traditional elites who asserted that the interests of the nation would best be served by a crown that stood above factional and partisan squabbling. In the twentieth century, similar arguments were made by military juntas and Fascists who propounded the idea of a government that would speak for the nation-as-awhole, as well as Leninists who asserted that only a revolutionary vanguard divorced from partisan concerns possessed the level of consciousness needed to bring about a just society.
A second type of political coalition often identiﬁed with a doctrine of non-partisanship consists of rationalizing upper-middle-class reformers and their allies. Shefter identiﬁes the ideological bases of this coalition as Benthamite in England, Positivist on the continent, and Progressive in the US (Shefter 1994). Unlike their absolutist counterparts, upper-middle-class reformers neither reject political deliberation nor object to the representation of a variety of interests in governmental decision making. However, generally they have contended that an objective and neutral ‘national interest’ should take precedence over partisan concerns. Reformers have seen this national interest, moreover, as most likely to be discovered by experts applying scientiﬁc criteria and judgments to resolve national problems. This view helped justify the enormous autonomy granted to the civil service in both Germany and Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In similar vein, turn of the twentieth century American Progressives sought to build an autonomous and powerful national bureaucracy while weakening political parties and elected institutions. To this end, Progressives fought for such measures as civil service reform, non-partisan electoral processes, and nonpartisan local government. During the 1960s and 1970s, upper-middle-class reformers continued the American Progressive tradition by organizing a congeries of groups that collectively came to be identiﬁed as the public interest or ‘new politics’ movement (Vogel 1989). Among other things, new politics reformers undertook to shift the locus of a great deal of decision-making power to the federal courts on the grounds that they were less partisan than the Congress and the presidency and, hence, better able to identify and serve objective national interests (Neely 1981). The Progressive view remains quite evident in the US today in the form of demands for non-partisan mechanisms of decision making. For example, a recent conference cosponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government and the prestigious Committee for Economic Development recommended the creation of a nonpartisan, federally chartered ‘Center’ that would offer opinions on all proposed congressional enactments prior to further congressional action. Its proponents assert that such a Center would ensure that new programs would serve national rather than mere partisan purposes (Council for Excellence 2000).
3. Nonpartisanship And Democratic Politics
A number of academic critics have argued that strong parties are a necessary condition for mass democracy and that, conversely, nonpartisanship impedes democratic governance. As the late V. O. Key pointed out long ago, the persistence over time between groups possessing a measure of identity and continuity is virtually a necessary condition for popular inﬂuence (Key 1949). Party identity increases the public’s capacity to recognize its options. Continuity of party division facilitates organization of the electorate on the long-term basis necessary to sustain any serious popular inﬂuence in the governmental process. Organized party efforts promote high levels of popular political involvement. In the absence of parties, says Key, there exists little basis for ‘effectuation of the popular will’ (Key 1949). The weakness of party organizations in the US is one reason why American voter turnout has dropped to historically low levels (Burnham 1970, Aldrich 1995).
4. Nonpartisanship And Class Politics
Equally important are the class implications of partisan versus nonpartisan modes of political enterprise. Though presented by its advocates as an effort to develop impartial political principles, nonpartisanship, itself, is not a neutral doctrine. It has a distinct class bias. Party organization is generally an essential ingredient for effective political participation and competition by groups lacking substantial economic or institutional resources. Thus, party building typically has been the strategy pursued by groups that must organize the collective energies of large numbers of individuals to counter their opponents’ superior material means or institutional standing. In the course of European political history, for example, disciplined and coherent party organizations generally were developed ﬁrst by political forces representing the aspirations of the working classes. Parties, French political scientist Duverger notes, ‘are always more developed on the Left than on the Right because they are always more necessary on the Left than on the Right’ (Duverger 1963). Thus, in the US, the Jeffersonians built the ﬁrst mass party as a counterweight to the superior institutional and economic resources that could be deployed by the incumbent Federalists. In a subsequent period of American history, the Jacksonians sought to construct a coherent party organization to compete against the superior resources that could be brought to bear by their adversaries. This effort led to the Jacksonian era’s famous controversies over the ‘spoils system’ for appointing loyal party workers to governmental posts.
In both the US and Europe, the political success of party organizations forced their opponents to copy them in order to meet the challenge. It was, as Duverger points out, ‘contagion from the left,’ that impelled politicians on the right to attempt to build party organizations (Duverger 1963). But, at the same time, groups with the means to acquire and hold political power without much in the way of party organization often sought to discourage the development of an organized partisan politics, preferring nonpartisan modes of decision making. As Huntington has observed, upper-class groups generally have opposed parties because they saw them as threats to the established social and political order (Huntington 1968). George Washington’s warning against ‘the baneful effects of the spirit of party’ came to be echoed by representatives of many social, economic, and military elites who saw their right to rule challenged by groups able to organize the collective energies and resources of ordinary citizens.
This type of opposition to party was the basis for a number of the institutional reforms of the American political process promulgated during the Progressive era. Many Progressive reformers were undoubtedly motivated by a sincere desire to rid politics of corruption and to improve the quality and efficiency of governmental services in the US. But, simultaneously, from the perspective of middle and upper-class Progressives and the ﬁnancial, commercial, and industrial elites with whom they were often associated, the weakening or elimination of party organization would also mean that power would more easily be acquired and wielded by those with wealth, power, and education. The list of antiparty reforms of the Progressive era is a familiar one. The ‘Australian’ or official ballot reform took away the parties’ traditional privilege of printing and distributing ballots and encouraged splitticket voting. The introduction of nonpartisan local elections eroded grass-roots party organization. The extension of merit systems for administrative appointments stripped party organizations of much of their access to patronage and, so, reduced their ability to recruit workers. The introduction of the direct primary diminished party leaders’ control over candidate nominations. These reforms by no means destroyed party organizations. They did, however, diminish the political vitality of American political parties and contributed to a decline in American voter turnout at the turn of the century.
In a similar vein, the upper-middle-class forces that organized the new politics movement of the 1970s hoped to undermine the working class political machines and trade unions that depended upon partisan politics and to exercise political inﬂuence through nonpartisan ‘public interest’ groups. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of interest groups and public interest law ﬁrms were established by upper-middle class activists to further such goals as environmental quality, the elimination of nuclear weapons, consumer safety, and women’s rights (Vogel 1989). The leaders of these groups, such as Common Cause, the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women, and the various organizations formed by consumer activist Ralph Nader, sought to distinguish them from traditional interest groups by claiming to serve broad public interests rather than the more narrow interests of corporate patrons generally served by conventional interest groups and political parties (Berry 1999). The creation of public interest groups was promoted by major liberal funding agencies such as the Ford Foundation which provided tens of millions of dollars through its ‘Fund for the Republic.’ In addition, the elite media generally supported these groups and seldom questioned their claim to speak for some neutral and nonpartisan public interest.
5. Nonpartisanship And The Public Interest
Thus, nonpartisanship is often equated with political neutrality and the search for an objective public interest. A politics without parties, however, is profoundly biased. Essentially, the upper classes do not need party organization to participate effectively in political life while those further down the social hierarchy do require such organization to play a signiﬁcant role. A nonpartisan politics is not likely to be a very democratic politics.
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- Berry J M 1999 The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups. Brookings, Washington, DC
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- Duverger M 1963 Political Parties. Wiley, New York
- Council for Excellence 2000 Excellence in Government Performance: Where Are We Headed? Council for Excellence in Government, Washington, DC
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