The conventional wisdom is that partisanship fuels polarization. In the spring issue of National Affairs, I have an essay suggesting that honorable partisanship might actually provide a way out. On this reading, partisanship is a reflection of polarization. Polarization, in turn, reflects the fact that we have not persuaded one another of our ideas. Properly conceived parties can be vehicles for persuasion. By contrast, hopes for “post-partisanship,” which I trace to Hobbes and Bolingbroke, are rooted in discomfort with disagreement in politics.
Honorable partisanship descends from Edmund Burke’s emphasis on partisanship as rooted in friendship, which in turn is based on individual humility: When friends are insistent on one position, the honorable partisan will give his or her dissenting view a second thought. That does not mean the honorable partisan surrenders his or her own judgment. When the Whig Party lined up behind the principles of the French Revolution, Burke broke with it.
The essay argues that honorable partisanship shares a few characteristics. Honorable partisans are willing to accommodate themselves to one another and are sufficiently humble to question their own self-certainty. That is the role of friendship in parties. Their leaders will not enforce doctrinal purity across every political question: There will be enough play in the joints for politics to work, but enough unity on major questions to clarify disagreements and facilitate persuasion.
Honorable partisans will see their opponents as opponents, but they will do so out of a sense of affinity for their friends rather than hatred of the other. Honorable partisanship will resist becoming enthralled to personalities who stage hostile takeovers of parties at the expense of their principles. And, finally, honorable partisans will be willing to walk away when all that is left of a party is its name.