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Partisanship, journalism and political science

- January 6, 2009

As Lee says, I’ve a new “piece up”:http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=can_partisanship_save_citizenship at _The American Prospect._ The piece is journalism rather than political science, but I have tried to build on political science where possible, and at least to not do violence to what we know about politics when I can’t. More on the specific political science arguments I am building on below the fold.

The piece explicitly engages with arguments by Putnam, Fishkin, Skocpol and others, whom I won’t have much more to say about here, since I do talk about them in the piece. Obviously, I don’t engage in the length or the detail that I would in a political science journal article, but I do say a lot of what I would have wanted to say (though I would have more disagreements with Skocpol than the piece suggested were I to spell them out at length). What’s more useful to talk about here are the bits where I build on arguments that I don’t explicitly cite (political magazines not being keen on exegetical footnotes).

bq. 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.

This is I think demonstrably true – but I wish I had had Nancy Rosenblum’s new book “On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0691135347?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0691135347 when I wrote the piece. Rosenblum does a great job of tracing back the two traditions of anti-partisanship in contemporary political thought, and it would have been nice to refer, even in telegraph form, to her work.

bq. 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.

This is, at its heart, a fairly standard ‘electoral environment and strategies of other parties selects for certain kinds of organizational structures’ argument. It pays short shrift to the internal hierarchies of organizations – one possible counterargument might be that even if the Republicans in general may see the merit of different ways of organizing, they may have difficulties in bringing reforms through because of entrenched elites who don’t want things to change etc.

bq. 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. … 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

Here I’m referring to “Farrell and Drezner”:http://www.springerlink.com/content/l7p064672q84/?l, “Glance and Adamic”:http://www.blogpulse.com/papers/2005/AdamicGlanceBlogWWW.pdf, and “Farrell, Lawrence and Sides”:http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1151490.

bq. 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.

This builds on Farrell, Lawrence and Sides on the one hand, and Diana Mutz’s “Hearing the Other Side”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0521612284?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0521612284 on the other.

bq. 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.

Here, the obvious point of reference is Markus Prior’s “Post-Broadcast Democracy”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0521675332?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0521675332. I should note that this was put into the piece thanks to Mark Schmitt’s editorial intervention — but that I had already been muttering to myself about how best to shoehorn this into the argument.

bq. 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).

That activists are much more ideological than the average voter is a commonplace in the literature (see, for example, Gary Miller and Norm Schofield’s activist-based “account of partisan realignment in US politics”:http://www.unc.edu/depts/europe/conferences/parties/papers/miller_schofield.pdf).