Party Culture, Part 5: The Pressure to Conform

The quest for an efficacious politics is a coming-of-age tale of sorts. There is an inevitable moment of reckoning in the life of each and every member of the polity, a moment when the veil of winsome ignorance is lifted and the mind is awoken to the realities of civic life. In this moment, each citizen must grapple with their political identity and determine whether it is more personally efficacious to allow their opinions to be shaped by partisan cliques, animated as much by animosity towards rival ideologies as by their own beliefs, or whether it is better to rebel against the pressure to conform exerted by those whose popularity is a law unto itself.

Fundamentally, party politics is a question of the relationship between the self and society. Politics, by definition, involves the affairs of a group or community. Yet, it is individual judgments that form the basis of political action, regardless of whether a particular issue group constitutes a majority, plurality or a minority. This is the basic paradox of democracy and populism: they are meant to represent “the people”. But practical demands, such as limited public resources and the inherently discriminatory nature of action, often result in minority voices being marginalized. Individuals — the smallest minority in political constituencies — therefore are most threatened by a political system supposedly established to protect their rights.

One of the greatest failings of politics is the tendency to treat groups as monistic rather than pluralistic entities. Collectivistic organizations, such as interest or advocacy groups, gain a sense of unity which is proportional to their size; there is an assumption that their members are unified in their actions, that their constituent members are, without default, in lockstep with their leadership, and vice versa. As a result, political groups are often invested with an internal consistency and singularity of purpose which can only belong to an individual. The emphasis is placed, not on the malleability of groups, which are nothing more than an expression of the views of a pluralistic community and therefore subject to change, but on the monism of the voice which has utmost authority to speak for the group.

Political groups retain the moral mandate which democratic thought grafts into a pluralistic constituency, yet they are imbued with all the characteristics of singular beings, including the ability to reason and emote. These qualities are deeply troubling, particularly for minority interests, because any creature with consciousness is innately concerned with its own survival. And groups are not limited in the same way that individuals are; they can exert greater power for their own protection.

This is a problem of politics broadly, but it is a particularly exigent problem where partisanship is concerned. Parties have emerged as the chief proxy for political representation and are thus primarily responsible for promoting an efficacious politics. Yet, the ability of groups to monopolize and mold public discourse in their favor bodes ill for individuals. When party organizations hold a monopoly not only over the framework of electoral politics, but the broader culture and language of political ideology, individual minds are not free to seek out and define their own identity.

The party system as a whole, and the specific hierarchy of left-wing and right-wing subgroups within the Democratic and Republican parties, shape not just how individuals think about their own political identity, but impose a framework into which actors must fit themselves if they wish to be an effective, participatory member of society.

Parties, which are self-interested entities, have some right to organize themselves in a manner which is most likely to propel them to electoral victory. But their strategies for doing so are meant to respond to the natural inclinations of citizens towards policies which resonate with their individual epistemologies and promise to promote their self-defined interests. This is the most frequent defense offered in defense of political parties as a system for organizing the polity: that they are ultimately accountable to individual constituents whose ability to reward actors of good faith and censure actors of bad faith through the voting booth makes them the fountainhead of political power.

However, the conception of groups as monistic entities has upended this arrangement and deposed individuals, elevating instead party organizations, which call upon an untouchable populist mandate as their moral catalyst. By doing so, they tarnish the sovereignty of the individual and instead place a primacy instead upon the sovereignty of individuals which is conditional to their concerted action in the context of an identity group. This is not a system that upholds inalienable individual rights, but actions done in the furtherance of the public good. It is the reverence which democracy places upon public good that allows political groups to browbeat would-be independent agents, whose autonomy could undermine the system. Their illegitimacy is further compounded by the conception of the polity as a collective, which automatically represents the interests of its members. Therefore, groups can delegitimize individual actors even while claiming to act in their interest.

Political parties are guilty of promoting this rationale. They argue that the efficacious citizen must heed the sober, officious voices of consensus, who warn that the ability to change the system for the better comes only through participation and incremental measures. Thus, they advance a paradox: one must sacrifice one’s autonomy in order to have any agency in society.

This line of thinking runs in parallel to the logic of social contract theory. Political parties offer a choice between freedom and security. Party officials argue that ideologues, who make a stand for intellectual liberty by rejecting the politics of practicality in favor of pursuing their ideals absolutely, sacrifice their security, which the party provides by lobbying for the interests of a constituency group. Effectively, it is a matter of liberties exchanged: whether one prioritizes rights in their purest, most abstract form or as tangibles, which can be used to bolster one’s quality of life. Citizens, by voting for partisan candidates, enter a contract; they exchange their abstract rights for the security provided by officials who will work in their interests.

Social contract theory operates in much the same way. In a state of nature, which is presumed to be anarchic, an individual has absolute autonomy and absolute freedom, but no security against the actions of another. Whenever a conflict arises, it is individual qua individual, and brute strength is the only standard of justice. By entering society, the individual exchanges theoretical rights, which cannot be concretely obtained, for a stable space in which they are assured not necessarily the ability to act freely, but the ability to sue for redress whenever rights are violated. Society provides security for rights by establishing an impartial law from which no citizen can escape judgment. But the creation of society introduces new authoritative actors, namely government bodies. Since these bodies are formed to protect citizens, the authority of government to represent individuals’ interests is taken for granted. And citizens’ desire to participate in their management is also assumed.

While social contract theory is seen as a positive, the generational nature of societies somewhat negates its benefits. The founding members of a society have absolute ability to set the terms of the contract between the self and the society, but their children have this arrangement thrust upon them and must define themselves in relation to already-existing dominant structures. And this is precisely the same issue which confronts members of political parties. New generations are forced to define themselves in relation to predominant ideological groups. The parties overextend themselves by organizing not just the people who populate society, but by warping its ideological framework. Each successive generation of citizens becomes more enthralled by this power which parties and groups exert. Political identity is a question of balance between the interests of an individual and the complexities of society, but it is a loaded question.


Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.

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