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Partisanship Isn't Enough (but It Is Essential)

Reflections on the Glenn Beck rally.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Glenn Beck’s rally for Restoring Honor on August 28 took most everyone by surprise with its nonpartisan appeal. With the design of preventing grumpy or sneering messages, he allowed no signs, and in fact few were brought. No references to politicians or elections were made. More remarkably, an even temper prevailed. The speeches were strident in describing our ills and grandiose with hopes, but the speakers were not spiteful and did not blame anyone.

Partisanship Isn't Enough (but It Is Essential)

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

Critics were confounded. It’s hard to get angry with the innocent, even with innocent dopes or dupes. Where was the hatred that liberals love to hate? Surely this nonpartisan appearance was tactical, but then how could so large a crowd sustain the discipline of apparently sincere nonpartisanship through the whole event? Their favorite, Sarah Palin, got a big cheer, but by being on message she disappointed her enemies without disappointing her fans. Some conservative commentators, marveling at Beck but uneasy with him, noticed that he had somehow managed to imitate Barack Obama’s nonpartisan campaign so as to capture a different or opposite audience on the right, a mirror image of Obama’s successful nonpartisan appeal to the left. Why the sudden appearance of nonpartisanship in a time of divisive parties they left a mystery.

To consider it, let’s examine Glenn Beck’s rally more closely. It offered two nonpartisan notions designed to bring us together despite our differences: patriotism and religion. Everyone regardless of party can be patriotic, and everyone can believe in God; all we need is for everyone to do what everyone can do. Beck has set forth a “9-12” formula of 9 principles and 12 values. The first principle is that “America is good”; the second that “God is the center of my life.” Each of them, if followed, joins everything together either in country or God. One might think that two unifying principles is one too many, but the assumption is that these two will not conflict. If God speaks against country, that is only for a while and won’t last.

Obama’s nonpartisanship also has two principles, which might be identified as universal empathy rather than patriotism and human rights or humanity rather than God. These two are also assumed not to conflict. For example, the defense of human rights won’t be embarrassing for universal empathy—or vice versa.

Yet of course this nonpartisanship, however grounded in principle, seems under the least analysis to be quite bogus. Who are these nonpartisans kidding? The nonpartisan disguise they use seems to betray them as quickly as does their partisan rancor, when they show it. To any observer only somewhat detached, it is both comical and endearing that our two parties reveal themselves more, indeed, by their assumed nonpartisanship than by their avowed partisanship. Who does not know that speakers invoking patriotism and religion are conservatives, and those demanding empathy and human rights are liberals? From this standpoint the partisan views of the parties are tactical and temporary; the principled nonpartisanship of each is permanent and fundamental. Partisans are best identified by what they think is nonpartisan.

Beck titled his rally “Restoring Honor.” Surely this was a jab at President Obama. If honor needs to be restored, it must have been lost, or at least be at risk right now. What could that refer to if not the president’s apologies for America’s misdeeds, his half-hearted support of the military, his unwillingness to claim victory for America? None of this was said, but it didn’t have to be.

To this one might reply that as opposed to Beck’s allusion to Obama’s foreign policy, Obama’s own nonpartisanship has explicitly and repeatedly blamed President Bush for everything that was wrong, implying that Bush with his divisive policies was the sole cause of our partisan divisiveness. Unlike Beck, Obama was running for president, and he could not avoid opposing someone openly. Whether open or implied, partisan advantage must lurk within nonpartisan policies.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss nonpartisanship as the insincere tactic of parties. In truth, all parties aim at nonpartisanship when they aspire to establish some principle or principles intended to put an end to partisan conflict, at least for the present. Party is a temporary division created for the purpose of overcoming divisions. The more temporary it wants to be, the more fervent it needs to be. A party wants to prescribe for the whole country, for the common good; it is not satisfied with self-interest, not even if its principle is self-interest.

Glenn Beck is a kind of libertarian, and he has made a fair amount of money. But he rejects the private life that libertarians seem to recommend. He goes public with his distrust of everything public and thus requires libertarians to march behind patriotism, religion, and honor—all things not in your immediate self-interest. Though not an educated man, he seems quick-witted: When he discovered that in choosing the date of his rally he had stumbled upon the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great speech, he quickly adopted the coincidence as if he had intended all along to celebrate King for restoring honor to blacks in America.

A partisan tries to make himself consistent, and thereby exposes himself to the charge of inconsistency. But the centrist—for whom I have no great admiration—merely picks what he likes. He cannot decide between low taxes and more programs, and votes for both. His centrism is nonpartisan without any partisanship behind it; it lacks the public-spirited anger of a partisan and reveals the weakness of a neutral. His vote may decide a contest, but others will decide its meaning.

The aspiration for consistency makes politics both partisan and nonpartisan, and our self-government depends on it. Glenn Beck—like President Obama—is unafraid of calling attention to himself, but—again like President Obama—he does us all a favor when he seeks to bring others to live as he does.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he is a member of the task force on liberty and virtue.

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