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Expecting Too Much and Too Little of the Parties

In her latest post, Angela Cowser describes some familiar ways that churches and other faith-based networks (hereafter I’ll often refer to those groups collectively as “the church”) have organized and mobilized people to do justice in their communities. She also highlights the reverse: serving a community can be a profound blessing to the church. Community engagement – participating together “at the grassroots” – forms Christians for faithful discipleship, including their motives and dispositions as good democratic citizens. Hence the relationship of the church and the broader community is richly reciprocal. It combines attention to felt needs with a formative spirituality and a public witness to shalom.

In comparison to the church, Cowser invites us to consider political parties as another site for organization, mobilization, and formation. Here the portrait is less flattering. Parties, in Cowser’s view, “do not build democratic practices and good citizens; they develop ideologues, partisans and party operatives and apparatchiks.” She goes on to decry the electoral competition in “gerrymandered districts where outcomes are predetermined,” which “diminishes healthy conversation” and “increase[s] tribalism that stifles democratic practices of deep listening” across lines of difference.     

The contrast is stark. But is it apt? I share Cowser’s view that the church-in-community can have a powerful influence that is both formative and transformative. As I’ve suggested here and here, I also agree that parties have many of the pathologies that Cowser identifies (and others that she doesn’t). But I’d suggest that Cowser’s contrast is misplaced for two main reasons. First, it throws the baby out with the bathwater by essentializing party pathologies, that is, it treats solvable problems in our party system as rooted in the very nature of party politics. Second, it both overstates and underestimates the role of parties in our democratic politics.

First, while Cowser rightly calls our attention to a host of deep-seated problems with parties today, she takes those problems as evidence that party politics are dispensable – or at least that grassroots faith-based organizing is preferable as a way to do justice in the world. Consider one of those problems: gerrymandering. Cowser claims that partisan redistricting fosters non-competitive districts, deepens partisan divides, and impoverishes civic conversation. While some political scientists disagree about these effects (especially compared to other causes), let’s accept her assertions for sake of argument. What follows from them? Like Cowser, we could issue a plausible moral indictment against parties, especially at the state-legislative level, for use their cartographic machinations to devalue the power of the vote. But should we take the next step and condemn the party system itself as irredeemably broken? Is reform a hopeless and quixotic dream?  From both her posts, I infer from her treatment of gerrymandering, as well as campaign finance and other features of American electoral democracy, that Cowser would probably say “yes” to both questions. Better to use the more effective and edifying strategies of grassroots organizing freed from partisan shackles. 

But I’d suggest that we should answer “no” to both questions. The party system in the United States, from its formative years to the Civil War to the Progressive Era to the 1960s, has often remade itself. Sometimes the change has been for ill, but often for good as well, and that latter fact speaks to redemptive possibilities. And those possibilities are not lost to history. Gerrymandering is an intriguing example. Many states today are introducing or considering redistricting strategies that eschew partisan mischief.  In addition, that party reform has emerged from the grassroots itself, precisely the same source of moral authority that Cowser champions. Doug Koopman, our fellow conversationalist in this series, is involved in just that sort of mass-based campaign to reform Michigan’s gerrymandered regime – and it looks like that effort might bear real fruit. Now, I’m not a Pollyanna about prospects for change; in fact, my optimism about a movement for reform is cautious to the point of skepticism. But I still see in our history and current moment the opportunity for electoral reform that enhances competition and pulls candidates back from tribal extremes.

Moreover, as long as that hope for change is alive – as long as we can imagine a feasible possibility for reform – I’d argue that we have an obligation to pursue it. This brings me to my second reason for seeing Cowser’s contrast between faith-based grassroots organizing and party politics as misplaced. We disagree about what parties ought and ought not do, especially in comparison to the grassroots work that Cowser describes. Indeed, that disagreement appears to be as basic as whether parties are largely dispensable to advancing public justice in electoral democracies.

I have no doubt about the evidence is that the church is well positioned to address the felt needs of the vulnerable and dispossessed. Churches and other faith-based groups are indeed the backbone of civil society today. Often their work is diaconical and nitty-gritty: stocking food pantries, tutoring kids and adults, offering temporary housing, finding jobs for returning citizens, giving a little benevolence to pay a utility bill, and so on. Sometimes that work might also move toward explicit public witness and advocacy, including mass mobilization and leadership development. The extent to which these efforts ought to be “political” is deeply controversial – and a conversation for a different time. (I wrote a bit about it in a contribution to this book.) But there is no doubt that the church is called to seek shalom through both its diaconal work and distinctive public voice.

The problem, as I see it, is that Cowser has conflated the role of the parties with the role of the church. If parties do share the role of the church, then it’s easy to see why anyone would understand parties as dispensable. After all, the church does a better job than parties at fulfilling the call to do diaconal work in their communities and speak the biblical truth of shalom to those in power. But the point is that parties and churches do not and ought not share that role; the comparison is apples-to-oranges. We shouldn’t expect parties to fulfill the diaconical work of the church or take on the same kind of public witness. Conversely, we shouldn’t expect the church to fulfill the work of parties. Parties perform crucial functions as linkage institutions in electoral democracies by connecting elites to the electorate and bringing structure to the lawmaking process. They might do this work poorly – again, Cowser and I agree about that – but it’s hard to imagine other organizations fulfilling the same functions.

In fact, confusing these expectations raises not only theological concerns (see the sphere sovereignty exchange between Koopman and Talen in earlier posts), but it can also be downright dangerous to both the church and the democratic process. We have all kinds of empirical evidence, including mounting evidence in our current political climate, that suggests a close association of the church with parties and electoral politics is generally a bad idea. We also have all kinds of evidence that many Christians are taking the myriad problems with party politics as license to drop out of serious engagement in electoral politics when that engagement requires that we maintain a faithful presence in political parties.

To differentiate roles is not to seal institutions off from each other. The church still has much to say and do in the context of party politics, including the church's vision and practices of grace, which remind us in this era of partisan polarization that our political tribe can become its own kind of idol.

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