Whither Parties? Hume on Partisanship and Political Legitimacy
by Joel E. Landis, University of California, Davis
Recent work in political theory shows a burgeoning interest in the nature and normative value of political parties, suggesting that parties can and ought to play an essential role in democratic legitimacy. Recent empirical research, however, suggests that parties are plagued by deep and perhaps insurmountable shortcomings in realizing most of the ideal tasks prescribed for them. This disjunction invites us to consider the perspective of David Hume, who offers a theory of the value and proper function of parties that is resilient to current empirical realities. I analyze Hume’s writings to show that the psychological experience of party informs the opinions by which governments can be considered legitimate. Because Hume does not analyze parties as vehicles of democratic collective action—as empirical and theoretical scholars today usually do— he provides us a theory for the value and proper function of parties, even if they continue to fail to perform the prescriptive tasks usually set out for them. Hume’s analysis of parties and partisanship invites us to consider the essential role parties might play in securing legitimacy as that ideal is practiced or understood by citizens, independent of the ideal understandings of legitimacy currently being articulated by theorists.