Two seemingly separate discussions I’ve had on Facebook related to local Tiverton politics turned out (I think) to concern similar underlying differences. Inasmuch as my interlocutors give no indication of the temperament and/or interest to explore this inquiry with me, I thought I’d spin it off into a quick philosophical post in this space.
One conversation had to do with the definition of “nonpartisan” and (implicitly) “partisan” when discussing politically active organizations. I won’t extensively summarize the exchange because it was at the same time surreal and boring, but some folks were intent on proving that my local political group, the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA), is not nonpartisan. My view was that the term has a specific meaning for political organizations, involving actual political parties, while the opposing view was that people or groups are only “nonpartisan” if they come to every answer without reference to any consistent organizing principles and if their decisions don’t happen to align with any group more often than any other group.
I can unpack that characterization if folks are interested, but I think it’s fair. I also think it’s mythological and, therefore, useless in describing organizations. What interests me, though, is the consequence for those who wielded it against me. They are, on the whole, progressives and believers in the primacy of government.
I’m willing to define “partisan” and “nonpartisan” narrowly largely because I believe that political parties should form around questions of the proper operation of government, leaving plenty of room for people’s beliefs to overlap in other ways. A Republican and a Democrat could both be orthodox Catholics and gun enthusiasts, and political groups advocating for Catholic values or gun rights would be objectively nonpartisan because they are approaching a political question from the ground of their beliefs, not their political affiliations. This status would not change even if it turned out that only, say, Republicans agreed with the group in a given time or place. If your basis for decisions is not how they affect one political party or another, then you are not acting in a partisan manner.
What progressives have done is to pull us toward a basic sense that everything is political, so there is no distinction. To them, everything has to align. The structure of government for which you advocate (representative democracy versus centralized bureaucracy ) has to line up with the economic system you prefer (free markets versus socialism), which has to align with your social views (traditionalist versus radical) and a broad range of your understanding of rights (e.g., freedom of association versus identity politics). Thus, unless you are completely haphazard in your thinking, your views must be assigned to the appropriate party, making you partisan.
This brings me to the other Facebook conversation, which has been ongoing with one resident in town. She periodically claims I have expressed no “vision” for our town, whereas I repeatedly respond that I just don’t share her understanding of what sort of vision is appropriate for a town government to have. I like both the rural and the more urban aspects of my town. I like that there are parks of mobile homes across the street or across a pond from upper-middle-class developments. I like that you can turn onto a dirt road between houses in a wealthy neighborhood and find a well-hidden shack deep in the woods.
I sympathize with those who want to preserve the town’s character and with those who want it to be open to development. But I do not think it is the role of a handful of people to put together plans of what the town ought to look like in the future and set about restricting the rights of property owners in order to make that image a reality, or even to set the plan down as a legal obstacle over which property owners will have to fight a political fight if their vision differs.
That doesn’t mean that people who share my political philosophy want to leave people exposed to predatory developers. It just means that a community must have other institutions and standards that help enforce a loose vision that represents the interests and preferences of everybody in town. There is a role for local government, of course, in moderating the disputes between neighbors, but there should also be private organizations that, for example, collect funds to preserve particular bits of the town’s character. That way, the town government can’t undermine a group’s advocacy by changing zoning out from under them, and on the other side, the government wouldn’t find itself preserving something that has lost support among the people, but that a few politically powerful interests like.
So, saying that my group is “nonpartisan” is not to say that it’s good and innocent and humanistically warm, while rationally cool, but that it doesn’t derive its motivation from the interests of a political party. And saying that our “vision” for the town is largely limited to statements about how the government should operate is not to say that a small government should be the full extent of our sense of community, but something more like the opposite: Our vision for the community is expansive enough to include other activities and institutions on which we spend our personal time. Government shouldn’t be our means of imposing those other activities and institutions on our neighbors, who might not share our beliefs.
Why anybody would want political races to be knock-down, drag-out fights over the details of our future is beyond me.