Respectable Partisans of Modern Liberty by Mark Blitz

Mark Blitz, "Respectable Partisans of Modern Liberty," Library of Law and Liberty, October 2, 2015.

Mark Blitz, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, offers a provocative essay on Harvey Mansfield’s  Statesmanship and Party Government and the political thought of Edmund Burke.


Fifty years have passed since Harvey Mansfield’s path-breaking Statesmanship and Party Government first appeared. It is a book so good that Leo Strauss is said to have wished he had written it. The original edition is now available as an e-book, so the busy Democratic operative may read it on hilarymail as she travels in search of wisdom from Hollywood to Havana.

Of course, she is unlikely to seize the opportunity. The illumination scholars could once offer well-meaning politicians about prudence, statesmanship, and natural law—topics Mansfield discusses—is today dimmed by academics’ enlistment as experts on turnout, traffic, taxes, and triage. Those few social scientists who are not useless have become appendages of the bureaucratic state. In any event, the pace of politics today leaves little time and less incentive to think and to observe, and books such as Statesmanship and Party Government demand reflection.

Still, our political origin continues to form all we do, and understanding it properly can help to guide our judgment. Politics should enhance our way of life. What is that way of life? The people’s self-government should guide administrations. How can we best effect this guidance? Administrative discretion within limits should deal with our necessities and emergencies. What are these limits? American and British liberal democracies are rooted in a practical resolution of the great religious conflicts of the 17th century. Yet, or consequently, the religious question persists, most threateningly in the way that the power of Islamist fanaticism now bewilders us.

What public direction about religion’s place in politics can our origin offer us today?

The purpose and justice of our way of life and form of government, and the recurrence of conflicts that intellectuals thought had become irrelevant, reflect the unchangeable context within which even what is most novel occurs. “The permanent things in life,” Margaret Thatcher once said, “tend somehow to surprise us more than the great changes we see around us.” These permanent things show themselves most purely in reflection that is separate from practical affairs but never whole apart from them.

Our current predicaments, indeed, stem from several kinds of ignorance: of our origin in equal natural rights, limited government, and free commerce; of how these link to modern enlightened philosophy; and, more deeply, of the origin of all thought in human openness to the mind’s natural objects. Mansfield’s book, with the “inquiries” it conducts and the “problems” it considers, probes at each of these levels. It is guided by the “natural attraction of the hidden” and thus helps us to step through not only our practical quandaries but also our intellectual fog.

The Possibility of Respectable Parties

The mystery that Statesmanship and Party Government plumbs is how political parties, condemned by political thinkers from Plato to James Madison, became respectable—so much so that we now think them indispensable to good government. Even the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies had Nazi and Communist parties. The central discovery of the book is that this respectability does not arise from a series of accidents but, rather, from considered action and choice.

The central figure is Edmund Burke, who defended parties for and among gentlemen and sought to make them accepted in Great Britain, not a fleeting or disreputable affair. Established, respectable, competitive parties, moreover, differ from parties whose grand purpose is to end parties by becoming the final or only party. We find the latter ambition, consummated in different degrees, in Thomas Jefferson, the founder of parties in the United States, and in Henry St. John Bolingbroke, a figure from the first half of the 18th century whose views and supporters Burke opposed in the second half, and whose teaching Mansfield explores at length in the book.

The element common to all—Burke, Bolingbroke, and Jefferson—is belief in modern natural rights. All three, moreover, were in a political situation in which the “Great Parties” based on religious differences had withered, dissolved, or been defeated. The circumstances allowed parties to be oriented to a commonly acceptable or agreed-on ground. But they did not as such suggest how smaller parties could become useful or respectable. Mansfield traces the traditional critique of parties until he arrives at Burke’s open and public defense.

Burke’s parties are not our parties, with our extensive programs and massive funds, but they grew from the same ground. His defense of their respectability at a crucial moment makes this ground, and the classical alternative it replaces, particularly visible. Burke’s understanding also reminds us of forgotten possibilities in governing liberal democracy itself.

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