“The Dictatorship of Partisanship” By Richard Sale

Richard Sale headshot (2)
Robert Gates in his new memoir used very well chosen words to scorch the U.S. Congress for its defects, calling it, “uncivil, incompetent, parochial, and hypocritical.”  Of course, he could have gone to say it is also narrow, self-serving, ill humored, boorish, egoistically self absorbed and largely ignorant of the affairs it pretends to manage.

But let’s leave that for another time. 

We can enlarge on the perceptions of Gates by using the words of Vaclev Havel, a clear thinking, articulate and courageous opponent of the Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, a dissident who eventually became the president of his country for two terms.

Havel, during his second presidency, was confronted with the future of his country.  He was a man of broad mind and generous sympathies, and he had great insight into the erratic and irresponsible Slovak politicians, and he was engulfed in the  most pressing question of the time which was the debate over whether the Czechs and the Slovaks should separate and form two different countries.  Havel thought that any such separation would be a “grave misfortune.”

Unfortunately, Havel was almost entirely helpless in debating the problem, and he grew furious over what he called, “the dictatorship of partisanship.”  This very phrase is very telling.  Havel abominated the “excessive influence of parties in the system of political power,” and accused political parties of being “a state within a state.”  He accused the parties of loyalties they demanded counted more than the will of the electorate.  He had seen firsthand the pre-election maneuvering that had a tendency to supersede and overpower the broad interests of society. 


Here is a neat quote of his, “…electoral politics are already dominating political life…There are articles about partisan bickering, bragging and intrigue, predictions about who will join with whom and against whom, who is beholden to whom or falling-out with whom. Politicians seem to be devoting more time to party politics than their jobs. Not a single law is passed without a debate about how a particular stand might serve  the party’s popularity, no matter how absurd, are touted to gain favor  with the electorate. ..All this displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and the success of the broader community.”

Havel concluded that the narrow strategies and tactics of partisan competition meant that the bulk of the people would be governed by people who were more intent on popularity and survival than attending to the public issues that mattered.

This view prompted the former U.S. diplomat and thinker George Kennan to say, “It would be hard, of course, to deny the vulnerabilities of modern democracy  generally to domination by party machines and personalities in whose political motivation for political involvement a devotion to public interest is diluted, to put it mildly by considerations of another and less admirable nature.” (sic)

That is a very disconcerting and cumbersome sentence, but it does the trick. Surely a society is in danger when the “great affairs of state” cannot be carried out without excessive dependence on the struggles of political factions whose focus is mainly on their own jobs and advancing their own petty interests rather than solving or improving the major problems of national interest. It is clear that when the common citizen votes, it should be voting as an individual, not simply as a tool of some political party.

Gates’ disgust for Congress is merited. The focus of Congress should be on the promotion of decency, detachment, promoting intelligent responses among the common man to responsible leadership. Topics such as economic growth, unemployment, public schools, churches, the commercial dominated mass media, and budgetary problems require a certain intellectual breadth and a genuine seriousness towards life and that seriousness should be governing the Congress. Unfortunately, that earnestness, that willingness to work, the drive to master and is nowhere to be seen, and it hard to foresee its arrival.

An Interesting Sidelight

There is an interesting sidelight in which Pat Lang was involved.  After Clinton was elected, he began to step up intelligence collection begun by his predecessor and the Defense Intelligence Agency began to play a bigger part in his programs.  When the Balkan mess broke out in the early 1990s, of key importance were the intelligence services of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the aim of the United States was to keep them from backsliding into the former Soviet orbit. These services enjoyed links to services in Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. There were pockets of Poles, Czechs, Slovenes and Hungarians salted throughout Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia that might prove to be assets to American aims.   If America worked with skill, it could use those services to wire the Serb leadership for penetration, surveillance and targeting.

Pat Lang placed a great part in this. His first stop was Hungary, and in Budapest, he found the scene a bit eerie because the headquarters of Hungarian intelligence in the city of Pest was housed in the same building that had housed the Hapsburg monarchy's military intelligence service.   There was an out-of place, continuity to be seen there.   It was Pat’s job to ask them if they worked for the Soviet Union still, and apparently they said Heaven’s no!” and said they would help. Help they did too.

   The US promised to offer them money and equipment including  sophisticated Inmarsat transmitter/receivers, and when the time came, the US would ask for the former Warsaw Pact agents to meet U.S. intelligence  collection requirements for the crisis. They agreed and their performance turned out to be excellent.  The Czech service proved to be among the most interesting. The new head of Czech intelligence was a former army captain who’d been imprisoned by the communists, and then, after his release, had worked as a stagehand at the very theatre when Havel had once had his plays performed. The former stagehand proved to be a first rate director of intelligence, providing Pat with information on Serb troop dispositions, air defense systems, Serb paramilitary and their chain of command, plus the Yugoslav National Army’s order of battle as well as identifying threats to UN peacekeepers which were a top priority.

Alas, that story has to be concluded for another time


This entry was posted in government, Intelligence. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “The Dictatorship of Partisanship” By Richard Sale

  1. Charles I says:

    Thanks Can’t wait.

  2. Duncan Kinder says:

    The “dictatorship of partisanship” has been around as long as democracy itself and pretty much constitutes the definition thereof. And the alternative to “the dictatorship of partisanship” is the “dictatorship of dictators.” So take your pick.
    As to whether one should somehow serve some higher good or purpose? Of course one should. But that begs the question of whether any such exists or can exist under all the facts and circumstances.
    Which further begs the question of whether the middle swath of the North American continent does or can constitute a coherent, unified, discrete social, cultural, and economic entity in the 21st century in a globalized, networked world – or whether it simply is an arbitrary geographic construction.
    For, unless such a coherence can be identified and achieved, it would be at best a waste of time to expect anything other than some sort of political malaise within that framework.

  3. walrus says:

    Robert Gates comment applies to the American definition of “political party” and attempts to generalize from that to an abhorrence of “partisanship” in all its forms are doomed to failure, no matter what Havel has said.
    The essence of Democracy is that Government actions represent the collective will of the voters for better or worse, not, “what is right”, “decent”, “responsible” or “just” in the eyes of some beholder, although we would hope that this is indeed the case.
    In most democracies, as far as I know, there is a party platform of proposed actions and values, to which all elected members of that party are pledged to subscribe, for better or for worse. That platform is usually the subject of robust democratic debate within the party itself until the matter is settled. It is that platform that is put to the electorate on the basis of what you see is what you are going to get if you vote for us and we achieve a majority because we are going to vote as a bloc to fulfill our stated agenda.
    Yes, I know that there are factions and coalitions, but that is part of life.
    By contrast, the American definition of “party” reminds me of a herd of cats. Individual voting records???? Let me tell you that in England, Australia and most other democracies as far as I know, failure to vote with your party: “crossing the floor” is a career limiting move. Churchill did it Thrice from memory.
    Gates is right to decry the motley collection of self serving oligarchs in Congress, but attempting to label them as a monolithic or even multi factional “party” is a waste of time.
    To put it another way, I would label the Democrats as a “party” in the democratic sense if each and every one of their congressional candidates pledged to vote for an increase in the minimum wage and single payer health care and then did so on pain of expulsion.

  4. Thanks Richard for another excellent post!

  5. Margaret Steinfels says:

    Gates at various point in “Duty” also laments the politicization of policy in the Executive branch. That should be no great surprise, yet he seems not only surprised but at times outraged. Of course from his perspective, party-politics largely affects Defense Dept/Pentagon matters that he thinks should be above the fray–military/protective equipment for Iraq and Afghanistan, and within the Obama Administration, but not Obama himself, an end to staff sniping at Pentagon officers.
    Is he harkening back to some golden era? Is he projecting his own efforts as SOD to rise above party and to do what is best for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan of whom he speaks often and movingly? Is he a man who is trying to redeem his past CIA activities by rising about party politics.
    Every peace monger and war monger should read “Duty” if only to watch a man trying to be dutiful to wars about which he may not have much enthusiasm, but which he accepts cannot be lost. An American story.

  6. kao_hsien_chih says:

    The way the parties are “evolving” in United States is nothing like the way parties were here even just a few decades ago. Until as recently as 1990s, “parties” in United States recognized that practically everyone in their ranks represented different constituencies with different ideals, values, interests, and needs, and that the goal of the party organizations was to help them arrive at some workable compromise, even across party lines if necessary. This has been in decline for a while, increasingly replaced by a few media savvy loudmouths yelling about what is “right” based on the beliefs of some narrow elites and imposing it on all the rest. (disclaimer: this is as big a problem with the Republicans as Democrats. There are as much loud mouthed self-righteous showoffs on the right as there are on the left.) Pox to them all!

Comments are closed.