Over the last several years, many Americans have expressed frustration over our deep political and social divisions. For decades, they existed over policy issues. What’s America’s role in policing the world? Does the government have a responsibility to care for the poor or provide healthcare to its citizens? These are just a few of the many significant policy issues.
Yet, over the last two decades, our politics have devolved into what the Founding Fathers called “factions.” It’s so intense that one party believes the other is full of insurrectionists and election deniers. It claims there is an assault on democracy — whipping up fears, insecurities, and animosities. The other side declares the end of the Republic is near as forces move to eradicate the plain meaning of the Constitution and transform America into a government-led utopia.
The challenges are so profound that within the Republican Party, a small group of conservative House members rebelled from the establishment, which in many ways has ticked leftward over the 20 years as Democrats shifted more and more to the far left. There’s little doubt much of today’s GOP resembles the Democratic Party of the early 2000s.
Regardless, many conservatives say the unwillingness of 20 conservatives to vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker last week was an embarrassment. However, perhaps many weren’t fully aware of what was truly happening. I explained the details on Friday in an article, so I won’t rehash it here other than to say they were doing what many conservatives have clamored for decades they would. Some are stepping out of the shadows and into the light to push back against corruptible forces, even within the GOP.
Was it divisive and factious?
Of course, it was. But consider why this is actually a good thing despite the cultural reasoning of today. Could it be it was by design?
I hope you’ll stay with me to the end of the article because I will explain why what happened last week was good for our republican democracy, not bad as so many would have us believe.
To understand better, we must step back in time. Until the Revolutionary war, only those considered “gentlemen,” i.e., those so wealthy they didn’t need to work and lived a leisurely life, were considered competent to serve in and run the government. The Enlightenment reasoning was they didn’t have an “interest” in anything other than the common good.
In the 1760s and 1770s, ordinary people began assembling in mobs. They rebelled against the Stamp Act, Tea Act, and others. The Sons of Liberty formed in Boston. Their sentiments eventually spread across the colonies and helped cement the rebellion from King George III and parliament. They demanded their concerns be heard and addressed. It shocked the gentry, which ran local and colonial governments. Still, they tolerated the mobs as fads likely to fade. Still, it was one thing to protest. It was another thing for ordinary people to participate in deliberations and government decisions.
The gentry wasn’t able to speak on behalf of artisans or any other groups of ordinary people that they had nothing in common with. In June 1744, American politics changed in Philadelphia when a group of Germans and local mechanics forced the ten elected city offices to expand to nineteen in order to include them. By 1775, the Lowest of people — carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and others — were helping lead the beginning of the revolution across the colonies, to the astonishment and dismay of the gentry.
Still, the radical transformation of the Revolution dealt with property, which was considered part of a person’s identity and source of authority within the culture. It wasn’t a material asset to be purchased and sold. Instead, property was the source of autonomy since it wasn’t a transitory asset. As such, it protected its owners from corruption. The Revolution changed this perspective.
At the time of the Constitution’s ratification, society was radically changing at a pace never seen before in world history. People who once were thought to have nothing to gain by public service suddenly had much to gain. Corruption-related speculative land deals ran wildly among the gentry, many of whom were in elected office. Ordinary citizens began running for Congress, creating even more intense divisions as those who held to the gentry believed they would only fight for legislative issues related to their business or personal interests. The hypocrisy was on full display.
Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison sought to find ways to settle the matter. Still, Hamilton was constantly on the defensive. His opponents accused him of having “interests” due to his lack of sufficient wealth. He argued that attorneys weren’t considered ordinary people because their only interest was the law. In Federalist 9 and 10, Hamilton and Madison ultimately succumbed to the idea that the culture was transitioning for better or worse. Instead of pushing back, they embraced factions to argue for the ratification of the Constitution.
They made self-interest an underpinning of the founding document, and it ultimately became the heart of American capitalism — which was wholly distinct from a monarchy that controlled all aspects of personal and business life.
In Federalist 10, Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, wrote there were only two ways to control factions that threatened the prospect of the new Constitution to replace the failed Articles of Confederation. The first option, he said, was to remove the faction. He recognized that would only cause more divisions and make matters worse.
The second was to “control its effects.”
He wrote that those with and without property had societal interests, as did creditors and debtors. He noted that business and entrepreneurial interests grew out of necessity. Madison stated,
“The regulations of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.”
Still, he noted that the more numerous and powerful factions would prevail. Thus, creating ongoing tensions within the minority. He said the solution was to vote until there was a resolution. Madison noted that might cause the “clog of administration” or societal upheaval. Yet, his proposed process would force the majority, whatever it looked like, to “sacrifice its ruling passions or interest” for the “public good and the rights of other citizens.”
This, Madison wrote, was the chief difference between democracy and a republic. A Republic would help ensure that elected representatives of the people didn’t have to betray the interests of their constituents. Still, he noted that by allowing the minority to have a voice in Congress, it would cause, in Madison’s words, “inconveniences.”
Still, the nation’s eventual fourth president noted that controlling the effect of factions minimized the impact. Here’s how… the leaders of the factions “may kindle a flame within their particular state,” but they won’t be able to spread them throughout the country. This is the advantage of the US over other countries. The states have different cultures, economies, and interests, and will seek to protect themselves from other states that don’t align.
In essence, he said factions were another indirect form of checks and balances in a Republic. Madison reasoned that factions reinforced the concept of federalism, thereby limiting the power of the federal government. The more, he said, the federal government squabbles…
“[T]he less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.”
Perhaps this explains the ongoing tensions throughout American history. When one side goes too far, the other responds appropriately, even within a political party. Debates handicap the government and ultimately restrict a majority’s ability to enact its will. Isn’t that exactly what we saw happen when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) single-handedly killed the radical Build Back Better agenda in late 2021?
So, let’s bring this home. Last week, the twenty conservative representatives had promised their voters since 2016 that they would fight against the corrupt Washington swamp. They sought certain concessions from the potential Speaker that would enable them to fulfill their promises to their voters. They don’t work for the GOP House leadership or Congress at large. They work for their constituents to whom they made promises. So, it matters not how small their Caucas was against the majority. There’s more to the story, as I talked about last week, but this is the basic premise. I encourage you to read the article.
As I told one of my dearest friends over the weekend, isn’t this what we’ve been saying we wanted over the last six years? So what if the Left is united around transforming America? Is that something worth standing up against? Perhaps we should get behind these conservatives and praise them for their efforts. That doesn’t mean we’ll agree with them on every issue or shouldn’t advocate against them when they are wrong. Still, in the vote against McCarthy, they stood up and participated in the function of government as the founding fathers intended.
I would argue what happened was by design. It was an excellent example of how our Republican Democracy is supposed to work. Just because we haven’t seen this happen in our lifetimes doesn’t mean it hasn’t in times past. It has happened. It worked out then, and it will now.
Regardless of the way one politically leans, the system worked as intended. It’s a win for America, the Constitution, and the practice of politics.
Don Purdum, Political Analyst
The Conservative Era, Copyright 2023