Writing in support of the ratification of the federal constitution in the wake of the abortive experiment of the Articles of Confederation, James Madison acknowledged in Federalist No. 10 the fears of earlier philosophers that factionalism in a large republic would ultimately lead to its demise. Madison’s primary political concern at this stage of his career was the ratification of a new blueprint of government for the United States, which would strengthen the notion of federalism and broaden the powers of the national government. His attitudes and writings deviated from the work of the earlier Enlightenment philosophers, who agreed that a heterogeneous culture spread over a broad geographic area could never maintain a republican form of government. Madison disagreed: he believed that the American experiment could work, but only with the proper mechanics in place to act as a check valve on the potential violence of smaller factions.
Madison embraced the idea that a multi-faction democracy with strong opposition parties, providing a constant brake on the potential tyranny of the majority, would be the best way to ensure the success of the young and broadly diverse republic. In fact, he soon found himself squarely in Jefferson’ orbit, organizing the opposition in the form of the Democratic-Republican party and giving the anti-Federalists a political platform on which to stand. The modern American two-party system was thence born.
Since the early 1990s, our nation has been swept by the notion that “bi-partisanship” is what the voters truly desire, but it is interesting to note that the calls for cooperation and civility reach their chattering din only when Republicans find themselves in the majority or, as recent weeks’ examples prove, choose to assert themselves from the Senate and use the tools available to them by tradition to assert minority rights.
A better characterization of what has proven to have worked in our history is Madison’s original notion of factionalism. It is therefore instructive and useful to turn to the nation’s past to seek out the truth inherent in our politics and how we think of ourselves as members of the body politic. Consider: from periods of great factionalism, the nation frequently underwent great and needed social change, often the product of a messy legislative process, and came out the other end of the meat grinder stronger for having survived the onslaught of factional warfare.
While Madison and the early Founders were not advocating violence in the halls of Congress, it is important to note that members of Congress had, on occasion, sailed past the safe harbor of decorum to take matters into their own hands, as it were, and commit acts of violence on fellow members of the legislative branch who stood in opposition to their own opinions. None of the acts of violence resulted in any members of Congress being turned out of office, and many of them won frequent re-election to their seats. This sort of violent factionalism, in its current form, takes the shape of death wishes against sitting vice presidents, conservative members of the Supreme Court, and both former and current members of Congress.
On the more positive side of factionalism, perhaps better known these days as its kinder, gentler moniker “bi-partisanship,” it was the Republican minority in the Senate that worked with the Democrats to end the 1964 filibuster over the Civil Right Act, led by future Senate President Pro Tempore (and former Klansman) Robert C. Byrd. The authorization of both Social Security and Medicare passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, contrary to claims made by Democrats in defense of their party-line vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act in both the House and Senate that the GOP did not support either program. Social Security and Medicare enjoy vast popular support of most Americans, while the Affordable Care Act is wallowing through its early implementation and has never enjoyed a majority show of support in public opinion polls.
The political warfare that preceded the passage of the ACA was damaging not only to the future of the program, but also to the political process at large. With no Republican votes in Congress and a majority of the population set against the notion of this sort of change to the health insurance system, the factionalism here was wasted. It served only to harden opposition to a president who, despite a successful re-election campaign, struggles with his second term agenda and his overall relationship with Congress. There were no Republican improvements to the bill, no recognition that the minority faction had valid concerns over the bill’s intent or legitimate suggestions for improving it, and perhaps most damaging to the republic in the long-term, the long-standing Senate tradition of needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster which was cast aside as the bill passed the Senate through reconciliation.
Perhaps the message here is that Madisonian factionalism serves a purpose. Where principles are securely held and clearly articulated they can bring the opposition along, even if in the shadow of a vigorous, healthy competition of ideas. James Madison understood this, and his vision has served the nation well. It is time for the current crop of leaders in Washington to take heed.