Among the features of the ideal republic is the absence of factions and political parties. As per James Madison, a faction is a group of citizens, either a majority or minority, united and actuated by some common passion or interest adverse to the rights of other citizens or the aggregate interests of the community. A political party is typically a collection of factions.
Imagine if every representative, senator, president, and bureaucrat took the Preamble of our Constitution to heart, and selflessly dedicated themselves to secure the Blessings of Liberty to themselves and their posterity. This is the public virtue hoped for in the early days after independence from Great Britain. As noted by Thomas Paine in his Common Sense (1775), “society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” In the uplifting Preamble to our Constitution, society compacts to promote happiness. Public vices are restrained in Article I Section 10, “the No State shall” section.
While the Framers couldn’t foresee the rise of an authoritarian scotus and presidents with arbitrary powers resembling the prerogatives of divinely ordained kings, they understood factions. Since they knew the damage that political parties could do, why didn’t the Framers include a “there shall be no political parties” clause in the Constitution? Because unlike Utopian dreamers and Article V opponents, our Framers were realists.
They understood faction is to government as sin is to man. Both are to be avoided, yet both are impossible to evade. When left unchecked, they corrupt the souls of republics and men. Both drag their practitioners into misery. Whereas sin is the cause of man’s private fall from virtue into vice, unrelenting faction is the cause and effect of fallen public virtue, which drowns republics in a sea of conflict and eventual dissolution. Sin carries us away from God; unrelenting faction delivers republics into tyranny.
But, there is a difference. While Christians strive to avoid sin because life in Satan’s hands is unthinkable, political faction is openly promoted and embraced. Few politicians in Washington are guided by the best interests, the general welfare of the United States.
In 1792, James Madison penned a short column on parties for the National Gazette. As opposed to authoritarian regimes that ban liberty to eliminate factions, Madison sketched out five approaches to limit their corrosive effects:
- Establish political equality for all.
The Constitution accomplished this through the creation of a republic. No American is born with a crown on his head, and titles of nobility are banned. While artificial distinctions arising from a formal class structure are absent, in their place today is a powerful political class outside the reach of elections. These people are also above the law, and beyond the reach of felony indictment and impeachment for high crimes against the Constitution.
- By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited accumulation of riches.
I suspect this reflects the contemporary feud between the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Jeffersonian Republicans. Where Hamilton envisioned a powerful financial, mercantile, and industrial power supervised by talented men, the natural aristocracy common to any society, the republicans sought a largely agrarian society of hardy freemen of near equal wealth who would defend liberty like the citizens of early republican Rome. What to do about disparities of wealth and its influence in government extends to this day.
- By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.
This is closely related to #2. The vision of life in the ideal republican society was not one of extravagance, but rather a comfortable existence of middling wealth for all, which would tamp down on jealousies and the emergence of factions. As we know very well today, extremes of wealth encourage factions which call for levelling at the expense of property rights. But, to get at the nub of Madison’s observation, what sorts of laws can properly minimize extremes of wealth? Was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act necessary and proper to an enumerated power? What of today’s anti-trust laws and income redistribution through the tax code?
- By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expense of another.
Instead of abstaining, politicians revel in the exchange of money for influence and favorable laws. Complicated laws are typically infested with lobbyist driven special interest giveaways.
- By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated. If this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism. (my italics)
Madison determined that “different interests and parties arise out of the nature of things, and the great art of politicians lies in making them checks and balances to each other.” While he didn’t wish to infer the propriety of creating artificial “good” parties, (which is a contradiction) the fact remained that only one party could counteract another party.
In the Framers’ design, faction was a problem limited to law-making bodies. The judiciary and executive, through the filtered nomination and appointment process for judges, and the electoral college for presidents, were designed to keep these branches far above factional party politics.
The first faction in any republic is the people themselves. A smaller senate of states was key to counter and balance the shifting tides of public passions. At the federal convention, Madison argued against voting qualifications for free adult males. As he hoped, the states would soon relax property requirements and broaden the franchise. BUT, Madison knew the wild shifts associated with popular bodies had to be tempered, and that could only be accomplished through a legislative body derived from a non-popular source, such as a state appointed senate.
Article V opponents assert our people are corrupt, and that the state legislators they elected cannot be trusted to send properly commissioned delegates to a Convention of States. Well, in Donald Trump, the same people voted for the first non-party President since perhaps the early 19th century. The reaction from entrenched Washington DC to President Trump illustrates the depth of our descent down the sewer of factionalism.
Like a sinless life, non-party government is an impossibility. But, like the ideal sin-free life, non-factional laws which promote the general, and not particular, welfare is the republican perfection worth pursuing. If Trump’s expected reforms are to endure, the effects of boundless factionalism must be minimized through institutional reform of congress. First among them is repeal of the 17th Amendment, which will return a force, a natural party, in opposition to the wild demagogues in the House of Representatives.
Unlike James Madison, Article V opponents refuse to face the problem of factions. They cling to the child-like belief that sending ‘good’ people to Washington can save free government. While non-party government is the goal, and we should send the best people we can find, reliance on good character alone is demonstrably silly.
The Framers set up a state-appointed senate to check and balance the House of Representatives. Until we repeal the 17th Amendment, free government is an impossibility.
Where government is the business of politicians, the Constitution, our societal compact, is the business of every American. We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Now, it is our turn. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.