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Incredible as it might seem, the problems that Americans face today with with extreme wealth inequality, a Congress that does not obey the will of the people who elected its members and continual attacks on our rights and freedoms, to name just a few, were specifically anticipated by the Founding Fathers. They understood how these conditions might arise and consciously worked to prevent them.
The Federalist Papers were written between 1787 and 1789 by luminaries of the day, making the case for ratification of the new US Constitution. Federalist No. 10 was written by James Madison but published anonymously under the name “Publius”, as were all the Papers. The following quote is taken from the Wikipedia article,
“Federalist No. 10 is the classic citation for the belief that the Founding Fathers and the constitutional framers did not intend American politics to be partisan. For instance, United States Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens cites the paper for the statement, “Parties ranked high on the list of evils that the Constitution was designed to check”. Discussing a California provision that forbids candidates from running as independents within one year of holding a partisan affiliation, Justice Byron White made apparent the Court’s belief that Madison spoke for the framers of the Constitution: “California apparently believes with the Founding Fathers that splintered parties and unrestrained factionalism may do significant damage to the fabric of government. See The Federalist, No. 10 (Madison)”.
BAM! The Founders were so worried about factions and parties taking over the new government and wrecking the new nation the colonists had worked so hard to build that they designed the government in a way that they believed would avert those problems.
No. 10 lays out the dangers of factionalism and partisanship to the new nation. Madison believed that it was human nature for people to gravitate toward others with similar interests, opinions, wealth, businesses, etc. with a tendency to form into powerful groups which are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. He and others who held this view anticipated that it could be either a minority or a majority of citizens who achieved such unjust power, and were concerned about both. In Madison’s view, the way to guard against such an eventuality was to establish the United States as a republic, rather than a pure, or direct democracy. In a republic, citizens elect representatives to speak for them in the governing body.
All of the following quotes are taken from, The Federalist Papers.
Here, Madison states his case about factions, echoing the very issues confronting us today:
“But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation 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 the Government”. (emphasis added)
Thus, Madison grasps how factions arise, understands the damage they can do to the nation and sets their regulation as an urgent task for lawmakers.
In his words:
“It is in vain to say, that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm: Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole.
The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular Government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular Government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed: Let me add, that it is the great desideratum, by which this form of Government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind”.
“A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking”.
The reasoning of the Founders went this way: Direct democracy, where everyone participated in government, was only realistic for relatively small jurisdictions. Even states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania were too large for it to work, let alone a nation composed of all the states. Besides, in small jurisdictions factions could more easily form due to proximity. Representative government could certainly work for a large country and the sheer size and distances would be deterrents to factionalism and partisanship. Moreover, in Madison’s view within the large society that representative government permitted, there were likely to be numerous parties competing with each other, thereby limiting the power of any single party. To wit: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it 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”.
Further, Madison believed that representative government would make the coalescing of factions less likely because it would:
“refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the People themselves, convened for the purpose”.
Considering Madison’s views on the willingness of men to oppress others when it benefited them, his optimism here is surprising.
To sum up: The Founders were wisely concerned about the potential dangers of factions and partisanship and were aware of how previous democracies had failed. They believed that a representative form of government would obviate the unavoidable tendencies toward partisanship and the ills to which it could lead.
Their concerns were justified. Their solution has been an utter failure!
The very worst version of the Founders’ fear has been realized. The faction we know as the 1 percent, with the help of the Republican and Democrat partisans, currently administers government policies “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”, to put it lightly!
Since these partisans are responsible for our current dreadful circumstances, just as the Founders warned, how can we possibly rely upon them to correct the situation?
The representative government that was supposed to protect us from the evils of factions and partisans has collapsed. It has been subverted by the very elected representative body that the Constitution created for our protection!
Side note: Ironically, Madison is credited with initiating political parties in the US. He ”…..became a partisan in the 1790s. Believing that (Alexander) Hamilton’s financial, economic and diplomatic plans for the young republic were both bad policy and contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, he organized an opposition in Congress that was called “Mr. Madison’s party.”
This effort ultimately resulted in the formation of the nation’s first political party, the Democratic-Republicans. Madison rationalized his change of heart in a way he thought consistent with his earlier thinking.
I do not know if representative government ever worked the way Madison expected it to. What is clear to me is that by the second half of the 19th Century power factions and partisanship were in full swing. The Robber Barons were a target of Teddy Roosevelt, and wealthy factions have had outsize influence over our government and economy for most of the period since. Thus, the Founders’ fears were vindicated long ago. Unfortunately, our government has established no durable way to put the factions and partisans in check, the way the republican form of government was supposed to.
Today, our two party form of government resembles a baseball game where the players of both teams are also the umpires. Having nullified voters, the parties have no independent check on their behavior or performance. Imagine that the two baseball teams have the same owner who chooses their players with no input from the fans (unlike the All Star game, where fans get to vote for the starting lineups). Having a common owner, all ticket sales go into the same pocket, so it doesn’t matter who wins. One nominal team must “lose”, but, still, everybody wins. So it is with the Dems and Repubs. Election wins and losses are not important, because the owners always win. Different in name only, they have no competition and are secure in their shared power. Backed by incredible corporate and private wealth, they believe they have no worries. And as long as their adversarial charade continues to fool and divide a substantial portion of the public, they do not.
We voters have effectively lost all control of our government. Our votes are managed, manipulated, gerrymandered, hacked and thrown in the trash. Our representatives avoid, disregard and disrespect us. They lie to and deceive us. They either openly show disdain , or they only pretend to be working for us. Our representative body is giving us the middle finger. What other recourse do we have to access government in our own country? Sure, we can run for local offices and make some inroads in our own communities, counties or states. For the most part, that must be done via the two party system as one gets to the state level, at which time we enter the incredibly bureaucratic, slogging, controlling, status quo world of the parties. Parties that are exactly where they want to be, and do not welcome reformers. Only the die-hard and frustration-tolerant can survive. This is an extremely inefficient and uncertain road to take.
Does the Constitution offer any relief to the people when their government has been hijacked via “legal” means by elements of the government itself? Well, the First Amendment protects our right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. However, there is no requirement for those petitioned to even consider or respond to the petition. No help there. That’s it folks! We have no formal path of recourse other than our neutralized vote.
These are precisely the reasons that true progressives eschew the “inside” strategy, i.e., trying to reform the Democratic Party. And why they point to the creation of an independent third party. And why they place most emphasis on the tried and true approach of building an organized movement of millions of Americans to press our demands in creative, powerful and sustained ways, such as civil disobedience, general strikes, large demonstrations that bring cities to a standstill, occupation of government buildings, and the like. Movement politics has long been the peoples’ politics because it is the only politics that has worked for us.
The current episode of corporate purchase of American government began about 40 years ago. Congress has been complicit and therefore disinterested in preventing the coup. We voters, doing what we could every two and four years have had zero impact in stopping or reversing the takeover. It would be foolhardy to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Forty years should be enough of a lesson. In the oft repeated words of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” he said in 1857. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The time of hoping and wishful thinking is over. It is time for pragmatism and demands.