One of the most persistent issues to haunt American politics from the nation’s beginnings is the controversy over partisanship. As much as history tells us it’s a Jonah that must be extinguished if divisiveness is ever to give way to deliberation and agreement, seemingly it never is.
On the contrary, society’s inevitable descent into discord waged by rival political parties seems always to come with the promise of a growing national majority that will eliminate partisanship once and for all. Partisan interests continue to insist they’re above party; it’s their opponents who are guilty, never them.
Despite the divisiveness partisanship suggests, and in the political parties it naturally spawns, our national parties, unlike those in other places, have been able to moderate conflict with compromise, and discord with deliberation. The pundits have long celebrated the degree to which our parties have been able to tamp down rancor and discord rather than accommodate them. Acrimony and negativism continue to hover over every election, of course, but the search for common ground demanded by winner-take-all, plus the either/or realities of what’s needed to secure a needed majority, impose a note of moderation and need to compromise that has driven combatants toward the center of the political spectrum. It may bend and fluctuate at times, but it seems always to hold.
Today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere threatens to derail a political tranquilizer for partisanship that’s worked for generations. The democratic republic stabilized so long ago by it is showing a fissure, soon to be schism, never before visible.
For the first time since the Civil War, we face a political crisis in America we may not be able to resolve. No longer can America’s founders come to our rescue. The nation’s perpetual search for unum seems unable this time around to assuage the bitterness and distress associated with today’s hyperpartisan “pluribus-on-steroids.” Partisanship has descended into tribalism. The “e” in a motto that signaled positive movement toward political community, “from many to one,” metaphorically has been stricken from our national conversation. E pluribus unum, and the mechanisms that enabled it are in serious trouble.
Many of the nation’s founders considered partisanship an unavoidable threat. Historian Richard Hofstader came down hard on politicians who would inflame and weaponize it for short-term advantage, despite the long-term damage it posed to the body politic. In the early 1790s for example, Alexander Hamilton, chief strategist for what was effectively the new nation’s first political party, was quick to deny that reality and pounce instead on the spirit of partisanship he saw taking shape in the House of Representatives. James Madison, with the able assistance of House Clerk and “unofficial” political manager John Beckley, was busy molding the bitterness he saw emerging there in response to the financial program Hamilton had persuaded President Washington was best for the nation into the nation’s first formal opposition party.
Like the Jacksonians and Whigs, who adopted the same playbook later in response to political opposition to them, Hamilton tried to pin partisanship on his opponents, convinced the economic development policies he championed would fashion the national majority of patriots necessary to eliminate partisanship and parties from the scene entirely.
James Madison was quick to see danger in Hamilton’s proposals. In two editorials in the National Gazette, Madison addressed the inevitability of party in a society dedicated to personal liberty and self-interest. And vulnerable always to the dangers of class division. To “combat the evil,” he wrote, meant turning the nation’s affinity for parties to its advantage. And with that, Madison concocted a political strategy for building national unity, based upon a two-party mechanism designed both to educate and occupy a national population of well-informed, involved citizens. In Madison’s mind, that was the priority ingredient to a functioning republican government.
His first 1792 essay, “A Candid State of Parties,” appeared on Sept. 22. In it, consistent with what he termed in Federalist #10 “the most common and durable source of faction,” Madison spelled out the key prejudices and class-based assumptions informing them that divided society’s rich and poor and created seemingly insurmountable barriers between them. So much for the “Madison Problem” historians invented to rationalize what they saw as Madison’s inexplicable descent into partisan politics at the expense of the nationalism and selfless dedication to principle he had displayed in the run-up to the Constitution and the struggles to ratify it that followed.
Madison was not inconsistent at all. Unwavering commitment to principle best describes Madison’s behavior throughout this and the rest of his career in public service.
Those “who have debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves” and those who believe quite the opposite, Madison wrote in 1792, “are naturally offended at every public measure that does not appeal to the understanding and to the general interest of the community, or that is not strictly conformable to the principles, and conducive to the preservation of republican government.”
Just one day later, on Jan. 23, again in the National Gazette, Madison laid out his recipe for solution:
“1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. 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. 4. By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expense of another. 5. By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated.”
“Parties are unavoidable,” Madison explained, so government must “combat the evil” by treating everyone the same, denying perks and political favors to particular interests, and applying principles he spelled out in Federalist #51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” so no one faction’s ambitions take precedence over its rivals.
Madison’s formula presumes active rather than passive government, one willing to lead, not one content to follow. There’s little doubt that step three in Madison’s scheme – unobtrusively to promote moderation in the distribution and use of wealth by applying downward pressure on those at the top, while raising those at the bottom to “a state of comfort” — was by far his most provocative proposal. No doubt, the power to tax would be the instrument whereby government seeks to implement this controversial policy.
Seems that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others chastised as “socialists” by free-market, libertarian detractors, have in fact been extremely slow to pick up the gauntlet James Madison threw down before them so many years ago. “If this is not the language of reason,” Madison wrote in 1792, “it is that of republicanism.”