Despite the bizarre political-rally setting, I thought President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night was one of the better ones of his presidency, certainly one of the most important, making several important points about the state of our democracy and our country and what to do and not do about it. But besides the fact that he aimed it enough at his supporters that the people who perhaps most needed to hear what he said will ignore it, I’m worried that his unwavering commitment to optimism may have led him to understate the threats to our democracy and fail to get at their root causes. In December, when the left was calling for the electors to effectively overturn the results of the election, I made many of the same points but came to two conclusions that evidently were a bridge too far for Obama: that the root of the problem was the two-party system and that truly fixing our government would have to involve making changes to the Constitution.
In other words, I saw the problems with our government as primarily structural, while Obama sees them (or says he sees them) as primarily peculiar to this moment. Obviously the particular circumstances of the moment must have something to do with our situation for us to make it over two hundred years without running into the problems we’re experiencing now, but the specifics of those circumstances are unlikely to change just because Obama hectors us to change them, and are more likely to get worse. “The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” and the ability to take in only the facts and engage only with people we already agree with was inevitable with the rise of the Internet, a natural consequence of human nature only forestalled by the presence of a small number of media outlets able to control the national conversation to a significant extent; perhaps it’s possible to teach people to discern real facts from “fake news”, but we’re a long ways away from that and not even that close to universally recognizing it as a good thing, let alone a necessity of democracy. Obama speaks of “allow[ing] our political dialogue to become…corrosive” and “writ[ing] off the whole system as inevitably corrupt” as weakening the ties holding the nation together, as though the corrosiveness of our political dialogue weren’t an inevitable result of technology and increased popular participation in political debates and the criticisms of the system didn’t have some merit. In this context, it makes sense that Obama would speak of “rebuilding our democratic institutions” in ways that work within the system – making it easier to vote, reducing the influence of money in politics, increasing the emphasis on “transparency and ethics”, and redrawing district lines, all laudable goals but made easier if not self-correcting when more than two parties can thrive, which none of those goals help with – but treat the problem as a failure to live up to our Constitution’s ideals, rather than the Constitution itself potentially being part of the problem.
Not that the Constitution’s ideals are bad ones – far from it! But in America, we tend to revere the Founders and our founding documents almost to the point of religious devotion. If Obama can’t admit that our Constitution might be a contributing factor to our problems, calling for a Constitutional convention to greatly change the structure of our government must seem downright sacrilegious; even raising the possibility that the way the Constitution pursues its ideals ends up undermining them seems largely verboten. In order to truly confront the root causes of today’s gridlock, we are going to have to confront the reality that for all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers were after all human beings who lived nearly 250 years ago, human beings with flaws and disagreements, and that in crafting the Constitution they made some critical errors that ultimately undermined their goals.
There are two major errors the Founders made in crafting the Constitution in particular that have proven to undermine the franchise. The first and most obvious to students of American history is their distrust of political parties without appreciating the forces leading to their creation. The second was that, for all their distrust of kings, they let their hero-worship of George Washington lead them to give the presidency more power than they probably actually wanted, creating the opening that would ultimately lead to today’s king-like presidency through a procession of presidents with less humility – a process they were actually deeply aware of. The two are interrelated – the Founders hoped the Congress would stop the president from obtaining more power for himself, but they’re more likely to let the president do what he wants if they’re more concerned about their loyalty to the party than to their current office or themselves – but each has proven corrosive on their own.
The Founders believed factionalism was the result of too much popular participation in the political process – of people pursuing narrow self-interests. By granting more power to elected representatives, they believed, those representatives would be free to focus on deliberating amongst themselves, united by the quest to do what was best for the republic as a whole and the imperative to do the job for which they were elected. In the Founders’ minds, lawmakers would line up and take stands on an issue, then when the next issue came up they would line up and take sides on that issue, sides that looked completely different from the previous issue and with little apparent commonalities besides their opinion on that issue. Besides missing that even the “best men” could be subject to a more subtle form of the same sort of passions they believed the people at large were susceptible to (not to mention that this was pretty much how Britain’s Parliament worked and it resulted in the very party system they were trying to avoid), the Founders missed that even the most learned, disinterested statesmen could have legitimate fundamental definitional differences as to what was best for the republic, differences that existed amongst the Founders themselves and would unite those committed to one definition behind a given course of action while pitting them against other definitions dedicated to other courses of action, and might even lead them to believe the other side was not really interested in the welfare of the republic and that only their own side was. Some might believe in a strong central government while others believed in states’ rights; some might believe in protecting rural farmers while others believed in helping urban industries. Even among the very people that worked on the Constitution there were disagreements over what it actually allowed the federal government to do.
In the end, the Founders were probably too optimistic about the merits of voting for the person as opposed to the party. Parties may have been the result of people pursuing narrow self-interests, but organized parties control and direct the pursuit of self-interest into forms more conducive to the success of the party as a whole, presenting a coherent statement of the merits for or against a particular position from the anarchy of hundreds of individual representatives, encouraging and supporting compromise and potentially unpopular yet necessary courses of action, even if they don’t always do so in the most savory of ways. The separation of powers was supposed to prevent the system from being exploited by people with naked self-interest; Congress was supposed to have most of the power, and the President had to work with them to get anything done. Individual Congressmen couldn’t get too much power without potentially running afoul of the President, and if worst came to worst the Supreme Court could curb the President and Congress from together abridging the rights of the people. What the Constitution does not do is provide any system for curbing those who would pursue naked self-interest despite all this, something that has become far more necessary now that the Senate and Presidency are directly elected by the people, creating far more opportunity for a demogogue to achieve one of those offices. Members of Congress can only be booted out in the middle of their term by a two-thirds vote of their house (a high enough bar that it is exceedingly rarely tried), and the President can only be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, not for using the legitimate privileges of their office in a legal but self-serving way. In effect, the Constitution and the push for democracy uber alles leaves it up to the easily-manipulable people to vote out the most self-interested politicians (and as the Republican primary process proved, even if the people do try to vote against the demogogue they can end up splitting the vote and giving the demogogue the win anyway).
Despite all our polarization along partisan lines, in some ways we live in a culture significantly closer to the Founders’ intention than at any time in history, and it is proving no virtue; we now live in a world where a self-professed billionaire can run for an office he seems to treat more like a dictatorship than a presidency solely on the back of his own brand, where one particularly venal politician can bring the entire government to a standstill just to discredit the “establishment” and further his own career. Republicans may take advantage of this more than Democrats, but over the last sixteen years I have lamented that Democrats have been too moral to engage in this sort of brinkmanship; their commitment to upholding political norms, actually seek out compromise, and actually care about appealing to more than just party activists gave them a candidate for President that failed to excite those activists enough to match the enthusiasm of Trump supporters, has given them little hope of capturing the House until at least 2022, and dashed any hope of actually accomplishing any of their agenda at the national level short of favorable Supreme Court decisions – and the rise of Bernie Sanders and backlash of the party base against its establishment in the wake of Hillary’s loss (in part because of the reticence of many of Sanders’ supporters to support her even in the face of the threat posed by Trump) suggests the Democratic base is getting tired of constantly trying to appease the Republicans and constantly losing, and may be about to react to Trump’s victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress similarly to how the Republicans reacted to Obama’s similar victory. Sanders supporters who seethe at the DNC tipping the scales to Hillary should note that a similar degree of control at the RNC might have saved the country from Trump.
In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that the only way to prevent the tyranny of a majority of citizens from trampling over the rights of a minority was a system of representation, whereby “the public views” would be filtered “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.” Demagogues and evil men might obtain high office, but this would be unlikely at large scales, since there would be more wise men, it would be harder for demagogues to charm a larger number of people, and the diversity of their opinions would be more likely to center on wiser men. A large nation, Madison argued, would have a greater diversity of interests, which would make it harder for any of them to form a majority with which to pursue their views on the whole, and even if they did they would be torn apart by internal disagreements:
The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. 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. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
Madison recognized that if factions could not be avoided, the best outcome would be a large number of them, representing a diversity of competing interests, that could not band together to pursue a single policy at the expense of the minority. This, he would soon see, would not come to pass. The Constitution did nothing to prevent the diversity of interests in the United States from coalescing around two major political parties, or from being able to push their agenda on the rest of the country once they were able to form a majority. Nor could Madison foresee today’s great urban-rural divide and the formation of two great factions with diametrically opposed views hoping to achieve enough control of government to enact their agenda, with few who honestly combine views from each side, let alone hold completely novel views, and fewer who are active enough in politics to exert their own influence on the system.
It’s impossible to know what, exactly, the Founders would have done differently if they had known that the rise of parties was going to be inevitable. Likely they would have sought to find a way to direct the passions of each faction towards the good of the republic while mitigating the negative consequences they feared – perhaps incorporating the parties into the system of checks and balances in some way and creating structural, not merely cultural, incentives to compromise. If Federalist #10 is any indication, one thing they might have done would be to try to ensure that as many definitions of the good of the republic would be represented as possible, under the theory that compromise is more likely when there are many parties that are likely to find common ground with other parties than when you have two parties diametrically opposed to each other. Part of the reason for our current malaise is that we have too few political parties for the diversity of our electorate, with the result that the parties, which should be private organizations to exert a particular viewpoint on the levers of politics, have effectively become fundamental parts of the political process themselves, with the primary process being seen as every bit as important a means to express one’s duty as a citizen as the general election. In a functioning democracy, party bosses should have every right to set the rules to run their parties as they see fit, but when the parties are every bit as much a part of the political system as Congress, for them to do so smacks of corruption and twisting the political system itself to serve entrenched interests, so the parties find themselves torn between ensuring party unity, representing all the factions of their base, presenting an electable candidate, and resisting insurgency. So the Republicans are hijacked by activists to nominate perhaps the most anti-democratic major-party candidate in American history, while the Democrats’ greater control of the process ends up alienating the very activists that, in the modern American political system, they so desperately need. A healthy party system might have parties for the following viewpoints (some of which might merge with others):
- The free market almost always knows best, and government should be shrunk and as many functions given to private enterprise as possible.
- Government should serve to curb the excesses of the free market and provide avenues of opportunity for people to move into the middle class or the rich.
- The capitalist system needs to be torn down and replaced with a socialist system with government at its center.
- America is a federation of states, and so the states should be given broad leeway to run themselves as they see fit, as much as is feasible.
- Only a singular strong, powerful leader can make America great again.
- America is a Christian nation and should be organized around Christian principles.
- People should have freedom to do whatever they want without impinging on other peoples’ freedom, whether that’s to get an abortion, marry someone of the same gender, own a gun, or start and run a business as they see fit.
- Government needs to act on behalf of the environment and future generations that cannot have a direct voice in government.
- The only goal that matters is for America to increase its GDP as much as possible.
- America should focus on protecting its own working class from the abuses of the rich and competition from overseas.
- America should use its power to spread the ideals of democracy all over the world and safeguard the current world order of peace.
One thing I’m fairly certain the Founders would have done differently if they had known about the inevitability of parties is greatly curb the power of the Presidency, if not get rid of it and have the head of government be chosen directly by Congress. The rise of the two-party system would make it much easier for the President to continue to accrue power across the decades while losing little to none of it, while the method of electing the President himself would end up being the single biggest factor in preventing more than two parties from forming. We’ll get into that in the next post.