“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.James Madison, Federalist 10
As I teach, give speaking engagements and meet people from all walks of life and all political persuasions, I’ve come to realize just how unique and important political parties are.
My common refrain is this: the Constitution is an incredibly unifying document. It defines and therefore confines government power, which in turn, prevents our government from taking hold of arbitrary power. Arbitrary power is power that’s limitless and any government that has limitless power is a dangerous and likely abusive government. Everyone to whom I’ve defined arbitrary power for has emphatically stated that they don’t want to live under a government that can just do anything to them. This is why the Constitution is the great unifier. The only people who seem to root for an arbitrary government are those in government.
The point I usually make then is that it really should be “we the people” and “the government” rather than allowing the government to split everyone into to party tribes. It’s an effective mobilization tactic to be sure. People are more likely to vote, to campaign, to give money etc to a party or a candidate if they feel that the opposing party is patently wrong or the “enemy”. This is the story politicians must weave to keep their constituents active and participatory. It’s human nature. If we see a threat, we’re more likely to act. But if we feel moderately satisfied with our lives, we’re less likely to act. So, it’s in government’s best interest to shift our focus from them and their behavior overall, regardless of party, to other citizens of the opposition party.
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”James Madison, Federalist 10
My goal is the strip away some of this divisive rhetoric and draw attention to what we, as Americans, do share in common with each other by pointing to the Constitution and the fact that it prevents arbitrary power.
All of that being said, the point I want to make in this article is that political parties and disagreement amongst citizens is a good thing. It’s a healthy part of a free society. Someone once told me that the United States is so unique because we have differing political parties that don’t destroy each other but rather balance each other and force peaceful discussion and compromise. We can take our anger out on each other while still living together, functioning together, going to sporting events together, checking out at a grocery line together, working together and the like. This is not so in many nations.
So, when I say that the Constitution is a unifying document, I do mean that and want to strip the power to divide in an unhealthy way from government. But just because I think the Constitution is a unifying document does not mean that I think we should all share the same opinions or ideologies or party allegiances. No, we can simply all agree that our government ought to be confined, even though we’ll likely disagree with how the government uses the powers they do have. A society where everyone believes the same thing is no free society at all.
We need our parties to disagree. We need people in the U.S. to hold differing opinions about government and how it’s doing what it’s doing. If we didn’t have that, we’d be a society akin to China or any other communist country where all differing opinions are silenced in the face of the one opinion government allows and propagates.
“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”James Madison, Federalist 10
We need to disagree. That’s what freedom is. As soon as one party starts proclaiming their total virtue and the elimination of the other party (which both parties in this country are doing right now), we know that we’ve strayed from the key principles of liberty and freedom of opinion that make this country great and that keep government accountable.
Some of the founders hated parties, while others, namely James Madison, knew that parties and faction were a natural side-effect of liberty. The best way to handle a country fraught with differing opinions was simple for Madison: make sure that every opinion has a place to to exist and be expressed and the balance of all the opinions will prevent any one opinion from fully dominating the others.
“There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.”James Madison, Federalist 10
The Liberty Belle