Welcome, class, to an early lecture in Political Science 101. Today, Professor Adam Gopnik deconstructs Federalist Number 10 and shows that Madison grossly underestimated the possibility that the Dumbos would shut down the federal government in 1995 and 2013. Now, the SCOTUS is one black robe shy of a load and the Dumbos in the US Senate refuse to do their jobs. They'd rather go doody, not do their duty, with the United States of America as the recipient. Adam Gopnik may like political parties, but this blogger not so much. If this is a (fair & balanced) rejection of political sabotage, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Wild Parties: In Defense Of Political Factions
By Adam Gopnik
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
One of the weirder things about the current Presidential campaign is the outrage shown—you might almost say the umbrage taken—over party rules perceived as anti-democratic or unfair. This cuts in both directions. Bernie Sanders supporters are outraged by the presence of superdelegates, usually darkly described as party bosses, presumably complete with well-chewed cigars and derby hats and jobs for the boys, instead of the weary, long-serving, middle-ranking legislators they mostly are. Why do they get to vote? At the same time, Hillary-ites are outraged that a handful of quixotic caucus-goers get an outsize voice against actual hardworking voters. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is outraged to find that any rules exist at all that require his close attention—that he must, so to speak, read the rules on the inside of the game box in order to win. Bernie merely grumbles, while Trump threatens not to threaten violence. (New York values, indeed: Nice little convention you have here; be a shame if anything happens to it.) Both arguments show a poor understanding of what a party is.
A political party is not an institution of democratic government. A political party is an instrument of democratic government. An institution of democracy has an obligation to be democratic. But an instrument of democracy can take whatever form it wants. Lobbyists, pressure groups, and the free press—a political party is more like any of these than it is like a branch of government. We can form a political party whose sole end is to promote the candidacy of Lyndon LaRouche or Captain Kangaroo or whomever we want, just as we can run a newspaper that makes comically ill-reasoned endorsements of obviously unfit candidates. No one might join the party, as no one might read the paper. But a political party it would be. Parties make up their own rules to suit themselves, as papers may choose their candidates to please their publisher. Generally, the way we choose convention delegates has become more democratic in recent years, but, in the wake of several lopsided losses, the Democratic Party decided that it ought to have adult supervision in place at its conventions, and that some people who had given their working lives to the Party should be part of it. This may be a very bad idea, and it would be easy for Democrats to change it: they would just have to vote for new rules. But the existence of these rules is not in any sense unfair or undemocratic. It is just part of what it means to have a political party. Similarly, Ted Cruz is not cheating by figuring out how to get more delegates than the raw vote might indicate he deserves. Donald Trump, Jr., what with his father losing all of Colorado’s delegates to Cruz, said that he thought the United States was starting to feel like Communist China. But pluralities, majorities, ballots, and delegates—parties can make up their own rules about such things as they please. And politicians who are smart enough to rule learn the rules before they play the game.
What creates the confusion is the somewhat unfortunate truth that, in the modern primary system, the democratic institutions—voting booths and voter-registration lists, official dates and officials present—do at least appear to be in cahoots with the mere political instruments. This recent development, in which the primaries were made primary, means that we go into the voting booth in the spring to choose a Democratic or Republican (or, of course, a Green or Libertarian or Working Families) candidate in exactly the same way that we walk into it in November to choose a senator or President. But they’re not the same. One is voting for a club favorite, a den mother, or a troop leader whom we feel aligned with; the other is a constitutional duty.
Now, if there is one thing worse than the pundit who cites Tocqueville, it is the one who calls on the Federalist Papers to make a point. But in this case the Federalist Papers need to be cited. (Hamilton, “Hamilton”-ians will know, wrote dozens of them.) The founders hated party because party meant faction—i.e., putting the interests of your gang and brethren and kind above those of the country at large. A statesman, the argument went, ought to have a disinterested view of the long-term welfare of the state, not a narrow factional wish for short-term power-grabbing on behalf of his friends and financiers. A now notorious meeting in January, 2009, of Republican congressional leaders who, at a moment of national crisis, decided to deny the newly elected President Obama coöperation—even to help end the financial crisis that was bleeding the economy to death—is a perfect instance of the kind of thing Hamilton and Madison feared.
But it is an easily overlooked truth that the founders saw the cure for faction not in the regulation of political parties but in representative democracy itself. By moving away from direct democracy to elected legislatures, the very act of choosing representatives to do the deliberation and deciding would, as one of them might have put it, in the balanced prose of the eighteenth century, move the quarrels from the furious passions of the street to the calm deliberations of the statehouse. The cure for faction, in other words, was a strong central government. In a big republic, their theory ran, the legislators are sufficiently removed from daily quarrels that they can choose to ignore all those factional passions and concentrate on doing a good job. (This view lingers in Obama’s insistence not that the Republican senators do the right thing about Merrick Garland but that they do their job: act in a way that frees them from party, as republican legislators ought to.)
That did not work out very well. The big federal government, grown ever bigger, is more hospitable to faction than even the worst factions the founders dreamed of. But this is because of something that Madison and Hamilton at another level understood perfectly: people genuinely disagree, and the disagreements that we dismiss as factional are most often about first principles. One voter’s divisive faction is another voter’s sincere patriotic friends. The Federalists genuinely believed that the Jeffersonians would pull the country down into a mire of antediluvian slave-state agrarianism; the Democratic Republicans’ long-term, disinterested view was that the Federalists would sell the country out to Wall Street.
These were not party-bound views; they were principled views. Each side saw itself as having a vision of the welfare of all, and the other as wanting to advance nobody’s interests but its own and that of its friends. The Republicans who decided not to coöperate with Obama no doubt passionately believed—or at least believed that their voters passionately believed—that big public spending wasn’t necessary to get out of a recession, and that national public health insurance was unnecessary to assure the national health, and many other views. This may have been foolish or marginally insane. But these were their views. We have political parties because people genuinely disagree about what the long-term interests of the country actually are. The founders’ delusion was not seeing that factionalism would be destructive. It is. It was believing that disagreement about fundamental principles could ever be avoided.
This comes home with special force in 2016, because, very unusually for American history, we have two big political parties that have now actually become political parties of some ideological rigor—one long pushed well to the right of center, and now pushed to the right of the right, while the other, long a coalition of unlike kinds, is increasingly becoming, at least in terms of ideas, a social-democratic party in the European model. We can be happy or unhappy about this, but the cure for our unhappiness is not to insistently “democratize” the parties. It is to be more passionate about our faction and its rules—and, perhaps, to add more parties to the political pageant. When we go into the voting booth on primary day, we are not directly engaged in the greatest constitutional responsibility of citizenship, which is to vote for a government. We are simply one fraction of our faction. But that’s still a good instrument for a band of citizens to play. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]
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