You get the feeling sometimes that many on the left side of the American political spectrum feel they have gotten a raw deal when it comes to the divvying up of the important Founding Fathers. Sure, the left got Thomas Jefferson, an imposing edifice of a man who shadows are more than long enough to stretch into the 21st Century. However, after that (and in many ways because of the stature of Jefferson) there are not many of that generation the left would like to call their own today. The anti-Federalist gang may have made up the bulk for Jefferson’s supporters back in the day, but their easy affiliation with “State’s Rights” and all of the Civil War connotations that go along with that makes them less than suitable to modern liberal palettes. Sure, a case could be made for Andrew Jackson, but he comes too late. Thomas Paine comes to mind, though his status is hurt by the fact he did little of the heavy lifting when it came to making and ruling the nation. No, for better or for worse, Jefferson is the icon of the left par excellence.
The right, on the other hand, have an entire lineup of individuals to draw upon. True, none by themselves have the heft of a Jefferson, but as a group they are undoubtedly more impressive. Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and James Madison all count as touchstones for the right; someone to call upon to make an argument or to set the tone of the debate. For that reason it is generally conservatives who draw upon the sources of the founding with surety and a deft touch. The left’s reliance upon Jefferson has left them vulnerable, from the standpoint of historically informed argumentation, to the provincialism that creeps into Jefferson’s thinking from time to time. It is true that similar habits can afflict the writers the right draws upon, but because they are not as reliant upon a single individual they can simply find a better judgement from a different source.
This has not gone unnoticed by the left who sometimes, in a desperate attempt to redress the balance, engage in almost Derridaian feats of deconstruction to make Hamilton or, especially, Madison into 21st Century liberal Democrats.
A good example of this phenomena can be seem in this editorial from The New Republic, Madison Weeps
“Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction,” James Madison wrote in Federalist Number 10. “The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.” Consider us alarmed.
Unfortunately, for The New Republic, the editors didn’t continue to read Madison because he makes clear what the real danger is in faction, and it is not the propensity for human beings to engage in it.
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. [emphasis added]
So, it is the enemies of liberty who use the reality of faction (in all of its quarrelsome distastefulness to be sure) to make “specious declamations” against free government that is the real mortal disease to be feared. Specious arguments are indeed what the editors of The New Republic seem to have in mind:
From the moment Barack Obama entered the White House, the Republican Party has cast itself as the Party of No. Whether it was the stimulus bill–which garnered not a single Republican vote in the House–or the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court–which only nine of 40 Senate Republicans supported–the GOP has defined itself in its opposition to Obama. But our alarm has been tempered by the knowledge that, in a way, this is as it should be: In our form of government, the minority party should be the opposition party; and, while the Obama administration did make overtures to the GOP on the stimulus and its selection of Sotomayor, those overtures were largely symbolic. The factionalism, while regrettable, was understandable. But, this week, as the health care reform battle reached a crucial juncture, the violence of faction has become gratuitous.
We refer, of course, to Max Baucus’s long-awaited health care reform bill–and the resounding thud with which it landed on Capitol Hill. There are many flaws in Baucus’s bill, but there is one thing that can be said for it: It represents as sincere an attempt in recent memory to achieve consensus.
So, according to the editors of The New Republic, the task Madison gave to himself in Federalist 10 was to ensure the majority faction got their way in the creation of legislation?
What Madison actually said was exactly the opposite:
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.
The great task Madison undertakes then, is not the enabling of the “ruling passion” which seeks to impose itself regardless of private rights and the public good, but the restraining of said passion. It is the republican form of government which Madison is advocating which, he felt, offered the solution to the problem. It is the variety of viewpoints implicit in such a system that Madison relies upon for the restraint of the small “cabal” who would seek to impose its “ruling passion” to the detriment of the public good and individual rights. And, by God, isn’t that exactly what has happened? Even Democrats have had to listen to the concern of their constituents and, as a result, decide to actually represent them.
The New Republic seriously misunderstands Madison if they believe he would be concerned that some ruling cabal was unable to shove a so-called compromise down the throats of people who do not want it. It’s as if I went up to someone and said, “I want your liver, heart and kidneys to transplant into myself tomorrow.” And when they complained I responded, “Ok, let’s compromise. I’ll just take your heart.” The New Republic seems to believe I would have a case that the other person was being unreasonable.
I think they’re nuts.
I’m not the only one who is decidedly unimpressed. Here is Ramesh Ponnuru’s entertaining take:
Every time you resist Democratic health-care legislation, you make James Madison cry in heaven….
The New Republic’s commitment to the idea that minority parties should try to meet majorities halfway is not deep. The magazine never complained about the Democrats’ repeated filibusters of judicial appointments, for example. The editorial expresses dismay that only nine Republicans voted for Sotomayor’s confirmation. Only four Democrats voted for Alito’s. As I recall, the New Republic was urging no votes. In 2005, the New Republic didn’t counsel Democrats to meet the Republicans halfway, or even to offer a proposal, on Social Security reform. (I don’t think any of this Democratic obstruction made my colleagues at National Review run overwrought editorials about “just how broken our political system has become”—to quote the editorial again.)
I don’t fault The New Republic for its lack of commitment to the procedural ideal its editorial endorses. Nobody should be committed to it.
Madison sure isn’t.
(Cross posted at The Iconic Midwest)