July 29, 2011
Of Factions, Framers and the Tea Party

As anyone who studies the American constitution knows, at least part of the reason for the Constitution’s elaborate system of divided institutions and checks and balances is to limit the power of faction in political life.

The notion was that in separating powers, staggering elections, building in the representation of different constituencies, insulating the Senate, the Presidency, and the Courts from direct democratic, electoral pressure, and shaping the interests of one branch of government to delimit the powers of the others, a system of governance would emerge with enough power to govern, but without so much power that it could abuse its citizens’ rights and liberties. The Framers thus sought to balance their sense of the good things government could do and was needed for—just read the Preamble for a list—against their fear of the kinds of abuses of government that led them to declare independence in the first place. (Really read the whole Declaration of Independence if you want to get a sense of what I mean: it is mostly a list of complaints about how terrible the King is.)

Among other things, the Framers sought to avoid the kind of “elected dictatorships” that they saw dominating European parliaments—particularly the English one. In the parliamentary model, at least in theory, whatever party has a majority of seats in the legislature can run the government on its own terms. A majority can be a democratic dictatorship.

The thing is, this hope was always misbegotten. As Madison noted, “the latent seeds of faction are sewn in the nature of man” (Federalist #10). There is no way to either prevent factions from forming or from expressing their preferences in social and political life. It is certainly true that the US constitutional system makes it hard for factions to dominate political life. But it does not make it impossible. (It’s also worth noting that the Framers knew this: there were factions at the Constitutional Convention, and Federalist and Anti-Federalist sentiments were rife in 1788.)

Since the Framers believed factions couldn’t dominate the system they designed, they built a Constitution in which political parties are absent and unconsidered. After all, what is a party if not a broad faction?  Consequently, unlike the constitutions of most other democracies, the term “political party” does not appear in the US Constitution.

The Constitution’s silence about parties means that they are “extra-constitutional.” They’re not unconstitutional, but rather than being an integrated, intentional part of the system of checks and balances, they exist in the space “around” the Constitution.

This matters because American political parties formed to cheat the system to checks and balances, not serve it. Parties formed on the principle that if one party, sharing a relatively common political program, could capture all three branches of government (and those of the states as well), the American system could be made quasi-parliamentary: that party could get its legislative and other agendas through a political system designed to make it hard to get such agendas passed.

Notably, parliamentary systems usually have an option to deal with periods in which no party dominates the system: new elections. If the governing party or coalition falls apart, voters can have a chance to elect new people to office, reinforcing the current majority or replacing it. In either case—hopefully—the paralysis is broken and action can be taken.

The United States lacks this mechanism. Our elections are fixed in time, and if one part of government refuses to cooperate with others on ideological grounds, there is no mechanism by which the nation at large can choose to either support the rebels or the establishment. Instead, one or more branches of government dominated by one party that is in opposition to the political preferences of the other branches of government can cause political paralysis across the system. Paralysis, even in the face of impending crisis, is the default choice. (Think of the years before the Civil War, even after Southern states started to secede, or of US inaction on the Depression, as examples of such systemic paralysis.)

The tea party’s defiant dominance of the House of Representatives is, in part, the consequence of the Framers’ 224 year old decision to assume that no party could form and control American politics, and thus that there was no need to build mechanisms into the US Constitution by which the government could hold new elections in times of political paralysis. Maybe the tea party would win these new elections, and maybe it wouldn’t. But for now, the tea party is a faction the Framers didn’t prepare for.

The US stands on the edge of a cliff the Framers simply refused to see.

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  5. claro3 reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    Well worth the very short read.
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