As a Pennsylvania voter, I’m particularly fascinated by the identity politics that I see playing out every day before my eyes. It’s kind of ironic, since this is the state in which the founders met in to write a constitution which they intended to protect their posterity from the destructive effects of political factions. They warned us about the destructive power of political fanaticism. Not only has the modern Democratic Party failed to heed those warnings, but it has spent the last 40 years writing factionalism into its internal party rules. Identity politics may have worked for Democrats, from time to time, in the past. But now that the two leading candidates hail from different officially recognized racial, age and gender groups, the party is over. To quote Mr. Obama’s pastor ‘the chickens have come home to roost’.
James Madison wrote a pro-constitution editorial (known to history as Federalist 10), that described in prescient terms precisely why political factions are dangerous. When there is liberty, he argued, some men will create more wealth than others. Property and class factions are the result. Members of these different economic classes are tempted to pass laws which help themselves at the expense of the overall public good. Over time this excessive self-regard distorts the gift of reason and causes people to think and speak in ways that seem strange to the country at large.
Ambitious men with rhetorical skill exploit these factions, rising through them to positions of power. In fact, these ambitious men need factions in order to gain what they want. Groups of politically alienated voters are ideally suited to a demagogue’s desire for power and prestige. The narcissists and the fanatics feed one another.
Over time factions tend to move farther and farther away from reality as the reason-destroying power of fanaticism intensifies. Washington, following Madison’s lead, warned us in his Farewell Address that the power of party (his word for faction) tends to create convulsion and ‘false alarms’; that is social unrest and bizarre warnings about phantom dangers.