James Madison to America: This Is What We Warned You About

Jerry Bowyer
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Posted: Apr 16, 2008 4:57 PM
James Madison to America: This Is What We Warned You About

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.

According to Madison, eventually factions can gain so much power that they are able to promote laws which destroy the liberty of other citizens. For instance (and these examples are his, not mine) they may erasing debt obligations, or impose trade restrictions in order to protect certain interest groups from foreign competition, or perhaps impose special taxes on the numerically small propertied classes . Both Madison and Washington also warned future generations about the role of foreign powers in this process. Faction leaders often identify less with America than they do with their country of origin. For all of these reason, factions should be discouraged, and their effects minimized, said the men who met in Philadelphia.

As I write this, I’m less and less clear whether I’m writing about Philadelphia in 1788 (when the constitution was implemented) or Philadelphia in 2008 (as I see it shredded). You probably are too. Last month, Barack Obama initiated his Pennsylvania campaign by giving a speech in Philadelphia on race in America. Ironically enough, that speech was delivered at the National Constitution Center, across the street from the place where Madison and Washington and the rest issued the Constitution of the United States, a documented explicitly designed to rectify the factionalism to which America has been so vulnerable. My National Review colleague Byron York was there and spent time talking with member of the audience. Over and over again, he found, not people who were satisfied that Barack had sufficiently distanced himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but people who agreed with Wright in the first place. The comments of Obama supporter, Gregory Davis seem pretty typical, “I wasn’t offended by anything the pastor said. A lot of things he said were absolutely correct…. The way he said it may not have been the most appropriate way to say it, but as far as a typical black inner-city church, that’s how it’s said.” There in a nutshell is the problem of faction, one group speaking about the nation as a whole in levels of hostility which are simply incomprehensible to the general public.

It’s not just race and gender, it’s also age. My mother, who has come out of retirement to help the Northampton County Department of Elections deal with the overflow of new voter registrants told me that the cards she sees are overwhelmingly registering as Democrats and they are overwhelmingly coming from college students. Do you have any doubts about who those students intend to vote for?

The factionalism of interest group also spills out into what the founders called ‘sectionalism’, that is factions which correspond with geographical divisions. The sections now are less a matter of upper and lower then they are a matter of toward or away from. City,/suburb/exurb has replaced Southern state/border state/northern state as the sectionalism of the 21st century. Philadelphia belongs to Barrack; the southeast suburbs are battleground counties, and Pittsburgh’s industrial west belongs to Hillary.

In other words, Pa Democrats like their brethren around the country, are tearing their party apart along race, age, gender and geographical grounds.

Who can blame them? Democratic voters are just doing what they’ve been trained to do – they’re thinking of themselves as members of factions. Over and over the Democratic Party has rewritten its internal rules to assuage the anger of unsuccessful political factions. This pattern started after the rioting at the 1968 convention with the McGovern-Fraser commission. Delegate quotas were established based on age, race and gender. Party caucuses were structured in ways that favored organized activist groups.

The rhetoric followed the rules. Jesse Jackson articulated the new arrangement perfectly in the Democratic convention of 1988 when he likened his party to a quilt made from individual patches of cloth, stitched together by his grandmother. On their own, they could not expect to rule, ‘your patch is too small…’ he told them each in turn. But sewn together women, blacks, latinos, and unions could take the nation.

Al Gore articulated it inadvertently when he bungled the motto from the Great Seal: E Pluribus Unum, which he translated as “from one, many”. It is, in fact, the opposite “from many, one”. His Latin was pretty weak, but his ability to translate the mood of his party was spot on.

What, if not factionalism, lies at the heart of Hillary’s ‘its tough for a woman out there’? What, if not factionalism, lies at the heart of Obama’s church with it’s the-government-intentionally-created-Aids-to-kill-black-people paranoia and its Afro-centricity?

Step by step, the warnings of Federalist 10 have been trodden underfoot, until finally age, race and gender have moved from the edges of the party to its very center. Delegate quotas, activists-dominated caucuses, the replacement of winner-take-all with proportional delegate systems…even proposed fixes such as super delegates and front-loaded primaries, are all fruit which comes from the same poisoned tree – the rejection of the founder’s vision of a nation protected from factionalism.

G.K. Chesterton once said that if you find a boundary stone in the middle of a field, and you don’t know why it’s there - don’t move it. For the past four decades the party of Jefferson has been moving the ancient boundary stones. This year’s Democratic primary chaos stands as a monument both to the arrogance of the generation of 1968 and the wisdom of the generation of 1788.