Ep. 10 - When Factions are the Cure
Discussing how small factions working within the existing major parties can help bring sanity back to American politics.
Welcome to the Self-Evident podcast. It’s been quite a while since my last episode. Life has been crazy, school has been crazy, and, honestly, I just do what I have time to do. Since it’s been so long, I decided to make an episode in connection to the debate triggered recently by an article written by Jonah Golberg about the idea of creating new conservative third parties. I won’t go into too much detail. I and many, many others have delved into this debate and I’d suggest doing some reading of the various articles yourself to get a measure of what it is we’re talking about. As for my two cents on the issue, I wrote a newsletter last week where I submitted a subtle shift from Jonah’s aims, maintaining the same goals but seeking to accomplish what he suggests, not through third parties, but through committees or caucuses that can organize people towards championing values within the existing party structures.
Today, in this podcast, I’m going to take this argument a little further and add some philosophical flavoring to what I’m positing. I’m not going to rehash my arguments too much from last week’s newsletter, so before you continue listening, I would suggest taking a moment and giving that newsletter a read.
As a Madisonian, one of my key interests throughout my studies of political theory and constitutionalism are the mechanisms or “auxiliary precautions” that can be introduced to a political system and political culture in order to maintain the counterpoise necessary to ensure that no single majority faction gains control of the government and proceeds to assault the rights and liberties of those outside of the majority’s interests.
James Madison, for his part, was zealous in assuring that such auxiliary precautions existed within the framework of the US Constitution. While others would have preferred a strong bill of rights within the main body of the proposed constitution, Madison initially scoffed at the effectiveness that “parchment barriers” could have in actually controlling the actions of the government. Pointing to the serious violations of English Constitutionalism at the hands of Parliament that necessitated the struggle against Britain, James Madison was more interested in establishing checks and balances on power than in an enumeration of rights.
Madison argued that only through a proper diffusion of interests that forced governance by coalition and consensus could rights and liberties ever truly be secured. In this view, no enumeration or declaration of rights can ever fully secure a nation from arbitrary oppression and tyranny if there was not a proper diffusion of interests to make it impossible for any one faction to be large enough to compose a true majority.
It should be pointed out that faction and party are not necessarily synonymous in political theory. More often than not, especially in American political history, a political party is more likely to constitute a coalition of factions rather constitute a single faction in and of itself, seeking absolute dominance of the wheels of government.
In our own day, most of Madison’s auxiliary precautions remain intact, though the counterpoise he helped establish has been disrupted by several key developments. The four main disruptions of constitutional counterpoise I’ll discuss today are negative partisanship, national communities, the imperial presidency, and national parties.
By national communities, I refer to associations that allow individuals to assume identities disconnected from their local communities and their states. Social media, for example, has created platforms for political activism that tend to establish core constituencies of citizens united by ideological beliefs that can wield political power despite being spread out across the country. This has tended both to increased instances of groupthink through self-sorting as well as a tendency to view politics as purely national because local and state issues fall to the wayside among groups that have no common interests at that level of government.
Developments such as this have frustrated several aspects of counterpoise that had existed within the American system. Firstly, the notion of dual sovereignty shared between state and federal governments has fallen to the wayside as the interests of the people have become far more interested in accomplishing their political goals through the federal government rather than local or state government. As well, officers in local and state government are often more interested in national politics and less interested in wielding political power in their limited spheres. Additionally, Madison had believed that each state would have its own interests and that it would be too difficult to unite various state-based factions into a majority faction. The technology that has brought us closer together has largely washed away the state-to-state differences that used to exist in even similarly philosophically disposed factions.
The imperial presidency as well has created its own set of difficulties. More than a mere executive authority, the president has come to represent the will of the people as a whole by way of being the only political officer elected by the entire nation. The people and their political representation have developed the tendency to adopt interests based upon whether they support the “nation’s father” or oppose him. This has made it difficult for a proper diffusion of interests to occur as, increasingly, the nation becomes split in two in support or opposition for a president. Both individuals and institutions lay down many of their interests in order to adopt and champion the common interests of a larger faction united by their disposition towards a single man.
Not only has this led to the development of larger, overarching factions, but it has disrupted the balance of power in the federal government as well. In the designs of the American system, the various branches of government were meant to check and balance each other through institutional jealousy. The idea was that, even if a member of Congress was politically allied with the President, his institutional loyalty would check the tendency to simply do what the President wants, and vice versa. But, as part of a broader political faction that transcends these countervailing forces, members of Congress now offer undying loyalty or unfailing opposition to the president based upon the pressures of national faction to the detriment of any institutional considerations.
Another concerning development is the popular view of political parties as national parties. I say popular view because, while the supposed leaders of the parties act like they’re leading a national institution, the realities of how American parties organize themselves do not reflect the notion of truly national organization.
Each major political party is actually a confederation of mostly independent local organizations with surprisingly high levels of autonomy. What national bodies exist within these parties have very little capability to impose their will upon local organizations. (This is why someone like Joe Manchin is a Democrat in West Virginia but would likely be a Republican in New York. Actual party politics can vary to great extant across different states and counties because there is no institutional gravity that dictates party politics).
But, as I said, this is not how the political parties are viewed in the popular imagination. They are made out to be monolithic entities either to be wholly supported or completely opposed. A center-right independent in New York will refuse participation in their local Republican Party because of the actions and words of a far-Right Republican in Georgia. A center-left independent in Utah will refuse participation in their local Democratic Party because of the actions and words of a hard-Left Democrat in Oregon.
The natural counterpoise that exists in the organization of political parties, which are modeled after the organization of the federal system, fail to operate as checks and balances upon the creation of majority factions because the tools for such a purpose largely lay unused. Because the parties have come to be viewed as national, monolithic institutions, people only join them if their interests align with their perception of the national interests of a large, national faction and they abandon them if they come to believe that their interests are opposed to their perception of the same.
The combined impact of everything that I have discussed leads the propensity of negative partisanship. Because we’ve effectively allowed for the creation of two large factions that control our two major parties and because both factions claim to represent a majority of the country, many Americans have reasonably become concerned that the outcome of any given election will have major consequences upon the nation.
Because the parties claim a mandate of majority approval for their ideas when they gain control of the government as a national “majority” faction, they feel entitled and empowered to engage in arbitrary governance. Building coalition and consensus in legislation in this environment comes to feel like a compromise of basic principles rather than the exercise of good governance. The political parties end up seeing no reason why they can’t attempt to enact their entire vision without the constraints of opposing viewpoints or the concerns for those outside of their “majority” faction.
This leads to mainstream voters who, while at the same time feel pressure to disassociate from the parties and fail to engage in the party processes, nevertheless feel they have no choice in the general election but to vote against the side they view as a wholly unacceptable option due to the realities and perceptions of what they will do when in power.
This negative partisanship has double impact upon the problems we’ve been discussing because it both leads to a lack of participation in party processes that allows marginal interests to wield unchecked power while also enabling mandates for these marginal interests who can claim to be a majority faction when they do not actually reflect the interests of most mainstream voters.
When Factions Are the Cure
The solution, believe it or not, is to create factions. Not separate political parties, mind you, but to engage in the ideas I laid out last week in my response to Jonah Goldberg’s conservative third-party idea. We need more factions within factions, factions within our political parties, so as to diffuse interests and disallow any single faction from claiming a majority mandate in the government.
We need to slowly but surely attack the idea that either political party is a truly national faction that wields majority approval for any single interest group. Presidents, Senators, Representatives, and all local and state officeholders must be made to understand that they are in power because coalitional efforts put them there, not a monolithic and united faction that they must kow tow to.
Specific to my brand of conservatism, there needs to be organized local and regional organizations of Platform Republicans, Values Voters, or, as an excellent article for National Affairs suggests, liberal-conservatives.
Indeed, the article from National Affairs, written by Steven M. Teles & Robert P. Saldin, lays out a path for (a) small but effective organization(s) of classical liberal conservatives who can leverage what power they have for change within the Republican Party (the working model for this kind of action, believe it or not, is the Democratic Socialists of America).
The article lays out the unfortunate reality that, for the time being at least, “the dominant faction of the GOP will almost certainly be populist and nationalist” but it goes on to point out that this faction can be kept from being considered a majority faction and can be “forced to share the party with what we will call the 'liberal-conservative' faction in recognition of its grounding in classical-liberal principles of free trade, pluralism, and constitutionalism."
As the constituency for this ‘liberal-conservative’ faction, the article lists the “middle class, the college educated, business managers and owners, and more upwardly mobile members of ethnic minority groups, especially in cities and states where Democratic governance begins pinching their core interests.” The article suggests that broad financial support for such a faction could come from “the financial sector, which is generally less socially liberal and more suspicious of increased taxation than the technology entrepreneurs of the West Coast while sharing with them a generally internationalist orientation that makes the nationalism of the populists and socialists anathema."
The article even points out the appeal of this ‘liberal-conservative’ faction to areas that are out of play for a nationalist and populist dominated GOP, such as “the bluer parts of the country” where Republican governors gained “re-election...in Maryland and Massachusetts, who, in a somewhat inchoate form, already embrace such an approach.” Pointing to “GOP success in Annapolis and on Beacon Hill” as indicative but “lone-wolf” successes, the article suggested the possibility for “fueling a durable faction” out of this approach by building “a broader organization and forg[ing] connections with like-minded partisans elsewhere.” The article asserts quite unequivocally that “building a liberal-conservative faction within the Republican Party is not a fantasy."
The article cautions that this ‘liberal-conservative’ faction would indeed be a minority faction for the time being, but that it could still create a “genuinely distinctive, independent, factional brand such that voters don't think of themselves as supporting the dominant populist faction of the GOP with their vote in congressional elections” and that “it could become powerful enough to force the majority faction to negotiate and share power with it."
I actually hold a bit more optimism than the article is willing to concede because I think that once a choice could be provided to the Republican electorate that doesn’t amount to supporting the Left in order to oppose Trump there would be significant portions of voters who would get shaved off from what ultimately remains a small but dominant faction of true nationalists and populists who are punching far above their weight in their control of the party.
But, regardless of how quickly such a ‘liberal-conservative’ faction may gain inroads within the Republican Party, the path is nevertheless there (and similar paths exist for center-left efforts in the Democratic Party as well). This, of all the suggestions I have pondered over the last half-decade, seems the most sound and rational way to both arrest the control of the major parties by marginal factions and to address the increased anxieties and disruptions of domestic tranquility by the general belief that the two major parties represent coherent and monolithic factions that can claim true and unflinching majority support when they take control of the wheels of government.
I started this podcast by referencing the Madisonian notions of counterpoise and auxiliary precautions whose purpose was to diffuse interests in order to keep any faction from growing large enough to dominate the country as a governing majority. I laid out four key ways in which this goal has been frustrated in modern politics: negative partisanship, national communities, the imperial presidency, and national parties.
My closing argument relates to my prescription of re-establishing factional divergences within the major political parties and how this path not only addresses the immediate concerns of our political moment, but can address the four problems I’ve laid out.
The factional approach I propose would effectively address the problems associated with negative partisanship. By carving out philosophical space where people can engage based on their actual interests, it will help arrest the tendency of individuals to surrender their interests to their view of a national party in order to defeat the party they oppose more. Membership in such smaller factions would also embolden people to punish their own parties if their factions are ignored in the selection of candidates. Finally, it would be much more difficult for elected officeholders to claim overarching mandates as they are forced to recognize they owe their positions to coalitions of factions and not to overwhelming support from a supposed single majority faction. All of these developments would help lower the temperature and make negative partisanship far less likely among the electorate.
Smaller and active factions would also limit the impact of national communities, especially of the online variety. Locally based factions within the parties would encourage people to step away from their computers and engage in political activism in their own neighborhoods and states, helping to re-establish interests that are more regionally and state-based. This would not only limit the effectiveness of factions that skip over local and state interests and make the conversation solely about the federal government, but it would also engender more conscientious political engagement since rhetoric tends to be more measured face to face than with the buffer of a computer screen.
Most strikingly, re-establishing smaller factions within the political parties would absolutely shatter the illusion of national parties that reflect coherent and monolithic factions who can argue for representing a total majority of the country. With enough effort, Americans would begin to see through the partisan fog and recognize the major political parties for what they are: political institutions where coalitions work together to elect generally acceptable members of government. Parties are not themselves factions but loose confederations of local organizations who themselves are pressured by various factions pushing and pulling against each other to find compromise and consensus.
All of these things would have their impact upon the imperial presidency as well, though this is perhaps the factor of dysfunction that is the least likely to be impacted through the efforts I suggest on their own. The reality of the presidency is that serious adjustments to federal procedure are needed to re-establish the proper balance in the three branches of the federal government. This is a topic for another time. But there are still ways that small, active factions could help at least prod things in a better direction. First and foremost, members of Congress would see themselves less as extensions of a presidential agenda attached to a national party and more as representatives of the coalitional interests that put them in office. As well, the Presidents themselves would be less able to claim clear mandates for governance since their time would be spent negotiating with the various factions of their winning electoral coalition as much as it would be asserting their agenda. Finally, Americans could begin to see their president less as a figurehead representing the nation as a whole and more as chief broker and arbiter who helps sort out the various interests of the smaller factions and must see to the faithful execution of what legislation gains consensus and becomes law.
In politics, there is never a silver bullet. But I do believe that if we can establish smaller factions that can operate within existing party structures and shatter the illusion of the parties as factions themselves, it will go a long way to lowering the temperature in the country and to finding paths towards better and more effective governance.
If I had the means and connections to act upon my suggestions, I would do so in a heartbeat. But all I can do is make an argument for my ideas and hope that enough hearts and minds are touched that maybe such efforts may take root, even if they only begin in a few key places ripe for such efforts.
And that will do it for this episode. We’ll see how long it takes before I’m able to pump another episode out. Until then, stay free my friends.