Something Worse than Faction
By Sarah Skwire
The American Founders were very worried about the problem of political factions. John Adams wrote in a 1780 letter that, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Sixteen years later, George Washington’s Farewell Address includes numerous cautions about the dangers of political faction.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
All these concerns about factionalism and the dangers of escalating conflicts between political parties chime well with political theater as currently performed in the United States. No two parties, it seems, could possibly be farther apart than today’s Democrats and today’s Republicans. The divide is unbridgeable. The divisions on all lines are as clear and as stark as they ever have been. And while one might not like either party, while one might, indeed, feel perfectly justified in despising both parties, the sense is that the reasons for despising each are very different.
It was with some surprise, then, that I read a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal that began:
The rap on Washington is that it’s too partisan and accomplishes little. We’ll take that if the alternative is this week’s budget deal that is a win for the political faction that really runs the place—the bipartisan spending party.
The deal announced Monday between the White House and leaders in Congress blows past the spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act by $320 billion in 2020 and 2021, and kills the caps thereafter. The budget act was supposed to enforce fiscal discipline, but it has devolved into a bipartisan trade in which Democrats get more on domestic accounts in return for giving Republicans more on defense. Everybody’s happy except the future taxpayers who will pay for it.
It was a bracing reminder, at just the right time, that the only thing worse than political parties that can’t get along and get to work is political parties that can. The Democrats and Republicans may be in complete disagreement about every single political issue of the day, but they will still find a way to get into a room together and agree to spend more money.
Wise as the Founders were to warn us of the dangers of political faction and political party—who can read the news and think they were wrong?—perhaps an equally necessary source of wisdom this year is Adam Smith. He writes about tradespeople here, but I think these words from the Wealth of Nations are just as applicable to the men and women engaged in the business of politics. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”