At some point before reading this commentary, you likely were confronted with the bitter divisiveness that defines our political era. Consider the recent Republican meltdown over the House Speakership, the deep intra-party fracturing over the response to the Middle East and Ukrainian wars, and the early flashes of a brutal 2024 campaign cycle, not to mention how every facet of life now seems hyper-politicized.
You likely fall within the nearly two-thirds of Americans whom Pew Research found feel “exhausted” about politics, or the 63% with “not too much confidence” or “no confidence at all” in the functioning of our political system. How can we as ordinary citizens move forward in times like these?
There is good news and a call to action on this subject found in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.
The divisiveness we are currently experiencing is only a magnified form of what the Founders called “faction.” More than disagreement, faction is the idea that people will inevitably use their voices pursuing differing goals in a representative government. They will do so with varying degrees of passion and conflict will always result.
In “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison makes the case that faction is inescapable but not inherently ruinous. He asserts that faction will always arise in representative governments because governments are comprised of humans, and humans are self-interested. Because our self-interests do not all align, humans invariably come to conflict on the political means to achieve our goals.
Madison asserted that such faction is not only expected, but vital to and symptomatic of a functioning representative government. He timelessly reasoned that the only ways to remove faction are to remove liberty (unthinkable) or to remove differences of opinion (impossible). To Madison, then, the existence of faction means that the government at least functions well enough to advance the differing aims of its populace.
Was Madison naïve, operating in an environment of simplistic unity?
Hardly! Faction was real and at fever pitch in Madison’s time. The new Constitution and the role of federal versus state powers were heated public debates, not to mention still-smoldering divisions from the Revolution. Among other complaints, the political public of Madison’s time felt that their “governments [were] too unstable,” and that the “public good [was] disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.”
Sound familiar? The only difference between the Founders’ era and ours in this regard is that we suffer from the accelerating effects of social media and a 24-hour global news apparatus.
In short, faction’s existence is evidence that each of us still has a representative voice. And therein lies the call to action – use it wisely.
How can we do this? First, each of us have a responsibility to be civically and politically informed. Many of the Founders held this as a pillar of representative government. Thomas Jefferson held deep conviction of this principle, famously writing, “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
In this age of misinformation and misdirection, this task is harder, yet more critical than ever. We must educate ourselves on the processes, policies, and people that shape our lives, from the homeowner association to the White House. Practically, this means diversifying our news sources, consulting primary documents, taking an interest in the how and what of civics, and even reading viewpoints with which we disagree! Ignorance is not good enough for the American citizen if we hope to preserve our liberties.
Once informed, we must hold our elected officials and candidates to a higher standard than simply opposing those we oppose. Even back in 1787, Madison warned of candidates who would primarily operate through political arts and not with experienced, constructive leadership. In his guidance on faction, Madison implored the people to lift up leaders of “the most attractive merit.” Where faction is heightened, as it is today, the temptation is strong to support those who are most vocally opposed to our own political enemies. Yet if we do so without asking whether they are capable of enacting the government we seek, then we forfeit our political goals at the start.
Third, we must stay engaged. A record number of Americans are not participating in the political process at all. Participation in civic life occurs on an enormous spectrum, but voting is the starting line. The rest can take many forms, from local advocacy to communicating with your representatives to editorializing.
I make no prescription about the right answer for each citizen; the point is just to be engaged. We have the privilege and responsibility to do so as citizens in a representative government to which the rest of the world aspires. Perhaps Jefferson put it best in saying, “government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”
And what if we don’t? What if in this era of seemingly unchecked faction, the two-thirds of the American public who are exhausted just give up entirely?
The stakes are high and the consequences clear. When the “silent majority” stays truly silent by not voting, not running, and not advocating, the passionate extremes are increasingly overrepresented. And when that occurs, those who turn the gears of government do not actually represent the populace at all.
Moreover, when the political process decouples from the people it exists to represent, the system of representation itself is at risk of degradation. Readers don’t need further explication on the ills of authoritarian governments; simply check world headlines.
This American experiment is still an infant on a global geopolitical basis. Yet in our short existence, we have repeatedly been the standard-bearer for the advancement of human liberty and democratic principles. This is true despite faction’s existence and persistence. This faction is symptomatic of a functioning representative government, and the right response is not to give up, but to return to the basics of civic life.
If we do so, we will each participate in the endless work and incredible privilege of forming a more perfect union.
Lee G. Barkley lives in Huntsville. His professional and personal interests lie at the intersection of faith, civic life, and the marketplace. He can be reached at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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