Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Early Coup

The Electoral College is a subject that has taken up a lot of space in these pages recently, and the history of that body is instructive as to the impact political parties have had on the operation of our governments. The original concept was that the voters would choose electors, who would then go on to vote for two people. The person receiving the most votes (if a majority) would become the President, and the runner-up would become the Vice-President. [1]
If there are no parties, such a system makes intuitive sense. But with partisanship infecting our politics it is clear that the President would likely end up with an oppositional Vice-President under such a system; and with a two-party system that result would be inevitable.

And political parties arose early in the history of the Republic. In the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received “tie votes in the electoral college, thus throwing the selection of a President into the House of Representatives, despite the fact that the electors had intended Jefferson to be President and Burr to be Vice-President.” [2] The result was the Twelfth Amendment, which provided that the electors would vote for President and Vice-President separately.
Thus, the political parties took over the United States, and so it has been since that time. But that was not the intention of the Framers. As George Washington said about political parties in his Farewell Address:

“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. 

“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

“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.” [3]
Alas, Washington’s warning was not heeded, and political parties have completely captured our governmental system. That in our own day our national community has been agitated with the “false alarms” brought about by biased and fabricated news reports, that our country has become infected by “animosity of one part against another,” that our public councils have been distracted, and our public administration enfeebled, will not be doubted by anyone even casually acquainted with our public affairs. 

Perhaps the priority of partisanship was nowhere more glaring than when then Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (now the majority leader) made his infamous statement, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” [4] A strange and counterproductive legislative priority to say the least. But he was only giving articulation to that which has given rise to such phenomena as the Benghazi investigation and the inquiry into whether President Trump conspired with the Russians to take advantage of American gullibility. Party victory has become an end in itself, and supersedes the more serious business of governance. 

Moreover, the situation as it now stands has thwarted the very purpose of congressional representation. Senators and representatives are supposed to represent the interests of their states and districts. Instead, they represent their political parties, and officers are assigned to ensure that party members vote in favor of legislation supported by their leadership. The constitutional design has thus been overthrown.

The critical question, then, is whether the American people will acquiesce to this usurpation, or if some means can be found to overthrow this illegitimate system. Such an effort would be daunting to say the least, particularly since the foxes are guarding the henhouse. But it must be done if we are to have the sort of governance that the constitutional Framers envisioned.

Fans of partisanship should not flatter themselves that the problem will be solved once their party obtains power once and for all. That isn’t going to happen. Political majorities will continue to shift back and forth as politicians persist in failing to deliver on campaign histrionics. Statecraft will continue to take the back seat so long as party victory remains the teleological cause of political effort. 

In the next installment, I will try to make some suggestions for concrete action. In doing so, I will endeavor to be mindful of the political realities that would confront such an effort. At the same time, I hope that I have gone some way toward imparting the urgency of the situation.