17 February 2010

"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition"

Having recently defended the utility of ideology in politics, Jonah Goldberg turns in his latest column to a defense of partisanship. He's responding to comments by a current deputy national security adviser who's accused critics of the Obama administration's security policies of political and partisan motivations. To Goldberg this looks like the shoe being on the other foot, and that's a fair judgment. He admits that "the Bush White House certainly dabbled in that sort of thing," but to Goldberg the Democrats are the real hypocrites because they denied partisan motivation then, only to accuse Republicans of it now.

Goldberg's real agenda this week is to challenge the use of "partisan" as a pejorative. He distrusts people who call for "post-partisan politics," arguing that "Politics without partisanship isn't politics [a]nd democracy without politics isn't democracy." In other words, as far as Goldberg is concerned, there can be no opposition or dissent without political parties. That's what he seems to be saying, and he cites James Madison as his authority on the subject.

No one likes partisan animosity, never mind dishonesty, but politics are supposed to be messy. In Federalist 51, James Madison famously wrote about how 'ambition must be made to counteract ambition.' That's what 'playing politics' usually amounts to. Like the seeming chaos of the market, the hurlyburly of politics is how we sort things out. The result is often healthier than the process would suggest.

Madison certainly wrote those words, but not in defense of electioneering political parties. Here's the relevant passage from Federalist 51.

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.

As "Publius," Madison was discussing the separation of powers and relations between the executive, judicial and legislative branches under the proposed constitution. To prevent a consolidation of power in the hands of one person or clique, he writes, each branch needs to be jealous of its own powers and prerogatives, refusing to accept dictation from the other branches.

If anything, a close reading of Federalist 51 creates the impression that national political parties as we know them today only disrupt Madison's scheme to keep the powers of government separate.

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.

But the existence of political parties who run candidates for Congress and the Presidency alike gives partisans as much agency as possible in the appointment of both branches, while the ideological discipline sometimes insisted upon by national parties gives partisanship an obvious voice in the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Partisanship violates the borders Madison and his colleagues hoped to maintain between any two branches of government. It also creates the prospect of a monolithic majority that can impose its will through all branches without having to compromise with other interests, the situation Madison hoped that the size and diversity of the nation would prevent. It's no defense to argue that Madison ended up forming a political party himself, any more than the premises of the Declaration of Independence are disproved by Jefferson's hypocrisy on the subject of human equality. When he wrote Federalist 51 Madison could not see his own future. What he saw was a future that would accommodate politics with all its "hurlyburly," but without parties. It's an idea we should still strive to live up to despite Madison's own failing. It's a matter of individual conscience, not organization -- a fact Goldberg loses sight of because he clearly fears that the only alternative to a two-party system is a one-party state. Madison envisioned a no-party state in which all the country's vital interests would be represented and representatives would have full freedom of conscience. Too many Americans have lost their ability to imagine such a place, but there's no reason why we can't have it here.

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