Home/Daniel Larison/The Evils Of Factions, The Evils Of “Centrism”

The Evils Of Factions, The Evils Of “Centrism”

Indeed, the Founders didn’t really anticipate parties at all. But they did expect what Alexander Hamilton called “factions,” recognizing that our democratic republic couldn’t work without them. ~Jonah Goldberg

Well, yes and no.  Putting it as Goldberg has put it gives the somewhat incorrect impression that the Founders saw faction as something necessary and perhaps even good.  In fact, they believed factions were necessary to republican government only insofar as they were unavoidable.  The Federalists took it as a given that factions would exist, because they recognised a variety of competing interests in any society determined by wealth, habits, region, religion and so on.  They believed it was necessary to harness what they regarded as a potentially very pernicious human inclination to factionalism and division and regulate the competition of interests through the balances of mixed government.  In this they participating in a long British tradition of seeking to check and oppose the influence of faction on the workings of government.  Hatred of faction suffuses 18th century radical Whig and Tory thought alike, and our Founders inherited this.  Most everyone could agree that faction was inescapable, but most also recognised that it was a threat to republican government, and they were not wrong about this.  That does not mean that we should run towards the dismal swamps of Bloomberg, Broder and Obama (to take three examples of people who have never encountered a saccharine appeal to bipartisanship they didn’t like), where we are all united in our supreme contempt for conviction and our deep disdain for difference.  On the insanity of this Bloombergism, this Obamaian “transformation” of our politics, and probably only on this, Goldberg and I agree. 

Mixed government was supposed to provide for the healthy coordination and balancing of all interests of the commonwealth and needed to be governed by those who placed a higher priority on the interests of the whole.  The purpose of Federalist No. 10 was to argue that the proposed federal union would provide a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” namely those of faction, because the authors of The Federalist were convinced that faction, left unchecked, would wreck any republic.  Arguably, the Federalists had the solution completely backwards.  They managed to create a system in which the power of faction was exaggerated by concentrating more power in the center and bringing the clash of diverse interests into the federal government, ultimately to the detriment of the Union and the common good.  The viability of an extensive republic–a key element of the Federalist position–was all but disproven in the next century.  Expansion introduced and exacerbated the very factionalism that the extensive republic was supposed to curb.  Instead of weakening the power of factions, expansion consolidated the interests of huge regions into blocs and pitted them against one another in a contest with high stakes.  The increased incentives for preeminence and power offered by the territories acquired through expansion ensured that the spirit of party would reach the point where the Union was no longer workable as a Union and had to either break apart or be reduced to a consolidated state.  In all of this, American liberty was the loser, partly because the Federalists actually underestimated the dangers of faction in the political system they were constructing.  As it turns out, faction is actually much less dangerous in a highly decentralised system, since the “disease” of faction is less easily spread. 

There is an additional reason why the “centrism” of “independents” is such a fraud: it is premised on the bizarre, almost inexplicable belief that the two parties in this country have both become extremist.  They are obviously at odds, but only in the way that brothers in the same family are rivals with each other for preeminence in the family.  If the Founders were here and had to describe our system of government, they would be hard pressed to label it as something other than an oligarchy.  On any number of controversial major policy issues, the actual differences between the major parties are so miniscule that they are hardly worth mentioning.  The parties do not reflect consensus on these matters–they construct this consensus, or rather impose it on the majority that effectively goes unrepresented as a result.  The areas where there is the greatest cultural and political disagreement are those that have been ceded to the courts’ jurisdiction.  If the people in the country are deeply, sharply divided, on a broad range of issues the party establishments are very comfortable with collaborating and agreeing with one another.  Immigration is one of the issues that starkly illuminates the division between Republican party leaders and their constituents, but this divide between the parties as institutions and those whom the parties claim to represent happens again and again.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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