are the House Republicans a Madisonian faction?

Today, in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, we discussed James Madison’s famous definition:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Also today, the New York Times’ conservative commentator, David Brooks, writes:

American conservatism now has a rich network of Washington interest groups adept at arousing elderly donors and attracting rich lobbying contracts. … [Grover] Norquist is the Zelig of Republican catastrophe. His method is always the same. He enforces rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible. …

The talk-radio jocks are not in the business of promoting conservative governance. They are in the business of building an audience by stroking the pleasure centers of their listeners. …

Republicans now have a group of political celebrities who are marvelously uninterested in actually producing results. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann produce tweets, not laws. They have created a climate in which purity is prized over practicality….

For many legislators, the purpose of being in Congress is not to pass laws. It’s to create clear contrasts you can take into the next election campaign. It’s not to take responsibility for the state of the country and make it better. It’s to pass responsibility onto the other party and force them to take as many difficult votes as possible. …

They do not see politics as the art of the possible. They do not believe in seizing opportunities to make steady, messy progress toward conservative goals. They believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle. They believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes.

Are the House Republicans and their movement allies a faction, in the Madisonian sense? The first issue is whether they are “united and actuated by some common impulse.” Their ability to enforce party-line votes and to use coordinated talking points are evidence that they are united, at least compared to any party 20 years ago.

Next, are they “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”? Brooks attributes bad motives to some of them, but if the test is subjective intent, they may not be factional. I suspect that many think they are putting their own reelection in jeopardy by supporting policies (such as deeply defunding the federal government) that promote the “permanent and aggregate interest of the community.”

But Madison’s definition does not require intent. A cause can be well-intentioned, or partly so, and yet “adversed” to the common interest–as long as we are able to say what the common interest is. I would say, and I believe polls show that Americans agree, that the common interest includes:

  • A deliberative legislature in which reasons hold sway and are answered with reasons–hence brinkmanship and hostage-taking are contrary to the common interest.
  • Preservation of the full faith and credit of the United States, even if it undercuts short-term policy goals.
  • Recognition that there are rival parties which have legitimate places in the political system; hence one should economize on differences, where possible, because one will have to cooperate later.
  • Shared sacrifice: responses to economic crises should generally mean imposing costs on all sectors and economic strata, perhaps tilted in favor of the poor, but not the rich.

By this standard, the House Republicans may be acting as a faction, and a majority faction within government that has the potential to capture the other two branches in 2012. That is a dangerous for our constitutional design.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.