Unification is a foolish political goal. Divisiveness is inherent within the human race, which is comprised of beings of individual conscience. For governments to ignore these divisions is a sure step towards despotism, as it glosses over the qualities which make the individual, rendering them unimportant. Such a view of humanity cannot help but create abuse, contention and strife.
Federalist 10 is often quoted in defense of the push for consensus in politics, a warning of the dangers of faction. But what is overlooked by those who opportunistically cherrypick James Madison’s text is his warning for those who attempt to eradicate faction from society:
“As long as the connection subsists between [man’s] reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. The latent causes of faction are thus sown into the nature of man”.
It would do well for the whole polity if this truism were ever-present in the minds of politicians and pundits for it casts political division in a whole new light.
The omnishambles which was the GOP’s attempt at healthcare reform is yet another example of a governing party devolving in the heat of a crisis, an event which is like a siren song for the pundit class who fancy themselves political seers and cannot help but prognosticate impending collapse.
The reason these breathless predictions so rarely fail to actualize is directly the result of faction being fundamental to man, and thus to politics. Party unity, not disunity, is a more telling sign of trouble, for it signals a party that is not strong enough to withstand free thought and action amongst its own members; it is too narrowly founded, suggesting it can only gain enough power to rule by forcing its members into lockstep. It controls not only how they vote, but the motivations they have for doing so. Factionalism within a party suggests that, while there may be minor disagreements and divisions, there is a broader culture which binds members together. These similarities are a strong enough bond to overcome dissent over the party’s position on a particular issue.
There is one crucial caveat to this, however. Division within a party is health so long as the endgoal towards which the party is legislating is universally agreed upon. When members define the proper scope of government and what constitutes “good” versus “bad” legislation differently, then disunity within the party is a sign of dysfunction which, if not addressed, could spell long-term trouble.
It is too early to proclaim the clear fracture between GOP establishment figures, Congressional leaders and the more hard-line ideologues who occupy the party fringe a sign of the party’s inevitable death. Every Tea Party wave election since 2010 and every filibuster from a hardline figure like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been declared a sure sign that the party was broken beyond repair. In reality, conservatives inside and outside the party have accomplished little.
However, the House Freedom Caucus’ defection is a different sort of incident. Before, defiance within the party was largely buster and not at odds with the party’s position. For instance, though the GOP was opposed to many of the financial deals under Obama, they ultimately caved to the Democrats’ demands out of fear the optics would paint them as intransigent and prevent them from gaining the majority. The moral position of this kind of fecklessness is a separate issue from whether it was a smart political tactic.
Defiant conservatives in Congress have largely disagreed with other members of the party over tactic. With the healthcare bill, the two factions have an entirely different strategy. For the Freedom Caucus, the finer policy points of the healthcare bill were a matter of principle; they could not endorse the bill because this would have been a repudiation of the values which inform their understanding of government and would have been a betrayal of the ideas on which they campaigned. For the party leadership, however, these details were a minor distraction, a point of negotiation which could be as easily removed as left in. They were a means to the end of passing the bill by any means necessary, so long as the party emerged victorious and had momentum going into forthcoming political battles for which the president has greater interest .
The ends are no longer the same. For the party, the good is victory by any means necessary, meaning the party only wins as a collective unit when it gains more power and prestige. For the ideologues, the good is victory only through strict adherence to principle, meaning a defeat for the party can be a win for individual members.
The president and his surrogates have not only laid blame for the bill’s failures squarely on the shoulders of House conservatives, they have even signalled a willingness to work with Democrats to accomplish healthcare reform.
This is another sign that the disunity the party is currently experiencing is actually something to be concerned about. One faction, namely the establishment, is not even willing to credence the legitimacy of the other’s position. Instead of engaging in introspection to heal the party divide, they would sooner turn to support from the opposition to achieve their end.
Clearly, the motivations of conservatives and establishments are no longer the same. If this remains true, it is wholly rational to ask whether the two belong in a coalition with each other. At this stage, it is too early to say the party will inevitably collapse. However, if no reconciliation comes and if the differing ends of the GOP factions are not addressed, that is a possibility that must be soberly considered.
Also published on Medium.