The Founders Feared Tyranny More Than Partisan Rancor

Because fierce division is a right and expectation in free societies.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Maybe it’s the Christmas season, or maybe it’s the grotesquely rabid partisanship of the Democrat impeachment follies, but we’re hearing a lot of moaning and groaning about “partisan rancor” and what a threat it is to our “democracy.” But tyranny, not “partisan rancor,” is what we should fear, for freedom is the foundational good that our government was designed to protect.

An example of this misunderstanding about partisanship can be found in some comments by a very smart political analyst. He writes that the “partisan bitterness that is dividing us into two warring camps . . . is the greatest threat American democracy faces today. Democracy cannot exist when a country is divided into two camps, each of which sees the other as an enemy rather than an adversary. Democracy relies on the suspension of partisan rancor in the interest of the nation.”

First, this common claim that we are at a moment of unprecedented partisan division ignores a lot of history. What about the Civil War and the decades leading up to it? We were divided into two literally “warring camps,” and that divide culminated in over 700,000 dead Americans. Yet our democratic republic not only survived, but became a world power, which was made possible in part by the lancing of the moral infection of slavery, and the confirmation that the union could not be broken into vulnerable sections and become easy prey for foreign powers.

But rancorous divisions can be found in every decade of American history. As American historian James McPherson pointed out in response to the claim our partisan divide is unprecedented,

The country was probably more divided, and the potential consequences or the potential dangers . . . may have been even greater in the 1890s and the 1930s than they are now. The labor violence, the divisive rhetoric, and the rise of the Populists of the 1890s are examples much greater than anything we are experiencing today. In the 1930s, people were really talking about the possibility of following Germany, Italy, and other countries toward fascism, while others advocated following the Soviet Union toward some form of communism . . . . Several eras in the past . . . experienced far more divisiveness than we are going through right now.

He could have added the Sixties, when terrorist bombings and urban riots provided the background for the New Left’s violent rhetoric and some Democrats’ demonization of Richard Nixon, Christianity, traditional morality, capitalism, and the military. Apart from the puerile vandalism of Antifa and college snowflakes’ conniption fits, we’re nowhere near that level of rancor. What we have is social media, which amplifies and multiplies the noise, and seemingly makes more consequential platforms like Twitter, followed closely by relatively few of the 130 million voters.

More important, the Founders assumed that such rancor was a constant, and designed our government in such a way that no faction could become powerful enough to aggrandize so much power it could disempower other factions. Such factional conflict was “sown in the nature of man,” as Madison wrote in Federalist 10. Most Americans at the time believed in an unchanging human nature defined by “passions and interests” that tend to make men aggrandize power in order to satisfy them. Our forebears generally agreed with Machiavelli, who wrote, “As all those have shown who have discussed civil institutions, and as every history is full of examples, it is necessary to whoever arranges to found a Republic and establish laws in it, to presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.”

This belief, derived from both their Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritages, was constantly on the minds of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They assumed that all men desire power, that power is always of an “encroaching nature,” and that they couldn’t rely on people being improved. As historian Walter McDougall writes, “all Federalists believed human nature was flawed . . . envisioned no utopias, put little trust in Republican virtue, and believed that the only government liable to endure was one taking mankind as it was and making allowance for passion and greed.”

Equally important, the Founders recognized the immense diversity of the colonies in mores, customs, Old Country origins and cultures, resources, geography, economies, and most important, religion. Their solution was a mixed, divided, and balanced limited government, along with the sovereignty of the states to check and balance the centralized power of the federal government. Thus the “democracy deficit,” the direct election of only the House of Representatives, one-sixth of the federal government, was compensated with the power of the purse and impeachment given to House. The sovereignty of the states was protected by having their legislatures elect Senators, manage elections, enjoy the freedom to be  “laboratories of democracy” that expressed their regional identities,  and control the Electoral College. Of course, there had to be a patriotism, especially after the Civil War, that bound all these pluribus into an unum, but that would be expressed mostly in times of war or other national crises, as we saw in the remarkable––but not perfect–– unity of the American citizens during World War II.

The progressives set out to undo this mixed government based on tragic realism about human nature. As technocrats, they wanted a professionalized and centralized government unified on the basis of its presumed knowledge and expertise, and its ability to improve human nature. And a corollary was a unified “people” no longer to be diversified by its various interests and identities, but nationally unified as the clients of the managerial state. Gone would be the conflicting, rancorous tournament of interests and passions competing to advance their faction’s power, now replaced by cool rationalists guided by objective knowledge and free from the multiplicity of parochial interests and identities. Instead of sovereign states with their irreducible diversity, we would have the unified masses, a “people” to be controlled and managed according to the centralized government of experts.

Finally, the professionalization of politics in part accounts for the obsession with “democratic norms” and protocols typical of professional guilds. The irony, of course, is that the champions of technocratic government based on “science” have been the progressive Democrats, who since ’68 have taken the lead in vitriol and ad hominem invective, as we see today in the hysterical and vicious hatred of Trump.  If anything, the Republicans have been too polite and deferent, epitomized by Mitt Romney during the second debate with Obama, when Candy Crowley violated debate rules and her “professional ethics” by intervening on Obama’s side. As Obama smirked, Romney just stood there like a peccant schoolboy.

Partisan rancor is what we should expect when a great variety of free people are given the right to participate in political discourse. The greater threat to our republic is the centralization of power and the corruption of federal agencies of the sort we now know took place for three years in the FBI, DOJ, and CIA, which were weaponized to destroy a political candidate and president who represented an America that the political guild disliked.

Such corruption of centralized and concentrated power is precisely what the Founders feared. Typical were the remarks of Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention. While discussing compensation for the president, Franklin cautioned against adding greed for money to the already potent attraction of political power: “There are two passions which have a powerful influence on men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money.” When united, these have “the most violent effects.” They lead, as they had in England, to “all of those factions which are perpetually dividing the Nation, distracting its councils, hurrying sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars.”

We can see what Franklin means about money and power in our own times, when a governmental ruling class is intertwined with corporations whose executives easily pass between government agencies and corporate boardroom, and ex “public servants” take up lucrative billets with lobbyists, or sign seven-figure contracts with network and cable news shows, or accept sinecures in universities, foundations, and think-tanks. This is Managerial Elite, Inc., an instrument of tyranny, “soft” for now, but still dangerous to our political freedom––especially when Leviathan’s exorbitant debt, which Congress just increased by $1.4 trillion, will become unmanageable sooner than we think.

That concentrated power of Managerial Elite, Inc. is the “greatest threat to American democracy we face today,” not the “partisan rancor” one should expect from a diverse people exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in ways that reflect that diversity.


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