Anti-Partisan Original Intent

I was reading the introduction to The Invention of Party Politics by Gerald Leonard. The beginning comments caught my attention (Kindle Locations 62-65):

“This is a book about political parties and the American Constitution between the founding of the United States and the Second Party System of the 1840s and 1850s. In those years, and especially between 1820 and 1840, the idea and fact of party organization gained a preeminent place in the American constitutional order, even though the Constitution itself had been designed as a “Constitution against parties.”*”

(* From Idea of a Party System by Richard Hofstadter)

I knew many of the Founders saw party politics as a danger. This went along with the perceived threats of political factionalism and regional/state sectionalism. Unity was the watchword of those early Americans. They were seeking to create a United States, a radical vision. Not a nation-state and not just what the Articles of Confederation proposed. Plural states, but united, tied together with common cause and purpose. A Union.

As George Washington famously explained in his farewell address,

“In contemplating the causes, which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by Geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavour to excite a belief, that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

His warning was that parties would lead to ruling elites who served their own interests rather than the country.

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.”

It wasn’t just a complaint about the practical running of government. Rather, it was a conflict of visions. The vision of Union was in direct contradiction to the vision of partisanship. For parties to form meant the revolutionary spirit to have been defeated, the entire reason and justification for the founding of the United States.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.”

Washington goes into more detail, but you get the basic idea. The guy saw political parties as one of the greatest threats to a free country and to all who value liberty. Those are strong words for the first president who wasn’t known for stating anything strongly. He decided to make almost his entire farewell address about this single warning. We should take this as seriously as we take Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the Military-Industrial Complex.

To return to The Invention of Party Politics, the author continues with some thoughts on the Constitution:

“In all the massive literature on American political history in that period, however, there was little indication of what I have since come to understand: that the early history of party is best understood within the history of the Constitution, just as the history of the Constitution is best understood within the history of party development.”

It is good to keep in mind that the Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation. The early Confederation was too weak and so the vision of Union took form, but the idea of a Union was a guiding vision from before the Constitutional Convention. There was disagreement about the exact relationship between the states and yet there was much agreement that the states needed a shared system of politics, of laws, of economics, and more importantly of values.

However, that vision of a fully united Union didn’t last. Understanding that change is what this book is about. Also, it is about understanding why the founders fought so hard for a new vision of a non-partisan society.

“In the nineteenth century, the mass political party dominated American politics and, in fact, came to be the defining institution of modern “democracy,” a status it still enjoys (perhaps in tandem with the market economy). Yet thousands of years of prior human history had yielded practically no efforts to justify party organization or institutionalized opposition. Virtually every political thinker before the nineteenth century condemned “formed opposition” as destructive of the public good and fatal to public peace. The freedom of individuals to express dissent might sometimes be celebrated, but the organization of a political club in continuing opposition to the policies of the government— perhaps even conceiving of itself as a potential replacement for those currently in power—smacked more of conspiracy and treason than of healthy political competition . In the early nineteenth century, however, all that changed. Americans embraced mass party organization, and politics and governance were altered forever. Eventually, this embrace of party became a commitment to a “party system”— an enduring competition between democratic parties within a basic constitutional consensus, expecting to exchange power and office in indefinitely long cycles 2 —as the sine qua non of democracy in America and much of the world.” (Kindle Locations 66-78).

The American Civil War is a clear example of what Washington had warned about. We shouldn’t get too comfortable about our party system. And we shouldn’t be so naive as to think another civil war will never happen.

I want to end on a different note, though. Those on the political right often speak of original intent, specifically in terms of the Constitution. I just want to point out that any person in a political party (including the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party) who makes any argument about originalism, any such person is being blatantly hypocritical.

Of course, hypocrisy is part of the US political tradition going back to the Founders. Still, I doubt conservatives and right-wingers are basing their originalist defense on the standard of hypocrisy. Or maybe they are.

I find myself going back to that early period of American and Western history. The groundwork of principles and values were laid for modern democracy. Yet we don’t take those principles and values as seriously as we should. They are hard to live by and live up to, as the Founders quickly discovered.

I feel a desire to make my own defense of original intent about the entire early modern revolutionary era and the entire Enlightenment Age. I wish to defend the radical visions that transformed the Western world. Many of those early radicals didn’t fall into hypocrisy. Those are the people upon which I wish to base my own originalism.

Maybe it is time for us to revisit those radical ideas and visions. Maybe we took the wrong path somewhere along the way. Let us retrace our steps and rediscover the forks in the road that could have taken our society in other directions. Maybe party politics is a dead end, after all.

26 thoughts on “Anti-Partisan Original Intent

    • I understand your perspective. Everything is impossible, until it is possible. There are some utopian visions that are forever impossible, but I’m not sure I’d put anti-partisanship as one of them. We now argue about the problems of modern democracy, but at one time people argued that it wasn’t even possible. Only time will tell what is or isn’t possible.

      • Every single element of Republican democracy existed in the classical period. You have both Scandinavian, Roman, and Isle of Man models as well as elected tribal councils. Washington was basing his warning off the the Greek and Roman parties as well as the British Parliamentary factions. The issue is that nothing was done was to take away the material reasons for those developments: the slavery compromise made chattel slavery more valuable. The material interests were different between North and South–and still are. These sort of idealist appeal to the intent of the founding fathers actually does very little to understand WHY that intent wasn’t fulfilled.

        What I value about the Enlightenment is neither the American revolution, nor if I am honest, representative democracy, which I think Aristotle (and Marx) were right about.

        • Single elements taken separately do not make the whole. There were all kinds of elements of non-partisanship and anti-partisanship across cultures for long before the Enlightenment Age, but they weren’t organized into a new system according to the context of Enlightenment ideas, values, and principles.

          I’m interested in BOTH the intent (or rather intents) AND the reason the intent wasn’t fulfilled. Understanding one isn’t mutually exclusive to understanding the other. I’m not interested in ideals as mere rhetoric. I want to know what they meant to people in the past or what they thought they meant. And I want to know what they might yet still mean in their real world limits and implications.

          I’m still undecided about what I specifically value about the Enlightenment. My main point is that we should take the Enlightenment seriously enough to struggle with understanding it.

      • Or, if you want to make another world possible (and I do), you have to be hard-edged about HOW to make it possible and why did people abandon the ideas so quickly… that is always the question for me. Not that we became partisan, but WHY we became partisan. There were reasons for it that were not just abandonment and betrayal.

        • I agree. I’m interested in the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY. But you first have to start out with the WHAT. Most people don’t even know that much. The HOW and WHY are another step beyond the basic understanding of WHAT. We need to build a foundation of knowledge of WHAT we are dealing with.

          • Fair enough. I tend to start with the how, as a Marxist, I can be ruthlessly historical. In fact, a friend of mine has said that element of Marxism, it’s historicism is admirably conservative in comparison to a lot of post-war liberalism.

          • Interesting… My natural response is to start with the what. But I’m just plain old liberal living in a liberal world. I’ll try to keep the how more in mind, for the sake of balance.

          • The danger of liberal ideology is its success makes its assumptions seem natural, unquestioned, and thus stale. It hides its historical development and the errors that led to the current.

    • I would add that Washington was a ruling elite and believed in noblesse oblige. Part of his fear was that another ruling elite might challenge the power of his preferred ruling elite, and that the new ruling elite might be less worthy and might not have a proper attitude of noblesse oblige. He wanted a ruling elite that was united in noblesse oblige instead of divided by partisanship, factionalism, and sectionalism.

      A large part of his fear had to do with the common folk gaining influence through political parties. Washington believed in putting the state before the people. When the people challenged the new state, Washington gladly and brutally put them down. The ruling elite needed to be united to keep the people in their place and keep the hierarchical social order stable.

      Still, I wonder if there is a better way of doing politics than parties. It has turned out the ruling elites like political parties for they are better ways of controlling the people than was Washington’s vision. The ruling elite can control the government without even having to pretend to have noblesse oblige. The Roosevelts were the last of old school ruling elite to make it into the presidency. I don’t mean to romanticize noblesse oblige, but I understand why people do romanticize it. The new ruling elite is coming closer to the dark vision of power for the sake of power.

      I don’t know what the alternatives are. I’m thinking that instead of being organized at the party level, we’d more likely to have democratic self-governance by organizing at the local level. Parties end up disempowering people at the local level and instead centralizing power far away from where individuals and communities can have an influence.

      All that we’ve done is exchanged one ruling elite for another. I’m just wondering if it is possible to have a modern society without a massively powerful and wealthy ruling elite.

  1. And Washington was a slave owner who defended the practice, so I don’t buy that he didn’t fall into hypocrisy. Washington compromise is part of what led to the civil war. My point in pushing you on this is that you must look beyond rhetoric of radicals and what they actually did and what has happened in history both before and after.

    • I didn’t mean Washington wasn’t hypocritical. That wasn’t my argument.

      There aren’t too many founders who weren’t hypocritical, but Washington surely wasn’t one of them. I’m thinking more of the likes of Paine along with some of the more principled English and French radicals.

      I do my best to look past the rhetoric and it is an endless process. In this light, I also got some books about the history of liberalism, which has some overlap with both principled radicalism and hypocritical rhetoric. Here are the books I got:

      Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism
      By K. Steven Vincent

      Liberalism: The Life of an Idea
      By Edmund Fawcett

      I’m also still digesting some of what I read from Losurdo’s book on liberalism. It is a lot to take in. My views of liberalism and radicalism are open to revision. I don’t have any clear conclusions at the moment. I’m just considering the possibilities, as understood in the past and in the present.

      • Remember, Losurdo is an hardline Marxist (harder than me) who believes in the necessity of the state (something Marx was more agnostic about). That said, most of what he writes in that book IS true. It is bet read paired with Benjamin Israels four MASSIVE volutes on the Enlightenment as well as Isaiah Berlin’s stuff on the anti-Enlightenment.

        • My issue with Losurdo was my trying to grasp how he was defining ‘liberalism’.

          I came to realize that, in US political terms, he was also meaning American conservatism and libertarianism as much as the narrow definition of liberalism. My sense was that he basically was analyzing nearly all of modern society or at least nearly all modern governments since the Enlightenment as ‘liberalism’. It seemed, for Losurdo, that ‘liberalism’ meant post-Enlightenment modernity and the political ideologies that embrace it.

          I’m not used to such a broad generalization of ‘liberalism’. To my mind it felt overly broad. So, it might be true in terms of that definition. Even if so, I think we need more precise terminology because too much gets thrown together in a mess of ideological confusion… or that is it how it felt to me. But maybe I’m being unfair. I’m letting that one sit on the backburner of my mind. I’ll come back to it later, after other readings, and see if I have a new perspective.

          I’m not familiar with Benjamin Israel. I looked up his name on Amazon, but no books came up about the Enlightenment. Do you mean Jonathan Israel? If not, could you link me to the books you have in mind?

          I have come across Isaiah Berlin. I’ve thought about reading a book by him about the anti-Enlightenment. I’ll check it out, since you recommend it.

          • I think Isaiah Berlin is a lazy liberal, but his writings on counter-enlightenment are stellar despite that; I just think what he did to his one time friend and Trotskyist scholar Isaac Duetscher is unforgivable, so I am always hesitating to recommend him. i do mean Jonathan Israel, I was thinking about Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno and the latter’s work “Dialectic of the enlightenment.”

        • I came across a blogger who has written about Berlin and the Counter-Culture. Here are two posts”

          “the possibility that reaction and revolution might be more closely intertwined than it is sometimes assumed”

          “The new version includes a December 1993 letter from Berlin to Mark Lilla, who reviewed Magus of the North for the New York Review of Books and had some reservations about Berlin’s affection for the various unsavory characters who populated the counter-Enlightenment. In response, Berlin offered an explanation of his general approach:

          “”… by temperament I am liable not to write about thinkers I approve of — I take those for granted — I find it not very interesting to praise thinkers for what I agree with, but prefer their enemies, who, however vicious and destructive at times, as they certainly were, discovered chinks in the armour of the Enlightened, important chinks, which do make valid points against them — and which cause one at any rate to think, to realise that one can’t swallow them whole, that some of the results of their teachings did lead to deplorable results (496-497).””

    • Maybe I should make it more clear in my post that I wasn’t referring to Washington as lacking hypocrisy. I only mentioned Washington because I was familiar with that speech. In terms of personality, Washington was a moderate who wanted to defend the new status quo. So, his strong words stand out, even moreso because of his hypocrisy.

      In my last comments about my own originalism, I was broadening the scope to beyond the US founders. I was contemplating what was of lasting value that came out of the Enlightenment. My thinking partly was framed by a book I didn’t even mention, Reclaiming the Enlightenment by Stephen Eric Bronner. I didn’t mention it because I only read a small sample of it. I don’t know if is a useful book, but his defense of the Enlightenment was floating around in my mind, mostly in the background.

      • I named my blog the loyal opposition to the Enlightenment for a reason. I think the Enlightenment as a whole needs to be revisited–critically but fairly. Liberalism in its two dominant forms seems to embrace uncritically (classical liberalism, libertarian liberalism, etc) or in its embrace of identity politics, just say it was hypocritical and be done with it (many of the modern Foucaultians, several Maoist influenced Marxists who became “liberals,” a few stand-point epistemologists).

        • In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with an even broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

          Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

          This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

          I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

          • On this I agree, conservatism, fascism, and socialism are responses and developments from liberalism–however, socialism is as old as liberalism, they come to being, In my opinion, out of the same late medieval and early modern do conflicts with the shifting of the dominance of religious ideas about authority and economy.

  2. I’ve had something on my mind lately in terms of democracy and similar issues. We look at the failed implementation of these ideals and we judge harshly. We say people are utopian, unrealistic, and naive or else we say people are hypocritical.

    In doing this, we are framing it ideologically. Maybe that is the wrong way to think about it.

    Most of the American founders back then and many people today don’t really understand the ideas they are promoting. Ideas, in some ways, have a life of their own. They are mind viruses that can grow even in unlikely places, such as ideals of freedom and inequality spreading through the ruling elite intelligentsia. Once an idea takes hold, it can be near impossible to dislodge. Ideas grow slowly, but once rooted some ideas can be like weeds, invasive species that strangle out other species.

    If the American founders understood the ideas they were promoting even slightly, they never would have promoted them. Those ideas were in contradiction to their identities and the social order they loved so much. They weren’t hypocritical. They were just clueless. Little children playing with fire.

    Children, that is what they were and what we still are. As a society, we remain very immature. We are like little children playing games, playing at being doctors and astronauts, while having no clue what it actually means to be a doctor or astronaut. The child at play isn’t a hypocrite just because he isn’t a real doctor or astronaut. The child has to pretend to be something for a long time before he might ever get a chance to become it for real.

    Likewise, our society will have to play-act at being democratic possibly for centuries before we get to the point of maybe actually becoming democratic one day. It is the very long game we are playing.

  3. “On this I agree, conservatism, fascism, and socialism are responses and developments from liberalism–however, socialism is as old as liberalism, they come to being, In my opinion, out of the same late medieval and early modern do conflicts with the shifting of the dominance of religious ideas about authority and economy.”

    I’m not sure about how I view the relationship between liberalism and socialism. The same goes for liberalism and anarchism. All three arose around the same time.

    Still, liberalism was the dominant paradigm of the Enlightenment and that which followed. So, even if socialism and anarchism had origins outside of liberalism, that is no longer the socialism and anarchism we know of in the modern world.

    Can socialism and anarchism today even slightly stand outside of dominant paradigm? I don’t know. I’m not even sure what that might mean, assuming it were possible. When I listen to many socialists and anarchists, they often espouse liberal values, just more strongly held.

    “The danger of liberal ideology is its success makes its assumptions seem natural, unquestioned, and thus stale. It hides its historical development and the errors that led to the current.”

    The danger of the liberal paradigm is its success makes its assumptions into a reality tunnel. It operates at a mostly unconscious level, even in the minds of those who claim to not be liberal and who criticize liberalism.

    It is similar to how, in scientific studies, blacks are shown to have unconscious racial biases against other blacks (and the darker the skin the greater the racial bias). Most of those blacks, like most whites, would deny being racists and would criticize racism harshly. Yet the hierarchical racial order is the dominant paradigm of our society. It is so systemic, that it pervades every institution, every aspect of life, and even our minds.

    We don’t have to be willing hosts to these mind viruses. They don’t care about our willingness, anymore than a physical virus cares.

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