The Tea Party and the Violence of Faction

In The Federalist Papers James Madison wrote that perhaps the greatest challenge facing America’s new republican government was the “violence of faction.”  I like to joke with my students that the Founders constructed government institutions so that even idiots could run them without too much damage, because they knew that someday idiots would run government. That was a valuable precaution but is it adequate to our present situation, when a Tea Party minority is running (or not running) the government?

 In Federalist 10 Madison wrote:

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.

Madison was particularly concerned with a “tyranny of the majority” – a permanent majority that would act in concert to trample minority rights or harm the public good. Why shouldn’t a minority faction demand more of Madison’s attention?

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.

Right now the Senate, House Democrats, and President are on board with a plan to keep the government open as are a sizeable number of House Republicans. But the Tea Party contingent in the House is a faction “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion” – their hatred of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA, aka Obamacare, is a policy gestated by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a version of which was signed into law in Massachusetts by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and which was passed by both branches of the Congress, signed by the President, upheld by the Supreme Court, and which has survived over forty attempts at repeal.

One aspect of the new Constitution that recommended it to the citizenry, wrote Madison, was that the system of representation would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Let’s not be too harsh on Madison; even he couldn’t foresee Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann.

But he did know that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” That brings us to House Speaker John Boehner. It is quite likely that a clean Continuing Resolution to keep the government open could pass the House with Democratic and (non-Tea Party) Republican votes. But Boehner fears to buck the Tea Party faction in his caucus because they might move to unseat him. So Boehner does nothing despite the risk to the nation that could be alleviated by allowing the “republican principle” of a  majority in the House to defeat the minority faction.

Things are likely to get much worse if the Tea Party so clogs the administration and convulses the society that the debt limit is not raised later this month. The United Sates, the most reliable financial nation in world history, would be a deadbeat debtor.

Ah the Tea Party; the minority that is teaching us the potential of the violence of faction.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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