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Constitution Check: What would James Madison say to Newt Gingrich?

June 13, 2014 by Lyle Denniston


Lyle Denniston looks at recent comments from Newt Gingrich about the need for a political fight in America and how they compare with James Madison’s vision of a useful debate.

James_Madison_cropped1THE STATEMENTS AT ISSUE:

“ ‘What the Republican establishment and the Chamber of Commerce don’t understand is that there’s a large element of America that wants a fight,’ said former [House] Speaker Newt Gingrich. ‘If you’re a conservative, you think Barack Obama is literally destroying the country you love. And you watch your leadership and they seem unwilling to take him head on, and also unable to outmaneuver him.’ That fury will ensure a gridlocked capital for at least the rest of this year and perhaps for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency. It also raises new doubts about Washington’s ability to conduct the basic functions of government…”

—Jonathan Martin, reporter for The New York Times, in a front-page story on June 12 discussing the political reaction to the primary election defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and the majority leader in the House of Representatives. The commentary following the Gingrich quotation was Martin’s.

“With Barack Obama in the White House, intense partisan antipathy is more pronounced among

Republicans, especially consistently conservative Republicans. Fully 66 percent of consistently conservative Republicans think the Democrats’ policies threaten the nation’s well-being. By comparison, half (50 percent) of consistently liberal Democrats say Republican policies jeopardize the nation’s well-being.”

– Excerpt from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, released June 12, of political attitudes in the United States. The survey found “more partisan animosity than at any point in recent history.”

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.. .However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true….The causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects….The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states.”

– James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” in Federalist Paper No. 10, published in November1787. Madison spelled out there how the cure for the harms of faction-driven politics was not to destroy factionalism, because that cannot be done, but instead to pit faction against faction across the entire nation, so that none achieves dominance.


When the Constitution was being formed, and a new American nation was being founded, James Madison of Virginia argued that polarization in politics was inevitable, so some way had to be found to keep it under control, lest it destroy the Union.   He knew that some factions would always be spoiling for a fight, and he was entirely willing to let them mix it up with other factions.

Madison thus might have been totally unsurprised, if he were around today to read the new Pew Research Center report on the depth of political polarization that now prevails in America, nor would he have been surprised by former Speaker Gingrich’s perception that there are political elements in the ranks of conservative Americans who want nothing more than a fight with President Obama.

But, while Madison could accept ongoing jousting for partisan advantage, he seemed to have held the view – perhaps naïve -- that this would contribute to a functioning government because the fight would be equal, most of the time.   Like many of his peers, he believed that man in his political nature was capable of reasoned judgment, and believed that this capacity would likely mean that the public good would ultimately be served. In other words, out of the partisan melee that he envisioned could emerge common ground – that is, compromise.

Madison, of course, could not have imagined the effect on politics of talk radio and social networking via the Internet, and the capacity of those media to make a political campaign something less than a fair fight. He probably could not have appreciated how public opinion among voters could be driven in one direction or another in the blink of an electronic eye. A single image of a politician in the company of a leader of the opposition, if propagated fast enough, widely enough, and at the right time in election season, can strongly shape the outcome. A single theme of fear about a supposed alien invasion can scare voters enough to make a difference.

What can happen, and with some frequency does happen, in modern American politics is that the clash of factions becomes little more than a debate about the best strategy for frustrating the ambitions of the opposing faction.   A shutdown of the entire government, for example, may be an example of partisan purity, but it is not the stuff of pragmatic government -- a government that actually gets things done.   If the government in power is pursuing policies that an opposing faction genuinely believes are going to destroy the Union, is it not a fact that compromise itself will be seen as a threat to the Union?

Even someone with the political genius of a James Madison might not have any helpful ideas when polarization reaches that state.   It is doubtful that there is anything within his Constitution, and the structural arrangements for which he was the creator, that is a cure for politics at that level.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 56 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearinghouse of information about the Supreme Court’s work.

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