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The Good Society 14.3 (2005) 1-9

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Republicans and the End of Republican Government

We have had a close call. An attempt has been underway to remake the working principles of the American political constitution. The effort has been centered in a wing of the Republican Party, and the result is an administration that is the most radical of the last 60 years and possibly more radical in its intentions than any in the 20th century. What is at stake in its actions and those of its brethren who control the Congress are not just policy matters — disputes between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, big government advocates and those who argue for a smaller national government — but something more fundamental: the foundational features of our working constitution. More importantly, the administration and the coalition that gives it purpose and political energy is not only radical: those who control the Congress and parts of the executive branch are what James Madison, the most thoughtful American student of popular self-government, called a faction. We have, that is, come very close to rule by a minority committed to undercutting the rights of the citizenry and the permanent interests of the community, which Madison said defines factions. Faction, Madison believed, is the worst disease of popular, i.e., republican government, and it is the primary task of constitutional design, he argued, to control it.

Madison thought that the most dangerous kind of faction is majority faction since it can operate under cover of the majority principle that underlies popular self-government. Worse yet, we may surmise, is minority factional rule since even the claim to rule on behalf of a majority is gone. And that is the vicinity where we have been lurking for the last five years in the United States. The war in Iraq has at the behest of this minority faction — we may call them Radical Republicans — already treated us to the spectacle of torture in our name of those we have captured in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in some cases, not even on any battlefield. In doing so we have repudiated international conventions to which as a country we have given our solemn word. While torturing the citizens of other countries does not count as factional behavior, at least in the relatively narrow sense Madison had in mind, it suggests what we can expect to find at home. That indeed is the case, and the picture is not a pretty one.

The high water mark of this factional effort has probably passed. The piling up of dead bodies in Iraq, the revelations of domestic surveillance, the debacle caused by the national government's feckless response to hurricane Katrina, the deeply peculiar effort to reform social security by making its fiscal problems worse, the design of a Medicare drug benefit plan that even its designers barely understand, and the corruption scandals that have embroiled some of the mainstays of Radical Republicanism have put a serious crimp in its efforts to turn itself from a minority into a majority faction permanently in control of the powers of the state. This was a near enough call [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] that we would be wise to understand how we got so far down this road in order that we may see what needs to be repaired in our working constitution if we are to avoid any such outcome in the future. A less incompetent administration might well have succeeded where this one is failing. The next time we may find ourselves in the grip of people who not only have factional purposes but know how to make the governmental machine hum.

A number of elements in this story need examination. We need to consider just who constitutes the Radical Republican faction and what precisely is factional in its political activities. Perhaps even more important, we need to understand just what their efforts reveal about the ability of our constitutional design to control faction — which is, after all, the thing that Madison and the other Founders...


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