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Factions and the perils of the straight ticket - The Galveston County Daily News: Guest Columns

December 8, 2016

Guest column Factions and the perils of the straight ticket

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Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 12:05 am

Cheryl Johnson’s column against straight-ticket voting cited Washington’s “Farewell Address” (Feb. 9, The Daily News). This encouraged me to reread it along with James Madison’s “Federalist Paper No. 10” and Richard Labunski’s “James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.”

Washington was persuaded to run for re-election because strife between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson threatened to tear the new country apart. At the end of his second term, Washington’s “Farewell Address” warned against factions that placed their own interests and beliefs ahead of those of the Union.

Similarly, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, Madison expounded on the need for a strong central government because a weak central government imperiled liberty when it was too weak to act in the best interests of the whole nation, and in opposition to the demands of particular factions or groups of individuals who make primary their own interests.  

What did Madison mean by factions? In “Federalist No. 10” he wrote: “By faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest, adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

He makes it clear that any group functions as a faction when it puts its narrow concerns ahead of those of their fellow citizens. The balance of “Federalist 10” discusses how to deal with factions. With regard to removal of the cause, he dismisses suppression or homogeneity of opinion as possible solutions. Instead the effect of factions must be addressed.

When a faction is in the minority then, in Madison’s words, “It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to mask its violence ...”

 We have certainly seen this in the disruption of Congress under the influence of the tea party faction.

When a faction achieves majority status, unless elected individuals are able to make primary the interests of the Union and the individual, then the evils of suppression of rights and liberties by the majority will occur. 

How can this be avoided?

Madison and Washington both argued that this could only be achieved by requiring the primacy of the individual be guaranteed by the central government as empowered by the Constitution. Madison made this evident when he opposed a requirement that citizens be able to bind their representatives to a specific vote. 

Members of the first Congress believed representatives should be free to make decisions in the best interests of the nation, even if those decisions were not immediately popular. This latter view was endorsed by 41-10 vote.

As argued by Ms. Johnson, we must vote for individuals, not a faction or party. In the words of Noah Webster, as an elected official you have “ … no right to declare that you would act upon the sentiments and wishes of your immediate constituents, unless … the measures you advocate coincide with the wishes and interests of the whole Union.”

We should not look for representatives whose opinions coincide with that of a particular group. We should vote for individuals who believe that politics is the art of the possible. And we should expect them to find artful solutions to the problems that arise in the governance of a complex society.