Political phrases like “anti-choice,” “tax-and-spend,” “liberal” and “conservative” are short currency in political-speak, buzzwords that convey much more than their dictionary definitions and therefore demand our immediate attention. While the modern masters of political spin may have perfected the use of buzzwords, they didn’t invent them. Buzzwords have been with us from the start of political communication. Eighteenth-century American politics also had its buzzwords. One of them was “faction,” generally a clique or subgroup within a larger political unit, but in the context of the raging philosophical battles of America’s founding, “faction” stood for a subversive force, an organized group beyond formal public scrutiny that threatened to dominate and possibly destroy the young republic. In Federalist Paper No. 10, for example, the word “faction” appears no fewer than 18 times.
Throughout their debates about the artful arrangement of political power, almost every one of the founding fathers expressed some concern about the influence of factions. Thomas Jefferson, for example, feared that a powerful faction was bent on restoring the monarchy in all but name in the form of a powerful federal government. Alexander Hamilton, meanwhile, argued that only a strong central government could counter the power of factions and unite the American states. John Adams’s sympathies, if not his affection, were with Hamilton: “I dread a division of our republic into parties and that is what I see is happening,” Adams said. The greatest critic of political factions was George Washington, who famously denounced the institutionalization of factions in the form of political parties: “However [parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Those are powerful words, almost as powerful as John D. Dingell’s words last month. The longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history announced his retirement after nearly 60 years of continuous service to the people of Michigan. Mr. Dingell is 87 years old; he has been a part of the congressional family since the late 1930s, when he went to work on Capitol Hill as a page. Old age, however, is not the reason the congressman is heading home to Dearborn.
Mr. Dingell believes that the founder’s fears have been realized; partisan factions have paralyzed the political process. Congressman Dingell spares no one in his assessment. Democrats as well as Republicans have injected the factious toxin into the body politic, rendering the present Congress, in Mr. Dingell’s judgment, not only ineffective but “obnoxious.” In a guest column in this issue, William T. Cavanaugh adds corporations to the mix, those “persons,” according to the Supreme Court, who by virtue of their wealth hold a near monopoly on public speech.
To counter all this, Mr. Dingell says, we need to recover some powerful buzzwords for the political lexicon: “Compromise is an honorable word, as are cooperation, conciliation and coordination,” he said. “Let us recognize that our founding fathers intended that those words would be the way the business of our country would be conducted. Rights were given in the Constitution to be used well, to govern wisely and to work together.” In other words, the founders expected that while there would be disagreement and debate, we would still be able to govern ourselves. That requires, however, some smart reforms and a lot of goodwill. “The Congress must live up to its name,” Mr. Dingell said. “It must be a great coming together of our people.”
Paging Mr. Adams.