Of Many Things

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.”

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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.

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Kenneth Hartmann
3 years 9 months ago
Father Malone, This is an important article. But in addition to discussing the need for a change in tone mentioned by Rep. Dingell, let's consider the effect of redistricting on election of congressional incumbents. In the 2012 congressional election, all 435 seats were contested. 42 incumbents retired, leaving 393 seats contested by incumbents. Of the 393, 13 lost in primaries and 22 lost in the general election. 91% were retained. How can this be, you ask? Congressional redistricting, to achieve racial and ethnic quotas, creates extremely tortured voting districts. When you take most of the Rs out of a box leaving mostly Ds, you create a separate box with mostly Rs. And that means that the person nominated as the D in his district is almost certainly going to be re-elected, as is the person nominated as the R in the R district. Of course, this is not a problem for most elected congressmen and congresswomen, since their principal job is to seek re-election. In the re-districting in Illinois following the 2010 census, President Obama's re-election group managed a re-districting effort that split one primarily Republican city, Aurora, into four separate congressional districts. So the Mayor of Aurora has four Congressmen to work with. Nothing here to suggest an unwillingness to compromise. I can't help but comment on your references to Rep. Dingell. He is the archetype of the congressman who can't be voted out of office. How do you think he established that longevity record? By being bi-partisan, or relentlessly focused on the interests of one or more powerful constituencies? Ask any of the Founders what they think of Rep. Dingell's longevity record, and the uniformity of Rep. Dingell's voting pattern.
Dan Hannula
3 years 9 months ago
Father Matt; another Eighteenth-century buzzword (essential for fully understanding faction) is virtue. In the 10th Federalist Paper James Madison defined faction (whether a majority or a minority) as a group that actually subverts the community. As Madison puts it "... who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" The other side of the "faction" coin for Madison, and most of the founders, was the also forgotten concept of virtue or the practiced habit of placing community interest before personal interests. Virtue was well understood by ancient philosophers as an indispensable quality of character among the rulers; without which the republic fails. Madison worried whether virtue, a supposed trait of the "aristocratic" character, existed or could be cultivated among our citizens. As Madison put it: "Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks -- no form of government can render us secure. To suppose liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea" Sadly, both Republicans and Democrats have long forgotten this indispensable quality of character for citizens and certainly for themselves. The current fashion in political dialog is that there is no interest of the community apart from our own individual interests. The good life is self-defined by each of us. The republic's job is merely to guarantee the freedom necessary for each of us to do our own thing and then to get out of our way. Although I admit the conservatives have honed a much sexier collection of buzzwords than the Democrats (who are playing catch up) to support a new virtue of selfishness. And those conservatives act like they invented the idea of freedom. But, to quote Madison again: "To suppose liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."
JOHN MONTALVO III
3 years 8 months ago
Father Matt, Representative John D. Dingell Jr. succeeded his father, John D. Dingell Sr. in the U.S. House of Representatives after a special election following the latter's death in 1955. Rep. Dingell Sr. began his congressional service in 1933. In all the Dingells have over 80 years in Congress. The current Mrs. Dingell worked as a lobbyist for GM and upon her marriage to Rep. Dingell oversaw government relations for GM. It's incredulous that Rep. Dingell only now believes "that the founders' fears have been realized." His career is what George Washington criticized, "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government." It's a mark of fallen human nature that we never see ourselves as part of the problem. Rep. Dingell stated, "My standards are high for this job. I put myself to the test and have always known that when the time came that I felt I could not live up to my own personal standard for a Member of Congress, it would be time to step aside for someone else to represent this district. That time has come." Better late than never... Paging Mr. Washington.
Sharon Mallon
3 years 8 months ago
Dear Father Malone, As a long-time resident of the State of Michigan, I was shocked to see your editorial regarding John Dingell. You may not be aware of the politics in Michigan, but many of us would have liked to see John Dingell gone long ago. No politician should stay in office for that length of time. Before praising a politician, you may want to check his tax records to see how much money he has made for his "service" in congress. He was one of many who created the "factions" in congress. We are glad that he is finally out of Washington.

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