The House of Faction
by Edward L. Fiandach
On October 3rd , 2023, Kevin Owen McCarthy unwittingly became the next decade’s ultimate political trivia question. On Sunday nights, in taverns across the nation, players will attempt to recall the name of the individual who became the only Speaker of the House to be removed while concomitantly serving the shortest term. In this decade, however, the removal is far from trivial. Surely the vastly overused metaphor, “rudderless ship,” is the only term that is capable of describing that once august body, the House of Representatives. Further, the consequences that will inure to this decade may prove devastating. Absent what could only be characterized as a miraculous metamorphosis, the American Republic may, for the first time, default on its debts with cataclysmic effects. As a result, the dollar could lose its place as the world’s reserve currency, the war in Ukraine could be lost, Israel irrevocably harmed and the vociferous appetites of Russia, China and North Korea may see satiation. While hands are wrung during the fateful aftereffects, politicians and political pundits will be engaged in a cottage industry of finger-pointing. From every corner, blame will proliferate and be cast to opposing ideologies as a desperate effort is made by each side to exonerate itself from the stark and devastating responsibility that somebody has to bear. The sad truth of the matter is that unlike so many other incidents of legislative gridlock, the present crisis is not the result of a disagreement between the two major political parties, but is a dispute between two factions of the same party. And therein lies the rub. The cause lies not in the present, nor does it lie with the various personalities who will most assuredly bear the brunt of the blame. The cause of our terminal dysfunctionality lies deep within our history and is, perhaps, hopelessly entrenched. While on the surface it seems that the conflict is caused by the irreconcilable ideological differences that divide America’s political parties, a topic upon which the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process was noticeably silent, these difficulties are but a symptom of a different cause, “factions”, of which the ratification debates had much to say. The topic of “factions” was first broached by James Madison in Federalist 10. Touting what he described as “the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union,” Madison observed that “none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction,” which he described as including a “minority of the whole who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion adversed [sic] to the rights of other citizens, or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” With incredible prescience, Madison denotes the problem while virtually describing the leaders of the present crisis as individuals “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Finding refuge in “the extent of the Union,” Madison believed it gave “the most palpable advantage,” in defusing faction, asserting that, “[t]he 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.” Correct for his time, Madison’s erstwhile belief has fallen victim to mass media. Although there were approximately forty-three newspapers when the Constitution was debated, they were clearly regional and had little ability to coalesce ideas into a national presupposition. In the third decade of the 20th century things began to change. The development of radio networks made possible the distribution of ideas, both good and bad, on a national basis. While this created trials and tribulations for Roosevelt, it did not prove dispositive since the networks were relatively few, the information consisted of that conveyed by a limited number of personalities and did not create an avenue for response. Forty years later, Watergate would provide a crystal-clear example of the tenor and practices of the time. As the scandal unfolded, information distribution was largely accomplished by four major newspapers and three television networks. Aside from a telegram or a letter to the editor, the general public was provided with virtually no outlet for individual expression on the topic. With little or no need for explanation, the internet and the infinite sources of two-way mass communication have changed all this. No longer will Madison’s reliance upon the breadth of the nation serve to dilute “the influence of factious leaders . . . to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” To support this point, one need look no further than the January 6th uprising. Far from being confined to “their particular States,” all but two, North Dakota and Wyoming were represented. As the accountant would say, every asset brings with it a liability. While the mass distribution of ideas among individuals is one of the internet’s greatest assets, its liability may be the unlimited potential to fuel disruptive factions. Is there an answer to be had? Is it finally time to reassess the arrangement reached in 1789? Perhaps the next thirty days or so will tell.
Fiandach is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester and a nationally recognized expert on alcohol related operating offenses.