Liberally Speaking (4/16/09)

Tempering faction

April 16, 2009

By Steve Mount

I was recently asked a question about the Constitution that comes through my e-mail box every so often in one of two forms. The first is, “Where are political parties mentioned in the Constitution?” The second is, “How does the Constitution support the two-party system?”

The first question is the easier one to answer. The Constitution does not mention political parties at all. Political parties evolved in our system after the ratification of the Constitution, so it would have been great foresight for the Constitution to have included them.

Even in the later amendments, however, right up to those proposed and ratified in the 20th century, we managed to keep any mention of parties out of the Constitution.

The harder question is the second one, and it is a good question. Since the Civil War, the Republicans and Democrats have traded the presidency and control of Congress. Rarely has a third party had a lasting effect.

But third parties have had a role to play in our political history, even if it was a fleeting role. Free Soil, Anti-Mason, Prohibition, Socialist, Reform, Green — these parties raised issues that the major parties eventually had to deal with.

The second question usually has a masked underlying question: Is the two-party system something positive, something worth retaining?

While there is something to be said for third parties, I think that we have a good thing with our two-party system, something worth retaining.

We also have, however, something that some of our most influential founding fathers found to be a real issue in politics. The faction, better known today as “special interests.”

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers as Publius, warned against special interests tearing at the fabric of society. Madison saw two ways of controlling factions: “The one, by removing its causes; the other by controlling its effects.”

Madison knew it was pointless to remove the cause of faction, dangerous even. Only by removing liberty or by making all persons the same could the cause of faction disappear.

Better, then, to control the effect of faction. The federal system, with representative democracy, was his solution for the nation, the solution offered by the Constitution. In such a system, majority opinion is important, but minority rights are just as important, and protected.

Of course, factions still emerge. We see the divisions starkly, at the national, state and local levels.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice; for and against gay marriage; Option B vs. Option C for our schools.

When factions are truly destructive is when the two sides cannot find common ground. On the most polarizing issues, common ground can be hard to find, especially when there are some on the fringes who will not budge. But there is almost always common ground to be found.

This is where discussion, compromise and agreement come into play. The fringes can sabotage agreement, but only if they’re allowed to. The larger part of any faction will be willing to compromise. Take the gay marriage debate as just one example.

When the state Supreme Court forced the issue in 1999, the state Legislature heard from both sides — those who were adamantly opposed to gay marriage and those just as adamantly for it. By April of 2000, a compromise was reached, and civil unions became the law of this state.

Today, after nine years under that law, Vermonters decided that the advent of civil unions did not cause the downfall of society and, in fact, enhanced it by granting similar rights to committed same-sex couples. In September, we will take the final step, and make marriage an institution available to any committed couple.

Through compromise and patience, the factions came together enough so that equal rights could be guaranteed.

It is a model for all factional disagreements that we face. The solution might not be perfect, but if found by compromise, it can at least be a shared victory, and when the opportunity arises again to reexamine the issue, lessons learned from the past can be applied.

This nation, this state, this community — all have had to deal with the passions of faction in the past. We deal with them now. We will deal with them in the future. The one thing I’m certain of is that through compromise, and patience, a suitable solution can always be found.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.