Many Americans across the political spectrum would readily admit that political polarization and extreme partisanship have become major problems in our society. Partisanship and polarization are not the same thing (you can have one without the other), but partisanship seems to have become more toxic and corrosive as our society has become more polarized.
State legislatures are busy redrawing political district boundaries to lock-in partisan advantage, selecting voters rather than the other way around. Broadly popular legislation (such as the infrastructure bill) is now viewed largely in terms of partisan political advantage, such that the Republicans in Congress who voted for it were viciously attacked for breaching partisan solidarity. Issues relating to public health and safety are routinely filtered through a partisan lens rather than the greater public good, as the Covid-19 pandemic has amply demonstrated. The recent Netflix satire, Don’t Look Up, hits the mark because it is all too plausible how an undeniable, external existential threat—like a meteor hurtling toward Earth—would be disastrously filtered through our media and political systems.
The framers of the US constitution were well-aware of the dangers of excessive partisanship—what Alexander Hamilton called “the diseases of faction” and James Madison called the “mischiefs of faction” and the “rage of party” in the Federalist Papers—having observed it within the states and other republics. Nonetheless, they underestimated the degree to which political parties would become the central mechanism to organize political differences and focus policy debate, and the degree to which partisanship would manifest in the federal government.
In addition to providing a few specific structural mechanisms, such as checks and balances across federal departments, James Madison concluded that the size and diversity of the federal government was the primary safeguard against the problem of faction, as he explained in the Federalist 10: the “variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of [the confederacy] must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.”
Hamilton arrived at similar conclusions in the Federalist 60 and 61, where he wrote that “a diversity of local circumstances, prejudices, and interests” would make it unlikely that a “predominant faction” would prefer a particular class of electors over another. Not only that, Hamilton felt that the diverse manner in which the various federal branches would be populated would safeguard against this problem, such that he concluded there is “little probability of a common interest to cement these different branches in a predilection for any particular class of electors.”
If at any moment the number of highly competitive national political parties had been greater and more numerous (as they are in many parliamentary systems), or if political parties had not acquired so much significance in organizing political interests nationally, then this conclusion might have proven correct. But by the end of the first decade of the government’s operation under the new Constitution, the excesses of partisanship were already manifest and the potential dangers increasingly evident.
More than 225 years ago, after announcing that he would not seek a third presidential term, George Washington made one final public address, known as his “Farewell Address.” Far from leaving office assured with his good works and sanguine on the young nation’s prospects, he sounded an alarm. His speech emphasized three dangers to the stability of the Republic: political factionalism, geographic sectionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs. Although the Address has been taught in schools for generations, the dangers of political “factionalism”—or extreme partisanship—have been overshadowed by the other two.
Washington’s Farewell Address, which was drafted with input from Hamilton and Madison, his top advisors, enumerated a litany of corrosive effects of toxic partisanship, or what they called the “baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Among them, that “it serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration”; “it agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms”; it “kindles the animosity of one part against another”; it “foments occasionally riot and insurrection”; and “it opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
No casual observer of national affairs over the last six years could help but note that every prediction made there has come to pass, from the capitol riot last January 6th to the events which precipitated both the first impeachment of Donald Trump and the Mueller investigation and report. Extreme partisanship has created gridlock in Washington and visceral antipathy (what political scientists call “negative partisanship”) for no other reason than the "animosity of one part against another."
But those were not even the most serious of Washington’s warnings. Washington predicted that extreme partisanship, taking the form of “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party,” could lead to “a more formal and permanent despotism” and even the destruction of the republic. This occurs, he explained, as people eventually look to a single individual to resolve the crises, and “sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
As unimaginable as it might have been even a few years ago, this scenario, or some version of it, is dangerously within sight. If most Trump supporters continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and allow that to affect their public duties during the 2024 presidential election (whether he runs again or not), why would they not then seek the “revenge natural to party” through means that might ultimately destroy the republic and result in the "ruins of public liberty?" If Trump loyalists in voting precincts and secretary of state offices or even state legislatures believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and that a similar theft is underway in 2024, then what force could stop them if they took steps that violate what Madison and Hamilton called “fundamental principle of free government,” that the majority should prevail? Some military leaders are already warning that this could happen, through either insurrection or coup.
As students of history, the founders knew all too well the fate of most republics, tending to fall either into tyranny or anarchy. That our nation and the constitution it is governed by, despite its myriad flaws, has endured for centuries is perhaps not the exception to the general rule we hoped it might be. It is not too late to prevent this outcome either. But to get to the root of the problem, we need to begin by recognizing that the founders failed to build sufficient structural safeguards against the problem of toxic partisanship, even after they became fully aware of the danger. That task falls to us.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.