Somewhere in your long-term memory there is a filing cabinet for things you learned in high school. If you flip to the Constitution and government folder, you have something on Federalist #10. At the very least it's one of those things anyone raised in the American educational system has seen before.
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The Federalist Papers, a three-man public relations effort intended to sell highly skeptical state legislatures on the newly unveiled Constitution, range from deeply profound to tediously pedantic. The tenth installment, by James Madison, speaks to the dangers of Factions. Factions as he described them would be very familiar to us today, because he was describing political parties and interest groups. While the people who created the Constitution deeply distrusted parties and saw no role for them in the system (scour the Constitution and you'll find not even an oblique reference to them) they of course formed almost immediately upon adoption of the Constitution. They formed because nothing in the system forbade them, because people in a political system naturally ally themselves with the like-minded, and because they performed some useful functions like nominating candidates (eventually).
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Madison believed that any faction, or group more interested in advancing its own agenda rather than high-mindedly doing what is best for the country, was a danger to the system. Ultimately – long story short – he reassures the reader that through pluralism (the opportunity for many competing voices to participate at many points in the process) the dangers of factions could be mitigated. He also points out correctly that the system of checks and balances would function as a limit on any one group's ability to control political outcomes. Impeachment, for example, was seen in the early days as an important check on the Executive, and anyone who wrote the Constitution would be shocked to come back to life today and find out how rarely we have actually had to use it.

Since Trump won there has been a lot of debate about whether institutions will save us or, more pertinently, whether our institutions can withstand the test of a true demagogue who hasn't the slightest interest in anything other than rule by fiat. Presented with this scenario, Madison and pals would tell us that Congress was given the divided power to impeach – the House to accuse and the Senate to try – to deal with such a person. In that sense, our system is fully prepared to deal with a Trump and the people who created the Constitution could be credited with remarkable foresight.

The problem, however, in practice is not that the Constitution has no provision for dealing with an autocrat-demagogue president. It does. It has a legislature empowered to remove him. What the Constitution does not have, and its authors did not foresee, is a provision for having a House that would watch a demagogue president, shrug half-heartedly, and say, "Whatever, let's use him for political cover." The problem is not that our system cannot control the president – it is that our system was not designed to handle a Congress that has no interest in trying to control the president. The Constitution's authors assumed, wrongly in the current situation, that members of Congress would not want a power-mad lunatic in the presidency. They assumed that elected officials might care a little bit about the country and any long term damage such an individual could inflict. As full of foresight and clever power-sharing arrangements as it may be, our core legal document offers nothing to protect the country or the system as a whole when the people given the responsibility of protecting it are members of a party so thoroughly rotten to its core that it is willing to abandon any pretense of principle if they see an opportunity to derive some benefit from the elevation of a wannabe dictator into the White House.

We can only guess what they would say in response to our current dilemma were they alive to see it, but it's safe to say that of all the ways in which our system could fail this one would not be high on their list of fears. Time has proven Madison largely correct in his prediction that the evils of self interest and factionalism could be reduced to acceptable levels by the nature of the system. There's no telling how strong the safeguards are, though, and they may not be sufficient to deal with a majority party this craven.

51 thoughts on “DANGERS OF FACTION”

  • Party politics scares me because it quickly leads into politics as a game. Trump obviously, but also note how many Trump supporters go on and on, "WE WON! Stop whining!" I'm afraid the Republicans have the same mentality — as long as we keep our guy in the WH, we're still the winners — and winners get money and power. Party above country indeed.

  • We're three weeks in, and the Trump Administration (shudder at typing those words) is already crippled by allegations, investigations, court cases, and a nauseating stink of incompetence and illegitimacy.

    Trump is sinking like a stone in the polls. His cue-card reading goon squad can't lie their way out of a paper bag. The administration is leaking like a sieve. Sooner or later a bombshell phonecall or document will be leaked.

    Republicans I bet are in full panic mode by now, because Trump is so incompetent he can't even last long enough to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, let alone get even half of their legislative agenda done before 2018. The Democrats need to find some liberal war vets for 2018 and run against the Russian connection, and Republican efforts to slow-walk it, day and night. It may not penetrate the fog of cognitive dissonance, but it'll be fun watching Republicans squirm with their past and present on-record statements regarding Russia, and by extension, Trump.

  • Ed writes…"The problem, however, in practice is not that the Constitution has no provision for dealing with an autocrat-demagogue president. It does. It has a legislature empowered to remove him."

    The legislature can veto all of his bills; the legislature and the judicial branch can impeach him if high crimes and misdemeanors are committed; and I suppose that if s/he were babbling incoherently and lost control of bodily functions the legislature could impeach under amendment 25 section 4. Beyond these circumstances can someone please explain to me how the legislature can remove a demagogue if the people elected a demagogue? The electoral college system failed. Trump can hire as many psychologists as he wants to prove to the legislature that he is rational and sane. Whada you got? Right. We're waiting for the crime…it will come.

  • Many people seem to assume that failed democracies such as Weimar failed due to some error in their constitution or for lacking checks and balances. Really I find the idea that any constitutional set-up could survive 40% of its voters wanting to destroy the system rather droll.

  • Good stuff, Ed.

    With Congress in dereliction of duty, the remaining checks are the courts and the federal bureaucracy. The latter wasn't foreseen by the framers either; huge bureaucracies were definitely not a thing in the late eighteenth century. But it has a lot of capacity to frustrate Trump, especially since he and his team have very little understanding of how the various agencies work.

    We're depending on the professionalism of civil servants and military officers to obstruct Trump when he tries to do evil and stupid things. It's alarming that it's come to this, but I'll take any check on Trump's power we can get.

    @Periscope: Trump has already done more than enough for Congress to impeach him. The Constitution specifies "Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours". Arguably the first two apply in Trump's case, with Russia and his exploiting the presidency for profit. "High crimes" are whatever Congress says they are; they got Bill Clinton for lying about a blowjob, and Trump has done plenty worse things than that.

    @Alex SL: I don't think most Trump voters have given up on democracy. Trump was the beneficiary of (a) Republican party loyalty; (b) anti-establishment, "throw the bums out" sentiment, stronger than usual in hard economic times; and (c) a uniquely unpopular opponent. Said voters were too ignorant to realise the consequences of voting for Trump. In the optimistic scenario, his presidency may serve to educate some of them.

  • Talisker,

    Some interesting points there.

    I don't think a lot of people who vote for right-wing demagogues would answer "yes" if you asked them if they had given up on democracy. They will, however, give that answer if you ask them if the president should be allowed to overrule a court decision, or if you ask them if we need a "strong leader". I think I read something between those lines.

    And as for (b), what hard economic times? As much as I appreciate the problems of job insecurity, loss of union power, lower living standards than the baby boomer generation, etc., I have to ask: If Trump / FN / One Nation / AFD are what people vote for when they face the current situation, what will they do if they ever find it hard to pay for food, as in real crisis on the lines of 1929? Not to mention that the voters of right-wing demagogues are generally not the poor but the comfortable middle class who are afraid they'll have to share with the poor.

  • @Alex, under President Obama, unemployment is the lowest it's been in many years and the stock market is triple what it was when he took office. However, if you listen to the low-info, rightwing-news-consuming folks, there's 50% unemployment (I've heard this figure thrown around as if it were truth) and people are starving in the streets. Things were certainly heading that way when he took office, but he managed to turn it around.

    Just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy (JD Vance) and found it to be very informative and a quick read. The author is everything I'm not–male, conservative, Christian, multi-generational American. His grandfather was part of the great migration post-WWII from the hollers of Kentucky to Ohio to a fabulous-paying steel mill. However, those men who brought their families north, brought their culture with them. The author takes an honest, open-eyed look at the cultural conditioning that leaves third-generation hillbillies like him in such terrible shape (both physically and mentally) once the steel mill jobs were gone. He was the first one in his extended family to go to college, then to law school at Yale, and he looks back on the supports he had that got him there–like grandparents who took care of him when his mother didn't, and the military that taught him basic life skills such as getting up on time, going to the dentist, how to have a bank account and how to budget money, how to buy a car, etc. etc.

  • The writers of the Constitution also didn't foresee gerrymandering*, so they probably assumed that if the majority party in Congress didn't think the president was an America-hating demagogue, then the majority of the people (or the segment that was allowed to vote) probably didn't either.

    (*Or maybe they did, and that was part of the reasoning behind the blanket warning against parties.)

  • @Lit3Bolt

    While I think you're correct, the Bush administration was in the same position pre 9/11.

    I worry that we're one major terrorist attack away from these people cementing their power.

    Either that or they'll start a conflict so that he can be a "War President".

  • @Major Kong; OT but have you read about the United pilot that had a mental breakdown and was pulled from the flight? Scary stuff. Scarier still is that many jobs (perhaps airline pilot, but definitely my field), a person's job can be denied for seeking mental health treatment–for example, after a miscarriage or a divorce.

  • @Major Kong; it's a mystery why someone hasn't invaded us yet. I keep hoping it'll be Canada, and they'll impose their government on us until we prove we're adult enough to govern ourselves.

  • And this: "unemployment is the lowest it's been in many years and the stock market is triple what it was when he took office." Is repeated without irony or any real substantive context and so, we as an electorate, come to parrot and echo the propaganda, because many of us love us some Horatio Alger myths, and Obama's life story really is magical, too bad it translated into neo-lib bullshit.

  • @Katydid

    At the very least that pilot will get some mandatory time off. She could conceivably lose her FAA medical and go on long term disability if she is diagnosed with mental illness.

    I fly freight, but I would think that in Passenger Hauling 101 they teach you "Watch what you say over the intercom!"

  • Why would Canada want to waste time and resources trying to govern an increasingly failed state? As for the failure of others to invade – three weeks is hardly enough time for preliminary feasibility studies, never mind boots on the ground.

  • @Alex SL: People don't have to be on the edge of starvation to vote for a change of governing party. Long before that point, they'll vote for the opposition just for the sake of change. This works well enough if the main parties meet a basic standard of responsibility and competence. If they are complacent and ineffectual, you get insurgent parties like One Nation/UKIP/Front National. If the nationalist right stage a takeover of a major party, you get Trump.

    A good outcome here would be a realignment of US politics, such that the Trump nationalist right are pushed to the margins. A less-good outcome would be repeating the GW Bush / Obama dynamic of "Republicans do stupid shit, Democrats attempt to manage the consequences, repeat." The bad outcome is a Putin-style semi-dictatorship, under either Trump or someone else more competent. (Really, really bad outcomes involve mushroom clouds.)

    @Katydid: Invading with guns blazing isn't the Canadian way. We hope you will be persuaded by the power of our good example. If that doesn't work, we at least get to say we told you so, so it's a win-win. ;-)

  • It's been a long time since my HS history days so I always appreciate it when Ed gives us a primer. The Republicans have been working at this since Goldwater got creamed. Backed by big money, they have slowly seeded the courts and state legislatures with right wingers. At some point, they may realize that Trump has done more to galvanize opposition in 3 weeks than Democrats have in the last 40 years.

    Even as they realize it, they are facing a major faction of their party, the White Supremacy, Christian Taliban wing. If they work to stop Trump, they will split the Party. So they are most likely going to (secretly) hope that the Putin's Puppet thing has legs, giving them the excuse they need to dump Trump.

    The problem they have is that in addition to awakening the Democrats, they have also revealed their intent to kill social programs. The Republican base, at least the ones still capable of some independent thought, have also been awakened.

    Killing Obamacre, but not the ACA is the perfect metaphor to describe the average Republican voter.

  • Periscope,
    Yes, the electoral college failed. I recently went back and read the Federalist section about it (was it No. 68?) and my impression is that rather than having learned delegates selected who would operate as intended, to prevent a Trump from gaining office, it is instead filled with party hacks who blindly support their tribe regardless of how dangerous that person might be. So, the electoral college has also failed due to factionalism. In my opinion, this must be rectified somehow, or the whole thing scrapped.
    It might be worth saving if not for the factionalism, but I don't know how you would change it. Set minimum requirements for delegates? Hold popular elections for delegates? Only allow retired federal judges to serve as delegates? As I superficially think about it now, I keep coming back to 'Fuck it, just scrap it.' But, that will never happen.
    Realistically, I agree with some others here, that we just have to wait for the inevitable moment when Trump steps on his own dick so blatantly that he will not be able to talk himself out it with his own party. If we can capitalize on his fuck-up to sufficiently convince congressional republicans that he is too detrimental to their reelection prospects, they will dump him for us, while at the same time, chaining Trump around the neck of the republican party so that they can't separate themselves from him. His base of supporters will never turn on him in sufficient numbers, so those who say liberals should work on those Trump voters who may turn against him at some point is a waste of time and effort. Some will turn against him as his approval rating continues to drop, but most will stay with the sinking ship all the way to the bottom.
    The press needs to fact-check the administration to death. When any press organization fails to call bullshit on a administration flack, people also need to flood them with email and phone calls with complaints to the ombudsmen, if they have one.
    Asses need to be held to the flame. The press (especially NPR morning edition which is not much better than Fox "News") need to prevent them from using the public airwaves to spread their lies. Trump, and his flacks all need to have a torch pointed at their assholes at all times.
    People need to continue to fill town hall meetings asking uncomfortable questions of their reps and demand answers, or send them running out of the building, as has happened. We all need to keep the pressure on and force the error. It will come, and it probably won't take too long.

  • The point of our Constitution was to let the slaveowners win on the big questions, because of the 3/5ths Compromise. The moment the North industrialized, we had to keep winning elections, because shit was going down.

    40 acres and a mule. But even the northern whites were too racist for that shit.

  • "I keep hoping it'll be Canada,"

    I, for one, look forward to our back bacon eating, maple syrup swilling, took wearing overlords.

    Major Kong:

    I was just watching, "City in the Sky" on PBS. I didn't need to be more scared. My advantage is that if the plane tubes in, somebody I love will get a bigger wad than otherwise.

  • Actually it's a "tuque".
    Tuuk is a brand of blade holders on hockey skates, mostly Bauer.
    Apologies for being so Canadian.

  • waspuppet, Elbridge Gerry, who gave his name to Gerrymandering as Governor of Massachusetts (and ironically served as Vice President to Madison), was a member of the Constitutional Convention, although he voted against the draft for quite solid reasons, like the absence of a Bill of Rights. It's been baked in from the start.

  • Yeah, I don't see much that will save us. Republicans are now on record as saying that they might not like the things Trump says or even does, but they'll keep him around to implement all of their policies.

    Add to that some kind of terrorist attack which will allow him to implement martial law, and we are well and truly forever fucked.

  • I thought it was "toque"? What do I know, I'm not Canadian. But I'd be thrilled if Canada would annex us. Justin Trudeau is going to meet with Trump–saw a news clip on it this morning. What a change in his demeanor from the Obama days when they happily gave each other grief over hockey players and beer! He says he'll meet with Trump because he must. He didn't look happy about it. Sorry, Canada. Please come invade us soon! I'll bake cookies for you.

  • Robert Walker-Smith says:

    Back during the campaign (what a relatively happy time it was) I pointed out to people that the party nomination process was not regulated by the Constitution. In fact, there's nothing in the Constitution about political parties at all.

    So the DNC 'rigging' the primaries to ensure that the nominee of the party was, in fact, a Democrat was perfectly legal and Constitutional. I'm sure the RNC was wishing they'd thought of that at some point.

  • The sad, horrible truth is that the faction in charge is stoked about having a brain-damaged toddler in the house. They can put literally anything in front of him with the promise of candy and Presto! The unwashed masses get more of the same or even worse outcomes. During week one, I had a hard time deciding whether his so called advisors were inept or evil. Today, I have no doubt of their intentions.

  • @mothra I don't understand this at all. It's not like Pence wouldn't bend …..wouldn't sign anything they sent him.

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    The ultimate check on current GOP control will be the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. And honestly, if this administration isn't enough to motivate enough of the country to show up and vote against them and their party, then I guess we'll end up with the government we deserve.

    And as far as the next attack or war, I read this weekend that some folks in the WH staff were pushing for the Navy to stop, board, and "inspect" an Iranian ship in international waters, thinking that they were smuggling weapons to terrorist groups. It was only career civil servants that stopped it.

    Given Bannon's worldview of an inevitable global war between "the Judeo-Christian west" and Islam, and his role in the WH, I'd say it's only a matter of time before we're back to a major war in the middle east.

  • Perhaps I missed it, but, so far as I can tell, in all the comments to Ed's post the impact of differences of opinion regarding abortion is not mentioned once. That is astounding. I think abortion is the most divisive issue facing Americans. A lot of people who were repelled by most of Trump's opinions voted for him nonetheless because only he could be counted on to nominate for the Supreme Court justices likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. It would be nice if the people who claim to be pro-life because they are anti-abortion would start caring about the unwanted child once it was born, but that is not going to happen. I wish that somehow it would be possible to convince Trump voters that justices such as Gorsuch who favor cutting taxes for the very rich, gutting environmental protections, and denying minorities civil rights and civil liberties are not really pro-life no matter how strongly they claim to be pro-life.

  • Talisker,

    If it were only about letting the other ones govern for a change that'd be one thing. But that logic can only apply to a two-party system like in the USA; the European countries seen neonazi parties rise are a different matter.

  • Guess we'll see just how deep The Deep State is, eh?

    Trump is the focus of the outrage, so squash him like a bug with the time is right, then consolidate the covert rule to cheers from the electorate?

  • I'm pretty sure that most of the idiots who didn't want to see those worthless OTHERS getting FREE SHIT from the gummint will be fine with finding out that they're the NEW worthless OTHERS. Fucking morons.

    I just got some nuisance e-mail from "Linked in" about how Air B'n'B's didn't creatre a new business model, yadayada…I'm thinking that with the way things are going, somebody should start advertising weekend getaways in places where you can legally get so fucking stoned that you won't even know who the president is.

    I sent the idea to my nephew who lives in the state that IS Rocky Mountain High.

  • Trudeau just burned Trump! After Trump bloviated about how we can't "let the wrong ones in" (wasn't that a vampire movie?), Trudeau said the Canadian people certainly didn't expect him to come down here and tell another country how to govern.

    DAMMIT, you guys need to start invading us NOW! What will it take? I offered you cookies–should I get some coffee to go with? You can bring the Tim Bits–bring a receipt and I'll reimburse you.

  • @Democommie; I think the people who whine about other people getting free stuff from the gummint have moved on to whining about how those OTHER people are useless thugs for being heroin addicts, but THEIR OWN heroin addiction is UNDERSTANDABLE and we should all be SYMPATHETIC and SUPPORTIVE because Reasons.

  • It is off-topic, and I am sorry, but: I just now realized, after it teasing me for days, of whom Hair Furor reminds me. Not to take anything away from The Baldwin, John Candy would KILL as Dolt 45. Separated at birth, man.

    Now return please to your angst.

  • All I want to do, beside complementing Ed for this insight, is to warn that the ACLU brought you this mess by way of Citizens United when it joined with the Koch brothers to argue that corporate money is speech.

  • Katydid:

    I think that the vast bulk of hillbilly heroin and the real deal are weissvolk. Black people do drugs, but I think that they just don't do anywhere near as much smack as we've been led to believe.

  • If Trump doesn't drop a toaster in his bathwater or get lost somewhere in a bunker, he'll be the last President I'll know (come to think of it, the latter solution sounds pretty attractive) unless he's quickly impeached and convicted.

    Here we are at a place where black helicopters coming in the middle of the night to get our guns doesn't sound so far fetched.

    I agree with many here. Bring on some cold warriors before it's too late.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:


    Perhaps I missed it, but, so far as I can tell, in all the comments to Ed's post the impact of differences of opinion regarding abortion is not mentioned once. That is astounding. I think abortion is the most divisive issue facing Americans.

    It is, but the divide is asymmetrical. Whereas most pro-choice people regard it as a secondary social issue, almost all pro-lifers see it as the moral crisis of our time. This has the double effect of motivating them to vote in droves for politicians that they might otherwise be against, and leaving the rest of us flabbergasted when they do.

  • @Katydid

    While the offer of cookies is much appreciated, some of us are slightly more concerned that the invasion will happen in the other direction. Canada is terrible at asymmetric warfare and our moose-mounted mountie moose battalions aren't really up to dealing with drone-deploying 5th gen. multi-role fighters.

  • @jcdenton

    A more realistic fear for Canada may be that the US comes up and drinks all your beer, wrecks the place, throws the cat out the window, takes an upper-decker in your toilet, and pees off your balcony. You all are the Responsible Adults that live upstairs, while we're one big, terrifying frat party. Your whiteness is also a boon to you, otherwise we'd probably be vandalizing your place regularly.

    I like to read the local newspapers whenever I go out of the country, to see what others say about us. In 2008 right before the economy tanked, I was in Vancouver and reading the Globe and Mail, where they reported on some of Congress's latest nonsense about the GOP somehow saving money by cutting taxes (that old yarn) and the US being up to its earlobes in debt. They said that the only way America was going to get out of debt was to grow up, stop spending money it doesn't have (particularly on war), and raise taxes. Not really a revolutionary notion, but it's something the US media won't dare do—call the Republicans out on their shit. The Republicans have written this narrative that they're the party of "fiscal responsibility" and nobody points out that it's a lie. It's just accepted.

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