The Founding Fathers feared the rise of dangerous factions more than vigorous disputes between political parties. They feared factionalism almost as much as they feared an all-powerful federal government. A nation divided was as dangerous to itself, and as likely to be dominated, as one poorly led.
In George Washington’s famous Farewell Address, he warned his generation and future ones against the rise of factions: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
The Bill of Rights secured – or attempted to secure – God-given liberties to every individual citizen, from free speech and worship to self-defense, defense against federal government overreach, privacy in their homes and papers, and assurances of fair, equal treatment before the law.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments preserved for states and “the people” rights not expressly given by ratification or amendment of the Constitution, expressly given to the federal government.
But protecting against debilitating factions, or dissenting groups within dissenting groups, to the point where civic order and agreement on shared democratic and republican principles broke down, was harder. They did not know about communism or socialism, but did know chaos, war, and tyranny.
Balancing individual and state rights against federal prerogatives, and balancing federal actions against each other, assuring checks and balances between executive, legislative, and judicial, was one thing.
But what if factional dissent spread? What if citizens broke into warring groups, gave up the hard work of agreement and self-governance? What if factions grew, drifting toward ungovernability and chaos?
What if basic belief in the necessity of resolving human differences peaceably, finding points of compromise, working toward agreement – the definition of politics – and majority rule dissolved?
What if forces within or outside society pushed factionalism, seeking to divide the population along countless political and social axes of differentness, aiming to divide, disrupt and then dominate?
What if the underlying principle that permits a democratic society to function, the firm conviction that we cannot all get our way, enjoy the same God-given individual sovereignty, so must respect each other’s rights – collapses?
In short, what if the impulses of a self-governing people, acknowledging the wisdom and sanctity of the Constitution, were replaced by self-interest, self-destructive behavior, incitement, and a culture of angry entitlement, victimhood, perpetual grievance, and destructive faction?
With extraordinary foresight, born of hard times, their close reading of history, and awareness of human nature, our Founders knew this drift was – or could become – a danger to the republic.
Sadly, both major political parties, and peripheral ones, are becoming hotbeds of factionalism, creating spinoffs of angry, finger-pointing demagoguery. They are suffering divisions within divisions, based on willful retreat from any conversation about shared norms, values, history, or the need for political agreement in an imperfect world.
Looking around, the political ocean is less and less two hemispheres of competing ideas about how best to improve our Constitutional republic, or even continents, but a collection of pulverized islands of political belligerence, factions more interested in ideology, score-settling, and power-grabbing, than agreement.
Exactly what the Founders feared, an elevation of personal, cultish, factional interests over the nation, an abandonment of the hard work of learning from the past, protecting the future, and agreeing – is occurring. We are accelerating into the snake pit our Founders foresaw as possible.
So, what is the diagnosis, remedy, and how do we end this slide into self-destructive factionalism?
Diagnosis: Unaccountable, irresponsible, indefensibly self-interested leaders are promoting these factions – in and out of government, sowing and encouraging discord, creating a factionalized society which, by the time we wake up will be so torn that stitching ourselves back together will be hard.
Put differently, self-serving politicians and those who see self-interest in supporting them are whipping people into a froth, betraying the country, history, ideals, and principles that got us here.
Remedy: The answer is simple yet hard to implement. Calm, rational, principled, well-read, and fact based leaders – in every community – need to step up, serve, educate, and gradually recultivate, then reseed respect for the Constitution, our founding principles, form of government, and each other.
How? Again the answer is not brilliance but caring. We need to stop thinking we can destroy, ridicule, lie, shame, blame, punish, spit, curse, cancel, and isolate each other into a nation premised on mutual respect and respect for principles that – yes, for sure – made this nation great.
In sum, the dangerous rise of factionalism can only be defeated by smart, level heads, those who care and dare to understand and communicate with their fellow citizens a tenet: Belief in the magnificence of this nation and what got us here must be modeled, factionalism resisted, in all its ugly forms. That’s it.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.