(Bloomberg Opinion) — John Harris, the founding editor of Politico, kicked up a flap last week by questioning the basis of partisan polarization, suggesting that the deep divisions in U.S. politics really came down to the cultural and psychological antipathies between Americans who like and dislike former President Donald Trump.
While some people on Twitter and elsewhere thought it was a good point, more bashed the idea, pointing out (for example) that if you’re a Texan who wants and can’t get an abortion right now, you might think that substantive policy differences matter quite a bit (and, of course, the same goes for those who believe that abortion is murder). If you don’t like that example, there are dozens more.
That said, I don’t think the rejoinder about policy differences really gets at the issue. For that, it’s worth thinking a bit about republics, majorities and the framers of the Constitution.
The American Revolution was perhaps more than anything an attempt to establish a democracy. In the 18th century, thinkers used the term “republic” (saving “democracy” for what we would now call direct democracy), but the key aim then and now was to establish popular rule, even though the original vision of who counted as citizens was sharply more limited than the modern one. Still, the framers took the notion of the rule of the people seriously. They feared, however, that world history demonstrated that republics were inherently fragile: Eventually, if the rule of the people came down to the rule of a permanent, locked-in majority, the minority wouldn’t stand for it even if upending majority rule meant rejecting democracy.
In the Federalist No. 10 written in 1787, James Madison discussed the cure for what he called the “mischiefs of faction.” It wasn’t to eliminate majority voting; it was to eliminate majorities altogether.
Madison noted that democracies established previously had been small, but that the U.S. was to be an extended republic, made up of many and varied people over an enormous and varied geography. In that kind of nation, some people would care about religion, some about manufacturing, some about farming, some about foreign policy, some about their ethnic group, some about the arts, with further divisions within any category. There would be winners and losers in politics, of course, but without any possibility of a single group monopolizing power, any minority group would believe it had a chance to succeed in the future, and would never face a choice between supporting the republic and pursuing its goals.
I believe Madison was correct, and the emergence of even dramatically imperfect but long-lived democracies in the U.S. and elsewhere is evidence that large republics are more successful than smaller ones.
But there’s a flaw in Madison’s logic. One of the main reasons for having a republic is to enable people to engage in politics, and once they do so they can forge majorities despite what may once have been disparate interests.
That’s one way to see the U.S. Civil War: Everyone eventually divided over slavery, and once all factions clashed over a single policy question, they produced a single majority and a single minority. And that’s not the only possible way of creating a majority. If people come to see every policy question as inherently linked by one of two overarching sets of ideas, they will all belong to a majority and a minority.
And I think that’s where Harris is wrong in thinking that today’s polarization is just about resentment and mutual contempt, which some of those who agreed with Harris reduced to a claim that the U.S. is divided over “nothing.” If you think of politics as mainly about ideology or policy questions, then it really is true that, as deeply as many Americans feel about things that divide the political parties, none of it quite captures our differences. Or if you think of politics as centered on emotions, then it feels like people are, well, overreacting.
However, there is unfortunately a third possible way to account for the divisions: Political party. To the extent that citizens come to believe that parties and the groups associated with them are fundamental, the two-party system makes the threat of a single majority and a permanent minority loom large. And while that majority is constructed, there’s nothing hypothetical or fictional about it. The question is the extent to which the entire nation really does feel that party is the essential question.
And given the centrality of race and ethnicity in U.S. politics, it’s no surprise that many Americans have come to believe that the only real question is which party — and therefore which groups — will rule. That is, unfortunately, the kind of belief that can send people to storming the Capitol, and to rejecting democracy if it is to (they believe) lock them permanently out of power.
That’s the danger we’re facing, I think. As important as the individual policy questions are, and I don’t mean to downplay them, the key to it is that many Republicans have come to see politics as a question of whether they will rule or not, and, as Madison feared, they are not willing to accept “not” as an answer. As they move away from a commitment to democracy and its principles of rotation in office — in particular with the attempts by Trump, his allies, and the mob to remain in office despite losing the 2020 presidential election — Democrats, too, come to believe that one party or the other will rule.
While the crucial danger Madison perceived was from groups that believed they had become permanent minorities, Trump’s Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that they are somehow a large majority who are constantly robbed of their votes by a nefarious coalition of Democrats, independents and weak Republicans, who somehow still are a small minority anyway, or should be, or something like that. At any rate, those Republicans who have come to explicitly question democracy seem to me to be at least acting like a dangerous Madisonian minority. I’ll leave it to others to sort out the particulars.
For weekend reading, here are some of the best items from political scientists this week:
Kathleen R. McNamara at the Monkey Cage on inflation.
And back at the Monkey Cage, Larry Berman, Bruce Murphy, Sarah Allen Gershon and Nadia E. Brown on teaching about Jan. 6.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.