After a political campaign noted for its divisiveness, President Bush is about to begin his second term. If form holds, his inaugural address will lay claim to a political mandate for what he thinks the government should do and try to portray government under his administration as a source of American unity. Unfortunately, however, those conclusions do not follow from America's electoral results. Majority votes do not determine what government ought to do, when it exceeds our limited Constitution, as it does every day. And the political competition for control of the levers of a government that has overstepped its bounds is one of the greatest sources of disunity in our country.
As a small counter to the feel-good claims and inspirational language that will be rolled out about what "we" can accomplish as a result of the leadership of the "good guys," (contradicted by an "equal and opposite reaction" by Democrats who also want to claim the electoral high ground) and that the battle for that majority would guarantee a bitter, divisive battle for party control rather than unity, it is worth remembering the more accurate, if contradictory, wisdom of someone who lived through an even more tumultuous and contentious time in Washington—John C. Calhoun. John C. Calhoun served as Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and Vice-President to two different Presidents with whom he strongly disagreed (and sometimes fought as President of the Senate).
In the "Golden Era" of the Senate, he, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster debated intensely divisive national issues, from tariffs to slavery. In 1957, he was selected as one of five members of a senatorial "hall of fame" by a committee headed by John F. Kennedy, who described Calhoun as "a forceful logician of state sovereignty" and a "masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority." In his Disquisition on Government, published posthumously in 1851, Calhoun reflected on the reality of party politics in a sharply divisive time. In it, he found that a government selected by majority vote was not at all a guarantee that Americans' General Welfare would be advanced.
...government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify...the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. Those who exercise power and those subject to its exercise—the rulers and the ruled—stand in antagonistic relations to each other...suffrage...only changes the seat of authority, without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of the government to oppression and abuse of its powers. Further, in what may be perhaps the best characterization of the current political climate 150 years later, Calhoun recognized that the battle for a majority, and the ability of such a coalition to benefit its members at others' expense, would guarantee a bitter, divisive battle for control rather than unity.
...suffrage...must...lead to conflict among its different interests—each striving to obtain possession of its powers, as the means of protecting itself against the others—or of advancing its respective interests, regardless of the interests of others. For this purpose, a struggle will take place between the various interests to obtain a majority, in order to control the government ...When once formed, the community will be divided into two great parties—a major and minor—between which there will be incessant struggles on the one side to retain, and on the other to obtain the majority—and, thereby, the control of the government and the advantages it confers.
The advantages of possessing the control of the powers of the government...are, of themselves, exclusive of all other considerations, ample to divide even such a community into two great hostile parties...for the purpose of aggrandizing and building up one portion of the community at the expense of the other...the most [voting] can do, of itself, is to collect the sense of the greater number; that is, of the stronger interests, or combination of interests...
such a government, instead of being a true and perfect model of the people's government, that is, a people self-governed, is but the government of a part, over a part—the major over the minor portion. The conflict between the two parties, in the government of the numerical majority, tends necessarily to settle down into a struggle for the honors and emoluments of the government; and each, in order to obtain an object so ardently desired, will, in the process of the struggle, resort to whatever measure may seem best calculated to effect this purpose. The adoption, by the one, of any measure, however objectionable, which might give it an advantage, would compel the other to follow its example. In such case, it would be indispensable to success to avoid division and keep united...
This, in process of time, must lead to party organization, and party caucuses and discipline; and these, to the conversion of the honors and emoluments of the government into means of rewarding partisan services, in order to secure the fidelity and increase the zeal of the members of the party. The effect...would be to place the control of the two parties in the hands of their respective majorities; and the government itself, virtually, under the control of the majority of the dominant party, for the time, instead of the majority of the whole community—where the theory of this form of government vests it...the government becomes the government of a minority instead of a majority... The government would gradually pass from the hands of the majority of the party into those of its leaders; as the struggle became more intense, and the honors and emoluments of the government the all-absorbing objects.
At this stage, principles and policy would lose all influence in the elections; and cunning, falsehood, deception, slander, fraud, and gross appeals to the appetites of the lowest and most worthless portions of the community, would take the place of sound reason and wise debate. After these have thoroughly debased and corrupted the community, and all the arts and devices of party have been exhausted, the government would vibrate between the two factions (for such will parties have become... ...the numerical majority will divide the community...into two great parties, which will be engaged in perpetual struggles to obtain the control of the government...
The great importance of the object at stake, must necessarily form strong party attachments and party antipathies—attachments on the part of the members of each to their respective parties, through whose efforts they hope to accomplish an object dear to all; and antipathies to the opposite party, as presenting the only obstacle to success.
It is not then wonderful, that a form of government, which periodically stakes all its honors and emoluments, as prizes to be contended for, should divide the community into two great hostile parties; or that party attachments, in the progress of the strife, should become so strong among the members of each respectively, as to absorb almost every feeling of our nature, both social and individual; or that their mutual antipathies should be carried to such an excess as to destroy, almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion. Nor is it surprising, that under their joint influence, the community should cease to be the common centre of attachment, or that each party should find that centre only in itself. It is thus, that, in such governments, devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country—the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy, objects of far greater solicitude than the safety and prosperity of the community...two hostile parts, waging, under the forms of law, incessant hostilities against each other.
The same cause, which, in governments of the numerical majority, gives to party attachments and antipathies such force, as to place party triumph and ascendancy above the safety and prosperity of the community, will just as certainly give them sufficient force to overpower all regard for truth, justice, sincerity, and moral obligations of every description...falsehood, injustice, fraud, artifice, slander, and breach of faith, are freely resorted to, as legitimate weapons—followed by all their corrupting and debasing influences.
...each faction, in the struggle to obtain the control of the government, elevates to power the designing, the artful, and unscrupulous, who, in their devotion to party—instead of aiming at the good of the whole—aim exclusively at securing the ascendancy of party... to promote the interest of parties at the expense of the good of the whole...
We will hear a lot of verbiage about unity and working together this inaugural week. But we will see little of it in action. Winning politically will dominate virtually everything else, and what unity there is likely to be is one in which both parties gain by the expansion of political power at the expense of Americans' General Welfare. As Calhoun said:
...so long as government exists, the possession of its control, as the means of directing its action and dispensing its honors and emoluments, will be an object of desire. While this continues to be the case, it must, in governments of the numerical majority, lead to party struggles... Party conflicts between the majority and minority, in such governments, can hardly ever terminate in compromise—The object of the opposing minority is to expel the majority from power; and of the majority to maintain their hold upon it. It is, on both sides, a struggle for the whole—a struggle that must determine which shall be the governing, and which the subject party.