More prophecy from John C. Calhoun.

John Calhoun, the pol that everyone loves to hate:

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  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.

Some context:

Calhoun is talking about a scenario that he believes arises under a government controlled by a numerical vs. “concurrent” majority. Calhoun felt that the term “majority” was thrown around too much and that whereas a numerical majority accounts for the sum of individual people, a concurrent majority accounted for the variety of interests that exist in society. Like the Founders, he was wary of the former and supportive of the latter. I don’t want to get into an argument over whether our country has become too democratic in the pure sense of the term. I do think the quote is worth pondering though.

It’s a more eloquent articulation of a lot of arguments surrounding some current affairs. It is pretty conspicuous that both parties are as ideologically polarized today as ever. Calhoun’s critique could be applied to, say, the GOP pledge to obstruct legislation until the tax cuts are voted on. Note that this includes blocking the DREAM Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, two critical pieces of legislation. With respect to the latter, Senate Republicans nearly stand alone in opposition, including among military leadership. Could there be a more instructive example of malfunction in a democratic institution?

Or how about the myopia surrounding the tax cut compromise, in which a trillion dollar Stimulus II was agreed to by Republicans (who expanded their majority a month ago on promises of parsimony), and reviled (even filibustered) by Democrats, all because the hammer came down in favor of Republicans on the issue of a 4.5% difference in the marginal tax rate of 2% of the population. Where’s the big picture?

Democrats are fighting for a politically disadvantaged class, Republicans are fighting for entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Yeah, we get it.

The reality, however, is that both parties set up totems and use either their preservation or destruction to mobilize the masses. This is a far cry from what our political institutions should be doing: distilling the greater good from various represented interests. DO NOT MISTAKE ME: I support partisan, adversarial politics. But the adversarial nature of our system is supposed to arise from the fair representation of the varied interests among us, not from the symbolic non-issue issues that the respective parties stage on television for our alternating enjoyment and anger so as to galvanize a gullible electorate into swinging the government in their favor.


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