Shapiro: A political mess in D.C.? Not really
By Robert E. Shapiro January 3, 2014 9:24PM
Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.
Updated: February 6, 2014 6:36AM
A famous, though likely apocryphal, story has it that Bob Dole responded in disbelief when, upon awakening the morning after the 1996 presidential election, he was told that he had lost to Bill Clinton.
“It’s not possible,” he protested, “what about all those people at my election rallies?”
Tens of thousands had attended those events, and most undoubtedly voted for Dole. And though they were representative of thousands, even millions more, those crowds still formed only a fraction of the mammoth American electorate. For a respectable showing, let alone a national win on Election Day, even a vote by every one of them was hardly enough.
It’s a big country. Huge in fact. Neither local popularity nor single-issue prominence translates into national success at the ballot box.
To succeed in American politics, a national candidate must appeal across a wide and diverse swath of geographic regions and to a populace of many different persuasions. Coalition building, with its natural tendency toward moderation and compromise, is the sine qua non of national political success in America.
It was designed that way, as James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, stressed in his Federalist 10. As he argued while explaining the new governmental structure to the people of New York, factionalism is inherent in a country where the people are free to have and voice their opinions.
People will disagree, often sharply, and often a group of them, co-believers, will coalesce around a single point of view. Because factionalism cannot be snuffed out without suppressing liberty, its effects needed to be controlled, Madison believed.
The solution was to enlarge the size and diversity of the nation, which would ensure that no regional or single-issue movement would become a majority. There would never be an opportunity for the majority to tyrannize the minority because no majority could exist without including significant numbers from a diverse group of minority interests.
What is true for electoral success is also true for governing a free country. The factions on the right and left in our country, or those dedicated to a single issue, must understand that they will necessarily always be short of majority control — not only within the government as a whole but within any part of the government.
Even if by some quirk Madison’s solution failed to prevent factional control of one chamber of the Congress, there’s still a second chamber elected on a different basis. And even were Congress as a whole captive, the president (and Supreme Court) come to office on an entirely different basis still. In short, majority control by factional interests is virtually hopeless.
There are two related lessons to be learned from this. First, the so-called “mess” in Washington, D.C., is not really a mess at all. It’s a success. Our well-designed government has prevented any faction from getting control of a chamber of Congress or even any political party within that chamber. Even the Republicans in the House usually cannot agree.
Madison’s plan has worked perfectly. Individual or small groups of congressman can disrupt or interfere, but success with their separate political program can never succeed. They will always be outvoted by the majority of members of Congress representing other interests and regions.
Second, the road to success is relatively easy to spot. Coalition building is key. Call it horse trading if you will, but to have a deal you must make a deal, a trade or what might be best described as a compromise.
Progress, therefore, awaits two related developments. The first is that congressmen as a group must realize the futility of holding out, of refusing to deal. This seems, with the recent deal on the federal budget, to be happening. The second and harder requirement is the leadership to guide those deals. Leadership is harder than it looks.
Robert E. Shapiro is an adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.