Elections Should Be Divisive

Al Knight, writing in the Denver Post, rebuts the notion put forth by Bill Clinton and other speakers at the Democratic National Convention that the Republicans are trying to “divide” the electorate and then moves to a broader point:

In earlier times it was generally assumed that differences of this nature were normal and people debating them deserved to be treated with mutual respect. Lately, far too many people, including the former president Monday night, have been suggesting that the Republican Party alone has divided the country into what appear to be warring camps.

A couple of points need to be made in response. The first is that elections are, by definition, divisive. The fact that elections create disagreement should not come as a surprise. The beauty of the American system has always been that disagreements of a political kind are settled by elections. Once the votes are counted, it has generally been assumed, the results would be accepted by all Americans, certainly at least until the next election. The fact is, in the very close 2000 election, some underlying assumptions changed. Many Democrats today have yet to fully accept the results of the 2000 election. That is too bad. The failure to accept the results has created a bitterness that continues to poison the political process.

There are only a couple of choices available, one plausible and one not. The implausible choice is to try to eliminate the differences that divide Americans by electing a man on a white horse who can “unite” the country. The second, and better, choice is for individuals to resolve to better respect those with whom they differ politically. More than that, if citizens are to unite on anything, it should be on their support for and trust in the institution that best characterizes the American system: the periodic free and open election.

Whether intentional or not, Knight echoes the sentiments of James Madison as expressed in Federalist No. 10:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

Divisiveness is not evil–it is the very reason for politics.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Political Theory, Religion, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Beldar says:

    Yeah. But I wonder what Madison would make of Farenheit 9/11?

    On the other hand, today’s politics are not terribly less civil than those of the 1790s or the 1860s.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    The democrats are pining for a world that is postpolitical, to go with the postmodern dog’s breakfast they’ve substituted for clearheaded political thought.

  3. Joseph Marshall says:

    I agree with you, James. Elections should be divisive. But government should not. Four years of watching “my way or the highway” emanating from the White House discounts to the bone any value the 2000 election had in the moderation of “faction”.

    Can you seriously say that this has resulted in a list of “major accomplishments” for the George W. Bush Presidency?

    With one of the highest popularity ratings in Presidential history, party majorities in both Houses, and party “discipline” on the order of a double-time forced march, what has Republican government accomplished? Proposing the Gay Marriage Amendment?

    George W. Bush could have had unity in this country, if he had wanted it. He could even have had the good opinion of many beyond our borders if he had wanted it. For he DID have both and he threw them away. And for nothing more than faction.