Commentary Magazine


The Hope of Obama vs. the Wisdom of Madison

During the campaign, Barack Obama portrayed himself as a unifying figure for America, the balm for our wounds, the man uniquely able to overcome our differences. He would create a spirit of bipartisan goodwill after the divisive Bush years. We are not “red America” or “blue America,” he said during his run for the presidency—there is only “the United States of America.” Through the healing power of his words and his calm reason, he would elevate the national debate and unify the country. He spoke about finding “the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.” Yet like many of his other commitments, this eloquent promise of unity and comity is going unfulfilled.

We know from a Pew Poll earlier this year that Obama ranks as the most polarizing president of the modern era. He never made a serious effort at bipartisan outreach—that is a commitment the administration cast aside months ago and simply ignores these days. Thanks to ObamaCare, much of the nation is inflamed and agitated, and citizens are at odds with one another. Town-hall meetings are spirited, angry, and in some cases turning violent. Democratic leaders are using extraordinarily incendiary rhetoric against American citizens, referring to their “un-American” tactics (Speaker Pelosi and House Majority Leader Hoyer) and to the citizens themselves as “evil-mongers” (Senate Majority Leader Reid).

Key Obama aides tell Democratic members of Congress that they will “punch back twice as hard” against their critics. Some opponents of ObamaCare are shouting down their elected representatives; some elected representatives, in response, are acting in an imperious and dismissive manner. All this rancor, and after only 200 days in office.

What explains this turn of events? Several factors. One is that Mr. Obama is far different from how he was advertised. He turns out to be much closer to hyper-partisan than bipartisan in his governing style, and much more of a liberal than a centrist in his ideology. (It should be said that his brief legislative career offered plenty of clues in this direction.)

In addition, Obama is trying to ram through a massive, wholesale reinvention of American health care, which is alarming and even frightening people, especially the elderly. They, in turn, are reacting en masse, with thousands of people turning out for town halls in venues that can accommodate only several hundred.

President Obama has embraced a my-way-or-the-highway approach, and it is stirring up fierce resistance, not just among Republicans, but also increasingly among independents (where Obama’s support is dropping at a startling rate).

But something else needs to be said about the desire of Obama—and virtually every other president preceding him—to unite rather than divide the country. It is an understandable and, in some respects, admirable aim, but a very difficult one to attain. James Madison, one of the greatest and wisest of the Founders, explains why in Federalist #10:

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. . . .

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 free nation, then, will have factions—and factions, by their very nature, clash. Those clashes are not only very nearly inevitable, they are often useful. They allow passionate debate to occur while the public judges the merits of the arguments put forth.

It doesn’t mean that common ground is impossible to achieve; we saw widespread bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act, for example, during the Bush years, and for welfare reform during the Clinton years. Nor does it mean that factional disputes should be uncivil; civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in political discourse.

But insisting on civility is different from insisting on agreement. Sometimes it will occur, but often it will not. Disagreement can easily transmute into polarization, which is denounced by almost every “good government” advocate. Yet polarization is in many cases the by-product of advancing principled ends. Lincoln was a deeply polarizing figure in American history; so was Reagan. So was Martin Luther King Jr. Polarization is not itself a good or a bad thing; it depends on the ends one seeks. Polarization on behalf of justice can be a virtue; polarization on behalf of injustice is an awful thing.

My own view is that President Obama has been unnecessarily and unwisely divisive; he is polarizing America in order to advance policies that will hurt rather than help the country. But he, like other presidents before him, is learning that creating good feelings among competing factions and competing parties, at least over a sustained basis, is a very difficult task. That is the way things are, and the way Mr. Madison thought they had to be.

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