Nowadays, many people are bemoaning “negative partisanship,” “tribalism,” and in general the breakdown of a shared sense of national community. Admittedly, this is a very diverse country, and with two political parties dead set on removing each other from power, politics has usually been fought with brass knuckles. Still, the tone of our political discourse has taken a decided turn for the confrontational during the 21st century — a never-ending battle of the good guys versus the bad, with each side trying to “take back the country.”
This sort of problem is, in my view, more top-down than bottom-up. I think it is mostly the fault of our nation’s political elites, who do not have a clear idea of what public policy in a national republic should look like. Sure, they offer conservative or progressive proposals on social welfare, taxes, regulatory policy, and so on. But while they have competing visions for what they want government to do, they have impoverished notions of how it is supposed to do things.
To appreciate this, consider the views of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. In my new book, The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy, I argue that Hamilton and Madison wanted to use public policy to forge a stronger national union. Unlike too many contemporary leaders, they knew that unity could not be taken for granted — that one of the central tasks of the government was to bind the people together. They would both be appalled at the consistent endeavors of contemporary leaders to drive us apart.
Madison’s philosophy rested on the notion of what I call republican balance. In his view, the government should not play favorites among different factions in society; instead, it should legislate in a way that equitably distributed the burdens and benefits of government. In Federalist No. 10, he argued that the legislative process should ideally look a lot like the judiciary, with everybody getting what they deserved according to the dictates of justice and the demands of the general welfare. He thought this was how government in a republic was supposed to function, and he believed it would ultimately promote national unity. If different regions, factions, and interests could count on the new government to give them a fair shake, they would become loyal to the new constitutional project.
Hamilton, on the other hand, emphasized national vigor. The United States in the colonial period was an economic backwater, kept that way due to its position in the British mercantile system. When the country declared its independence, the various parts of the nation had very little to do with one another economically; prosperity in one region depended very little on the prosperity of another region, or of the whole. This made Hamilton worry that it would not be long before disunion became a problem. So he sought to bind the different parts of the country together in a shared quest for economic growth. His first priority was setting up a solid financial system (which had been lacking); later on, he promoted industrial diversification.
Half the country is either evil or benighted — enemies of the American project or too stupid to realize what is good for them. And public policy inevitably emanates from that haughty kind of attitude.
As I show in my book, republican balance and economic vigor are two sets of ideas that ultimately came to clash, which is what drove the onetime allies and coauthors of the Federalist Papers against each other. But what both offered was a clear articulation of the national interest and a vision for how the diverse people of the United States could live in harmony.
I think this is lacking in our politics today. Granted, when the country was first founded, Madison and Hamilton were operating without political parties — which intentionally divide the country into factions and facilitate institutionalized disunity. But even after the vitriolic party squabbles of the 1790s, Jefferson was still able to say in his 1801 inaugural address:
Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
Many of our political and intellectual leaders give lip service to this kind of sentiment, but too few actually feel it. Half the country is either evil or benighted — enemies of the American project or too stupid to realize what is good for them. And public policy inevitably emanates from that haughty kind of attitude: Govern to secure the half-plus-one who elected you, and then forget the rest of the country. Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned on a program of national unity, but he governed as a hardcore partisan (even while he accused his opponents of being the hardcore partisans). Donald Trump, meanwhile, has unabashedly cultivated an “us versus them” paradigm of governance.
Ultimately, we seem to be losing track of the answer to the question: “What the heck are we doing together?” Madison and Hamilton knew the answer. They appreciated that the 13 states, for as different and diverse as they were, actually needed one another. If self-government was to succeed, it had to happen under the banner of a single, unified nation. This thinking informed not only their constitutional design but also their policy preferences. Indeed, after the vitriol of the 1790s, Jefferson went out of his way to make peace with many of his former political adversaries. When he became president, Madison continued this process.
But much of this has been lost — first by political leaders, who have reckoned that they can score short-term victories by sowing disunion, and now by the people at large. Which side really can credibly claim to represent the national interest? I say neither, and that is a problem.