Paul Andersen: Factional dysfunction is our heritage

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

“Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition … are apt to operate. Nothing could be more ill-judged than the intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties.”

So observed Alexander Hamilton in 1787 in the Federalist Papers No. 1. Hamilton signed this nascent venture into the salvation of civil society as “Publius.” The Greco pseudonym was an effort to protect himself from the extreme vitriol of rapacious political opponents.

Civil society has long been challenged by what Hamilton called “the vigor of government,” an understatement that acknowledged the strident positions of warring factions within America’s divided houses of leadership.

Hamilton warned against “a dangerous ambition that lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people.” Despotism, he said, is the likely outcome from “men who have overturned the liberties of republics … by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

Now that the Democrats have retaken the House, the internecine war of factional disputes in our two-party battleground is expected to produce a new series of Pyrrhic victories. I’m wondering how many congressmen will be packing heat as they assemble to glare and grimace at one another across an aisle that has grown wider than the Potomac.

“Whatever happens in the midterms, the aftermath will be ugly,” forecast Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, a liberal voice in The New York Times. Krugman, whose weekly condemnations against Republican malfeasance have been unceasing, called this election a turning point for America.

All elections are turning points, but Krugman pinpointed the midterms as a watershed for American voters who, he opines, must focus accountability on red state Trumpsters for America’s headlong plummet into heartless, racially motivated nationalism: “The lesson we learn from all these abuses of power is that today’s Republicans are just like their fellow white nationalists in Hungary and Poland, who have maintained a democratic facade but have in reality established one-party authoritarian regimes.

“Everyone should bear in mind what’s at stake. It’s not just tax cuts or health coverage, and anyone who votes based simply on those issues is missing the bigger story. For the survival of American democracy is on the ballot.”

Democrats and social liberals celebrating victory in the House are heartened that democracy has survived yet another assault, and that the sun again may shine on humane and progressive principles, brightening the ideals of egalitarian American values while casting hate in the shadows where it belongs.

Republican conservatives crow that the Senate is firmly entrenched in red and that their embattled president will take no prisoners in contesting the threatened probes to expose his reign of fear.

The Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence explains that history repeats itself in political imbroglios that thwart human aspirations of social progress with intolerance. Take heart. This has all happened before, and somehow humanity blunders on.

At least no one has been caned recently on the floor of Congress as occurred in 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina used a walking cane to attack Sen. Charles Sumner in reaction to Sumner’s denunciation of slavery, with particular mention of a relative of Brooks. Today’s steely-eyed hatred has so far shown more decorum, but not much more.

Founding father John Adams noted in 1768, “Such swarms of passions, avarice and ambition, servility and adulation, hopes, fears, jealousies, envy, revenge, malice and cruelty are continually buzzing in the world, and we are so extremely prone to mistake the impulses of these for the dictates of our consciences — that the greatest genius, united to the best disposition, will find it hard to hearken to the voice of reason, or even to be certain of the purity of his own intentions.”

John Stuart Mill lamented in 1859, “Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.”

When anger blots out reason, we revert to primitive brutes. Hate becomes a driving wedge widened by intolerance and crippling factional divisions. This is our heritage.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at


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