Name calling. Distortion. Invective. Partisan bile. Just another day on Capitol Hill...in the 1790s.
As Washington and Lee University politics professor William F. Connelly Jr. outlines in his new book, "James Madison Rules America: The Constitutional Origins of Congressional Partisanship" (Rowman & Littlefield), political divisiveness has existed since the country's founding. "We tend to think of the founders as statesmen. And they were," said Connelly, "but they were also politicians, and they were partisans."
Connelly, the John K. Boardman Professor of Politics at W&L, worked on Capitol Hill in the 1980s. He's taught politics ever since "With each decade I heard people complaining that 'This is the most partisan it's ever been.' I've been hearing this for so long, I began to explore the question in my own research."
How partisan were the founders? Historian Joseph Ellis called the 1790s “a decade-long shouting match.” At one point George Washington was even attacked by Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who collaborated on the Federalist Papers, opposed each other rather vociferously during the first decade of the American Republic.
"I discovered that periods of relative political quiescence, like the 1950s or the Era of Good Feeling in the early part of the 1800s, were the exception, not the rule," said Connelly.
According to Connelly, partisanship occurs, in part, because we have a governmental system premised on the separation of powers. This three-branch, bicameral framework, instituted by Madison in the Constitution, promotes competition and innovation.
Both parties, whether in the majority or in the minority, are riven internally by the question of legislative strategy, or by what Connelly calls a strategic dilemma, namely, "whether to play the politics of compromise or the politics of confrontation, or whether to be bipartisan or partisan."
Which strategy is best? It depends on the circumstances, the individuals and the institutional context, said Connelly. Perhaps what's more important is that the system sets up the conundrum in the first place, as one that encourages a political free marketplace, energizes the parties, retards bad policy and potentially promotes good policy.
A prime example of innovation resulting from conflict occurred after the 1995 budget clash between the Gingrich-led Congress and the Clinton-led White House. This epic partisan battle led to a government shutdown, but it also provided a catalyst for positive change. "The 1997 Budget Accord, which helped to balance the budget, was worked out between a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House," explained Connelly. Without the prior conflict, compromise would never have happened.
Connelly also challenges Woodrow Wilson's interpretation of Madison's institutional framework. Wilson, a political scientist and later president, saw the separation of powers as little more than a system of checks and balances producing gridlock. Our system may curb governmental abuse through checks and balances, said Connelly, but it also empowers each branch to act by delineating clear constitutional roles or functions. “When a crisis hits, whether it’s 9/11 or an economic crisis like the Great Recession, as we're calling it, we have the institutional capacity in our political system to act effectively. What Wilson did not seem to appreciate is that the separation of powers both limits the abuse of power and provides for the effective use of power."
The book notes that a lack of confrontation can lead to ineffective government. "If you think back to the 1950s, a period of bipartisanship or relative political calm, there was a lot that was not getting done. The civil rights agenda was not advancing as rapidly as it could, for example."
Connelly also explores intra-party factionalism, Alexis de Tocqueville's views on democracy, and the strategies Speaker Newt Gingrich and Speaker Nancy Pelosi used to win the House.
"I mean it when I say James Madison rules America," said Connelly. "I literally mean that Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, etc., find themselves at the mercy of James Madison and his Constitution. Madison and the Constitution govern more than either the Republicans or the Democrats today. And that is good."