As last year’s fiscal cliff crisis reminded us, American politics has rarely been more polarised than it is today.
Many Democrats rage with disappointment at a President for whom they had cherished wildly unrealistic hopes; while the Republican party is pulled ever further apart by a toxic combination of personal rivalry and ideological zeal. The result is rancour, legislative gridlock and fragmentation.
American conservatism in particular has all but lost its way. Just as the failure of communism removed a great enemy which served to unite the political parties, so it has allowed American conservatism to collapse inwards under the competing pressures and ideologies of neocons and theocons, palaeos and Tea-partiers.
A modern Rip van Winkle might awaken after a sleep of several decades, with dim memories of what it meant to be a conservative: to believe in limited government, in respect for states’ rights, in a strong nation, in fiscal discipline, in free trade and individual liberty.
He would be astounded to see present day American conservatives defending federal intervention in local schools, the massive ramp-up in federal spending after 2000, the use of the military not to fight wars but for nation-building, the imposition of tariffs on trade, and - as the Edward Snowden case highlights - numerous intrusions small and large on the freedom of the citizen.
Moderate positions have been abandoned, and common-sense ones spurned. Hostility to illegal immigrants, to gay couples, to contraception. A constitutional amendment against abortion. After brutal massacres of children, a proposal to put yet more guns in schools, while refusing modest controls on assault weapons, or even background checks.
How has this happened? The US constitution is often lauded as the greatest expression of popular democracy. But in fact it also contains vital measures to restrain the direct expression of the popular will and inhibit partisanship. The genius of the American founders, and above all of James Madison, was to engineer a constitution that deliberately constrained and fragmented the power of government between state and federal levels; between executive, legislature and judiciary; and between House of Representatives and Senate. Each was thereby placed as a check and balance to another, forcing all into debate both as to the issues of the day, and as to the proper scope and limits of government itself.
These measures preceded the creation of party politics in America, led in the 1790s by Thomas Jefferson with Madison alongside him. But political parties developed in the US over the following two hundred years as the only mass institutions founded on the idea of citizenship itself.
The two main parties were historically broad and weak; and this was their strength. Through them different interests could be brought forward to political debate, and a broad consensus could be maintained. While never contemplated within the US constitution, parties are now essential to its effective operation. They are not purely private institutions; all Americans have a stake in their success, and a two-party system needs both parties fully at the table in order to flourish.
Yet ironically, if American parties have their origins in Jefferson’s thought, so too does modern Tea-partyism. For Jefferson was an Enlightenment radical, who believed that political parties should be the direct expression of the popular will.
For him elected politicians are delegates, receiving instructions from the people which are ratified and authorised through elections. Parties are the instruments of majority rule, working strictly through the rules and procedures laid down in the constitution. It is then but a short step to the beliefs that the constitution should be read entirely literally; that the electorate issues authoritative instructions; that a congressman who does not obey the electorate’s instructions should be deselected; and that certain positions are to be taken as litmus tests of ideological soundness and solidarity. The result is extremism, division and factional conflict—and a deep tension with the consensus-building incentives contained within the US constitution itself.
As so often, the thought of Edmund Burke offers a salutary contrast. Writing two decades before Jefferson, Burke was the first framer of the modern conceptions of a political party and of political representation, as well as being a principal architect of the Rockingham Whigs, the first proto-political party. So it is no surprise that for Burke the answer to factionalism lies within political parties themselves.
For Burke, a party is “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”. Unlike political factions, parties do not disintegrate when they lose power. They remain true to a core of principles, and continue to make the case for those principles even when out of office. They are an institutional corrective to personal, arbitrary or capricious government.
Properly functioning parties are thus the antidote to factional politics. They foster stability, allowing an orderly and peaceful transfer of political power after general elections. Because they must debate and publicly defend collective principles and policy, they bring a degree of openness and a focus on the national interest. They remove the need for political superheroes, allowing people of normal decency and ability to play a role in politics, and act as valuable recruiting and training grounds for new talent.
Most vital of all, genuine party politics demands that those who are elected act as representatives, not as delegates acting under instructions from their constituents. As Burke memorably proclaimed in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774, a representative’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience” he should not sacrifice to his constituents.
Burke thus avoids the political traps created by Jeffersonian radicalism. But his views also suit the British constitutional tradition. For, as in America, there are two vital countervailing principles within the British constitution too.
The first is what we would now call a democratic principle: that political control ultimately derives from the consent of the governed, as renewed at general elections. The second is a constitutional principle: that the popular will should be moderated through longer-term institutions which are not tied to the electoral cycle, but which reflect other perspectives, other interests and other values, and which permit and encourage collective vision.
As Burke put it, “No legislator, at any period of the world, has willingly placed the seat of active power in the hands of the multitude. The people are the natural control on authority; but to exercise and to control together is contradictory and impossible.” Sovereignty in Britain thus resides not in the people, but in that great composite authority, the Queen-in-Parliament.
And Parliament includes the House of Lords. The Lords is a far from perfect institution, and the Government’s new measures to reduce the numbers and remove those with criminal records are to be welcome - as are those in my colleague Dan Byles’s private member’s Bill, based in turn on the work of David Steel and Helene Hayman. But as the American experience of Tea party radicalism shows, the need for constitutional mechanisms like the Lords - able to bring expertise, reflection, diverse opinions and a long-term perspective to politics - is stronger now than ever.[This article first appeared on 5 August 2013]