Are Factions Killing the Republican Party?

I suppose it is both a blessing and a headache that each American has the right to liberty and expression. As Americans, we can disagree with each other and propose policy solutions to social and economic difficulties that develop in what is still a young democracy. While I disagree at times with my left-leaning counterparts, I am confident that we both want what is “right” for America; we have different opinions about how to reach that goal.

A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the typical political issues: taxes, entitlements, regulations and health care. While we both agreed that fostering a climate of economic growth was beneficial to a stable society, we disagreed about the means for accomplishing that goal. Our disagreement was quite civil, but it begged a deeper question: how does one go about implementing the means to achieving our individual ends?

One example that comes to mind is the palpable tension between taxation and entitlements. The conservative right oft advocates that lowering taxes would benefit all Americans by incentivizing individuals to make and keep the profits of their risks. But achieving this end requires shrinking the government and ending certain programs that are stifling, expensive, and overbearing, (like, the Department of Education, Energy and maybe the EPA). The liberal left, on the other hand, prefers a more paternalistic attitude toward entitlements. It is – according to many supporters – the government’s obligation to provide for the welfare of its citizens and level the playing field to allow everyone to succeed and contribute according to one’s own financial means. Neither ideology would advocate an absolute direction in one way or the other. Remove taxes and the nation cannot protect itself. Tax too highly, and it and the tax base plummets to zero.

It is axiomatic that our Constitution protects those with divergent opinions. In fact, the Constitution anticipates the possibility of majority power silencing dissent. Individual, enumerated liberties permit citizens to express themselves, and advocate positions – even unpopular minority positions. John Madison, in the Federalist Paper #10, suggests that central to liberty is faction – that is, to encourage diverse viewpoints and interests to prevent any one position from becoming too strong and swallowing the minorities. Rather that eliminate factions, they should be encouraged.

The Federalist Papers #10 explains that:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a 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.

If the majority could squash out competing viewpoints using the machinery of government, democracy would be a fraud. For all its failings, democracy has served well here in America for the past two hundred years. It isn’t to say that the country has always done the right thing, but it has taken steps to correct many of its failings from happening again (Japanese internment camps during WWII, infringement on Native American sovereignty, slavery, etc).

But a majority is precisely what is needed implement the changes needed to make our country great. The Democrats have it; the Republicans don’t. The Democrats are largely united in their positions. Certainly differences exist, but by bloc voting, they are largely able to push through legislation that promotes their interests – and supposedly the interests of their constituents. The Republicans on the other hand, cannot seem to find common ground amongst themselves. They have factioned so much that it seems that any sense of unification behind one particular ideology appears naught.

So are factions killing the Republican party?

There lies a tension between idealogical purism and pragmatic realism that conflict the conservatives in the Republican party. Those that hold deeply-rooted conservative values – the tea partiers and the like- want the pendulum to swing as much to the right as it swung to the left over the past number of years. On the other hand, conservatives embroiled in east-coast politics are far less ambitious in terms of policy positions than their purist foils. But the criticism against the pragmatics is simple: there lies little difference between pragmatic conservatism and pragmatic liberalism. It’s a question of degrees. Absent a significant difference, there lies little motivation for the more traditional conservatives – or even independents – to rally behind such an ideology.

Of course, pragmatic conservatives also criticize the conservative purists as unrepresentative of the nation and unelectable. Absent a compromise between the two factions – perhaps absent another faction – the liberal largesse continues to unveil its imposed vision for America. Well-intentioned as it is, without accountability, steamrolling policy changes run dangerously close to converting democracy to a regime imposing the power of the government oppressively upon its citizens. The pitfall of democracy is that it is theoretically possible to abrogate its provisions and morph it into a more centralized political powerhouse governed by the few.

But another possibility is that citizens may eventually decide that any alternative faction is more beneficial to the one in power. In this sense, factions are not killing the Republican party; factions are providing opportunities to offer an alternative voice the the growing government. Be it tea-partiers, east-coast conservatives or some flavor in-between, democracy – while it still exists – permits its citizens to choose between the status quo or its alternative, whether the alternative is but another shade of gray or a stark contrast to the liberalism currently in power.