Starting with the sixties and escalating rumblingly through Reagan’s eighties till today, two equally powerful factions emerged in this country that made us as polarized as any generation in our nation’s history. An arguably even more polarized era occurred during the 1780’s and 90’s, when the country was just getting off the ground. Here’s how they tackled this perplexing predicament:
Anna calls me up from college. She has a report to write on Federalist Paper #10. She needs my help. My help, it turns out, is limited, because at that moment, I have no idea what Federalist Paper #10 is. I tell Anna I will call her back.
I hang up and find a book that includes all the Federalist Papers. It turns out, the Federalist Papers are a series of 85 “anonymous” essays (written by Hamilton, Jay and Madison, indicating that people in Colonial times were no better at keeping secrets than we are today), which were published in the newspapers, and were intended as public arguments in favor of the recently passed U.S. Constitution, which still required ratification by the individual states.
I flipped to and read Federalist Paper #10. Federalist 10, dealing primarily with the sovereignty issue – who’s the boss, the federal government or the states? – was also concerned with the troubling issue of factions, because back then – as we also see today – two dominating and uncompromising factions could throw the governing process into terminal paralysis. Everyone postures, and nothing gets done.
Since, in a democracy, factions of likeminded people banding together to promote common personal interests cannot be forbidden – that would hardly be democratic – it was proposed to mitigate their negative effects by encouraging the formation of bunches of factions.
Here’s why they thought that was a good. In order to defeat the “majority”, several of these mini-factions would be forced to agree to alliances, by which they would cobble together enough support for the issue at hand to carry the vote for their side. These negotiated alliances would also be useful for paring away the extremes.
Depending on what issue was under debate, these factional alignments would inevitably shift. But, however the arrangement, this coalitional strategy would always be present, to keep the “majority’s” from throwing its weight around and inevitably having its way.
(WARNING: I have been known to not totally understand the things I have read especially if they’re hard, leading me to generate conclusions that are either garbled, misinterpreted or flat out wrong. If you are writing a report on Federalist Paper #10, and you happen to come upon this blog post and are considering plagiarizing its contents – because who’s gonna know? – you should understand that the above observations are far from definitive, possibly inaccurate, and may not even get you a “C.”
My advice is to check out a reputable historian on these matters – or even better, a number of them – and plagiarize them instead. This is sure to work out better for you in the long run. Especially if you don’t get caught.)
I called Anna back at college. I said I have a unique way of talking about the issues in Federalist Paper #10, and Anna said, “Tell me.” So I did.
I proposed analogizing the factional problem faced by our Founding Fathers with the landmark 1950’s musical, West Side Story. This is no giant intellectual leap. Who wouldn’t?
West Side Story involves the clash of two warring New York street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, which –spoiler alert! – does not end happily. (Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story provided a similar body count, minus dead Juliet, who they needed alive to sing “There’s A Place For Us.”)
Behold your “Common Denominator” right there - two factions. Hostile, unbending, though both sides are really good dancers. I told Anna to consider how much more cheerfully things might have turned out if, as Federalist 10 suggested, there had been more factions involved, groups who could have formed self-serving alliances, banding together, to fashion a less funereal resolution.
For fun, let’s count how many factions could have been possible:
The Sharks and the Jets – two factions.
“Officer Krupke” and the NYPD – another faction.
The candy store owner and other neighborhood merchants who are losing business because customers, intimidated by the Sharks and the Jets, are afraid to go outside and shop – a third faction.
The Sharks’ girlfriends and the Jets’ girlfriends, tired of singing, “A boy like that, who kill you brah-ther” could band together to form a boyfriend-preserving “Gang Members’ Girlfriends Association.”
Innocent bystanders, injured in the course of these internecine rumbles, could create their own alliance, acronymed “BAR”, standing for “Bystanders Against Ricochets.”
Knife manufacturers, worried about the bad press related to switchblade homicides, could initiate the “Safe Knife Cooperative.”
Garbage can concerns could team up, lobbying for better labeling: “These Lids Are For Use As Garbage Can Tops Only, Not Shields.”
“The West Side Story Experiment” – more factions, less undiluted power, leading hopefully to a more satisfying, albeit less tearjerking, finale.
Anna wrote her paper based on my suggestions. Her teacher later praised her, less for her understanding of Federalist Paper #10 than for being the first student to his knowledge who ever explained this important historical document through the metaphorical example of a groundbreaking musical.
This story came to mind as a result of the recent slaying of the schoolchildren in Connecticut. I wondered – and actually wrote a (not published) “Letter to the Editor” to that affect. Why, I wondered, were there not more factions associated with gun ownership than simply the National Rifle Association, ones offering varying and possibly moderating voices, challenging the single and inflexible organization that apparently seems to represents them all.
How about a National Hunters’ Association, promoting the specific interests of hunters, but open to the tightening of regulations on guns hunters don’t kill animals with?
How about a Sport Shooting Association, lobbying for whatever’s necessary for shooting at targets but not people who happen to be attending a late-night movie.
How about a “Historical Gun Appreciation Association” for people who collect classic weaponry because they think they’re really cool, but which, if used, would take considerably longer to mow down a classroom full of Kindergarteners.
To name just three.
Multiply the factions. For a better chance at middle-ground reasonability, resulting from reducing the influence of what is currently “The Only Game In Town.”
Of course, as I mentioned, I could easily have completely misconstrued Federalist Paper #10. So my preamble here could be just nutso.
The only thing I know for sure is, it got Anna through her report.