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Each year when Congress returns to Washington, and the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union message, it is an occasion for a new round of denunciations of partisan rancor. These denunciations are now frequently coupled with reminders that President Bush came to town promising to be a “uniter, not a divider.” So, right on schedule in mid-January, the National Journal ran a cover story on what it described as the increasing partisanship in our political culture. On the same day the Senate voted to confirm Samuel Alito as Supreme Court justice, Bush delivered his State of the Union address. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., could not resist exclaiming: “I must say that I wish the president was in a position to do more than claim a partisan victory tonight.” In late January, also right on cue, David Broder, the influential Washington Post columnist and reporter, intoned: “The stench of partisanship is so strong in Washington these days that it is difficult to remember that it was not always the case that Republicans and Democrats were at each other’s throats. But, in truth, there was a time when friendship and simple human compassion were more powerful than any political differences.” It is possible that the political discourse has coarsened over the last decade or two. But it is improbable that there has been a time in our nation’s history when “friendship and simple human compassion were more powerful than any political differences.” And it is unsurprising as well. Long history of partisanship Such elevated notions of human nature certainly would have been surprising to the founders. In famous Federalist No. 10, James Madison, the principal drafter of the Constitution, wrote of the “ambition” of men, their “mutual animosities” and their “unfriendly passions.” And he did not ignore their propensity to “vex and oppress each other [rather] than co-operate for the common good.” Proclaiming that individuals and groups with similar concerns will always form “factions,” dividing “society into different interests and parties,” Madison took note of “unworthy candidates” who practice “the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” The founders had this darker side of human nature in mind when they fashioned the Constitution. In Federalist No. 51, Madison asked: “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” The answer was to devise a government based on separated and diffused powers, a system in which “ambition” would counteract “ambition.” Or, as Madison put it, “[t]his policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.” The ink was barely dry on the Constitution before “factions” formed. The Federalists, led by George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, supported an energetic central government, one that would promote national commerce. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and then Madison, supported a more agrarian and states rights-oriented platform. So heated was the partisan fever that, in 1796, as President Washington prepared to retire to Mt. Vernon, the Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates moved to strike the word “wisdom” from a Federalist resolution commending the president’s “virtue, patriotism, and wisdom.” The resolution passed by a small minority. And pertinent to Schumer’s comment regarding Alito’s confirmation, recall that much of the angry politics in the nation’s formative years had to do with different visions concerning the judiciary’s role in our constitutional framework. The Jeffersonian Republicans, with their predisposition for states’ rights and supremacy of the popularly elected branches, were deeply suspicious of the new federal judiciary. They bitterly attacked the Supreme Court’s early landmark decisions, such as Marbury v. Madison, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and Gibbons v. Ogden, which established the principle of an independent judiciary, even if that meant overturning federal and state laws and state judicial decisions. So venomous were the attacks on the Supreme Court that in 1824, looking back, Chief Justice John Marshall referred to the “taint of that bitter sprit which has been too long the scourge of our country.” So, despite protestations to the contrary, today’s partisan battles represent nothing new. As the founders understood, in a functioning democracy there will always be factions representing divergent interests contesting for power. These partisan clashes educate the citizenry, frame and sharpen policy choices and provide a basis for organizing electoral support. There are no factions and there is no partisanship in dictatorships. Now, this is not to say that partisans on all sides should not seek to find common ground. It is not to say that more civility in our political discourse would be unwelcome, or that it would not be helpful in finding solutions to America’s problems. Who would argue with the sentiment expressed by Bush in his State of the Union address?: “[O]ur differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another.” We can hold our collective breath waiting for that spirit of good will to replace the “mutual animosities” and “unfriendly passions” of which Madison spoke in Federalist No. 10. Or we can exhale, knowing that, having survived the bitter partisan battles of the Republic’s early years, we are likely to survive today’s, too. And we can be grateful that the founders, with their understanding of human nature, bequeathed a Constitution that militates against the abuse of authority by any one person or party by separating and diffusing power. Randolph J. May, an NLJ columnist, is senior fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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