Are you surprised? President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated in what good ole JR (Jim Ross) would call a slobberknocker last night. Substance took a back seat to brute force and mudslinging. Trump tried to control the debate by making himself bigger than the debate, and he succeeded in large part. Biden did his best to launch devastating counter haymakers while remaining calmer, and it’s unclear how much of his shots actually had an effect although he certainly did land some good ones.
That mudslinging, however.
Trump insisted on making Biden’s college and class rank a point of needling. He even brought back shades of John McCain when he interrupted Biden’s moving mention of his son, Beau, and dragged in Hunter Biden’s drug problem and his business dealings. For his part, Biden repeatedly called Trump a liar and implied that he was stupid, leading to a minor debate over who was smarter.
Quite frankly, I was laughing hysterically while watching the debate – to the point where my landlord knocked on my door and offered to share a beer with me as if we were at a Super Bowl party. The debate was no different than two drunk men arguing at the end of the bar, and I found the optics hysterical.
Humor aside, we did indeed witness two drunk men arguing last night. Both men – and the constituencies that they represent – have drunk a no holds barred brew. We can all speculate on what goes into that brew, but there’s no denying its effects.
James Madison foretold what we saw last night in Federalist #10. In an essay written to the state of New York, he warned that the most dangerous evil that could befall a nation is the “violence of faction.” He described the “instability, injustice, and confusion” caused by “the violence of faction” as “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”
To Madison and the Framers, factions are inevitable in a free society. As long as there is individual liberty, there will be factions. The inseverable connection between a man’s reasons and “his self-love” is inherent in human nature. Since might often makes right, humans will naturally associate to protect common interests, thus creating factions.
Factions will naturally come into conflict. When they do, their conflicting interests will inflame “them with mutual animosity, and [render] them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
Madison then proceeded to describe the escalating nature of this “violence of faction:” “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
We saw little substance last night during the debate. Instead, both Trump and Biden squabbled like a couple of chickens fighting over the smallest morsels. At one point, their argument devolved into who was smarter – an exercise in frivolity that no one benefited from. Such has become the state of American politics by virtue of the two factions that control those politics and do not regard each other as honestly striving for the public good.
How did we get here?
Madison’s articulation of the republican principles underlying the framers’ vision of constitutional republic advanced the principle that a free society could only seek to control the effects of the “violence of faction.” He thought that the violence of faction could be geographically constrained in its influence and that the representative bodies that formed the legislative branches would moderate the more extreme views of their constituents.
Technological advances have enabled once-isolated factions to influence the entire nation and ultimately the national government. A nation of state factions gradually became a nation of ideological factions. As time marched on, survival for those factions dictated consolidation. The result is that we have two major national factions who have largely succeeded in marginalizing any other factions advancing interests that may or may not be harmonious with the public good.
We are now watching the next iteration in the “violence of faction” lifecycle. Consolidation have left the two major political parties in our country with no other opponents but each other. Naturally, their collective passions grow more and more violent in nature.
Was last night shocking and disgraceful, America? Yes. Is it as low as we can go? Hell no. Federalist #10 tell me that we haven’t seen anything yet. What we saw last night will gradually become our new normal unless our nation says enough to the factions who have been manipulating us against a common good.