Feldman: Democracy's Technology Will Force Bipartisanship

Civility

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY MONDAY BUSINESS EDITION MONDAY FEB 26, 2018

If you feel partisanship makes it impossible to come together and solve social problems, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman assures Americans the country has been through worse—and did so early in its history. Speaking at a luncheon organized by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the legal historian went into detail about how disagreements on the founding of the nation turned founding fathers who started out as great friends into bitter rivals.

Traveling the country to promote his biography The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, he noted that Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers together before the Constitutional Convention, then founded America’s first political parties and fought each other about the basic purpose of government in the new nation. “Hamilton had just collaborated and were literally finishing one another’s sentences,” Feldman told SRQ. “But then they were so deeply opposed that Hamilton wrote ‘We are now personal and political enemies.’ ”

He told the luncheon crowd of how newspapers were founded by the Democratic Republicans, led by Madison and Thomas Jefferson, to decry newspapers run by Federalists, namely Hamilton, as “fake news.” Discussions about the need for a national bank and the existence of a permanent national debt turned to accusations of salacious personal foibles like Jefferson’s fathering of children with his slave Sally Hemings.”We didn’t even invent the sex scandal,” Feldman told the contemporary audience.

But Feldman also credits Madison with what he calls the “technology” of democracy, a constitution and government structure that requires leaders at points to put aside partisanship to get things done. Partisanship, he says, only works if you want the government to do literally nothing. But by having a two-chamber legislature and a president with veto power, it requires any solution to problems to be broad-based, with support on both sides of the aisle. That doesn’t mean compromise by its nature represents the best course of action. Feldman noted founding fathers ultimately elected to leave the morally deplorable institution of slavery in place for generations because a consensus couldn’t be formed; that social ill would not reach its end until a violent civil war a century after the nation’s founding. 

But the mechanics of American democracy, he says, guarantee a return to bipartisanship in time, even when the nation drifts into moments of extreme partisanship like the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s or the deep divides in Washington during the Trump administration today. When leaders employe civility with one another, he says, it  lubricates the mechanics of democracy to bring bipartisan solutions into place faster.

Feldman spoke to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s “Better Together” luncheon promoting civility, and Feldman said such distinctly nonpartisan community events made American democracy possible. Mark Pritchett, president and CEO for the Community Foundation, said Feldman’s insights would bring a timely message “about our ethical duty to engage civilly and maintain integrity, whether it’s in politics, business, or civic life.”

And Feldman said at the local level, it should be easier than it is in Washington to come together and solve problems. “If you are actually neighbors,” he tells SRQ, “you do have things in common. You shop at the same grocery store and root for the same high school football team.” Even in moments of disagreement, he says, parties should know they share a concern for making Sarasota the bets it can be.

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