Sunday, November 04, 2007

Political Parties

The following is a comment to a post at The Belgravia Dispatch about the Mukasey nomination. Bruce Moomaw commented in response to an exchange between two other commenters which a) said that the constitution was formed with the impression that political parties would not exist, followed by a comment that asked b) did such parties not form in any case almost immediately?

Emphasis, where it exists below, has been added by me.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw, November 3, 2007

Yes indeed [political parties did form] -- about a week after the new government was up and running. It startled and alarmed the hell out of them, but they quickly realized there was little they could do about it -- despite the fact that they had previously written interminably about how the formation of political parties was an extremely dangerous and destructive trend in any democracy.

And, unfortunately, a great many of the "defenses against tyranny" that they wrote into the Constitution were based entirely on the assumption that political parties would not exist -- and became partially or wholly useless when they did. For instance, the Framers assumed that it would be very easy to get 2/3 of the Senate together to impeach and remove an overbearing President from office -- because he would have no party allies in the Senate to block such a move. When George Mason objected to giving the President unlimited pardoning power on the grounds that he might use it to cover up his own crimes by pardoning crooked underlings, Madison replied that the Senate would surely immediately impeach and remove any President who acted in such a suspicious manner. Surprise, James!

In fact, that mistake of theirs came within a hair of destroying the US twice in its first two decades -- once when the Presidential election system jammed up in 1800 because it had been designed on the assumption that parties would not exist (we were within three days of Inauguration Day, and a civil war, when Adams finally decided to compromise and allow Jefferson) to be officially selected); and once because the Framers had actually assumed that the Nonpartisan Congress would be the final arbiter of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of laws -- they created the Supreme Court literally as a minor afterthought during the last few days of the Convention. Naturally, after the partisanship of Congress threatened disaster on this front, the acceptance of the "Marbury vs. Madison" decision making the Court the final arbiter of constitutionality instead was necessary, as the final emergency software patch to make the US system of government work (sort of) until now.

But a great deal of our supposed Success Due To The Brilliance of Our Constitution has really just been due to long-time non-legal, informal consensus by the political parties on the limits of their behavior -- and since Bush's entry into the White House, that consensus has been starting to unravel. (I've always suspected that a lot of this was due to the advice of Newt Gingrich -- who, as a political scientist, must know all the weak points in the Constitution that can allow one party to seize semi-dictatorial power -- but I admit that I have no direct evidence of this.) Consider, for instance, the possible ultimate consequences of allowing the Attorney General to be the President's wholly controllable poodle dog (especially when the majority in Congress is also on his side). Or that sinister little clause in Article 3, Section 2 allowing Congress to strip the Supreme Court of its power to review the constitutionality of any law (with a few specialized exceptions) whenever it chooses -- a potential stick of dynamite planted right in the foundations of American democracy, which I believe no one had ever utilized in US history UNTIL the GOP Congress used it to strip detainees of their right to launch civil suits.

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