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What Can Machiavelli Teach Us About the Midterms?

For it is through political conflict that greater representation is born, more interests come to the table, and the expansion and development of liberty and order comes about.”

The U.S. midterm elections are over; let the spin from both parties begins. Democrats enthuse about their mild takeover of the House of Representatives. Republicans, particularly of the Trumpist variety, point to key Senate victories, such as Florida. Others seem gloomy when speaking of the realities “divided government.”

As I pointed out in a recent essay, there is a popular false memory of America as a united country. The Cold War era is particularly singled out for praise; the apparent bipartisan unity against the threat of communism—though often forgetting of the deep divisions wrought by segregation and civil rights, the Vietnam War, sexual revolution, and peace movement—is held up as a sort of shining light we should all aspire to return.

On the contrary, the American republic is better with divided government. The republic is best with checks and balances between the federal powers, including an “activist” Supreme Court that checks presidential imperialism irrespective of party; the republic is best when staunch divisions lead to unique coalition building.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s masterpiece, the Discourses on Livy, highlights the benefits of political dialectic unlike any other philosopher or political theorist. The best form and organization of government doesn’t fall from heaven. It is often the byproduct of conflict, struggle, and compromise. This, by no means, constitutes moderation but organic growth, development, and the construction of better laws. It is, in an idea relevant to constitutional studies in America, the “living constitution” which grows from the foundations laid to continue to produce the best government and laws possible going forward. Originalism’s “from heaven” conceptual mythology is exactly what produces stagnation and leads to the constitutional crises and collapse.

Without political conflict there can be no republic. Republic, res publica, is the public thing. While Machiavelli was no “democrat” by today’s standard, there is a democratic-republican impetus to his thought. Tyranny can exist in any form of government, but some were better suited to thwart the dangers of tyrannical rule than others. According to Machiavelli, political form is divided into two camps: republic and tyranny. A republic is where the interests of all groups are represented (even if imperfectly or inequitably; as long as they are represented it has claim to the republic). A tyranny is where only one, or few, interest groups are represented (thereby preventing the representation of other groups which are shutout from political interest and decision-making).

Given this reality Machiavelli can be reimagined as a sort of democratic republican. It must be clear that Machiavelli does not call for proportional representation. It should also be clear that Machiavelli would consider outright majority-rule tyrannical too—as it would no longer take into consideration (or representation) minority interests; thus, failing to be a republic by his standard. But if democratization leads to greater representation, which is what a republic aims for, then Machiavelli is certainly something of a democrat.

At the heart of the Discourses, especially book one, is Machiavelli’s analysis of how political conflict—social conflict—led to the development of the best possible political order and the expansion of liberty to the plebeians. What historians now call the “Conflict of the Orders” is what Machiavelli focused on as leading to the liberty and greatness of the Romans. Constant conflict between the patrician class and the majority plebeians is what produced the exalted and much acclaimed Roman republic. “In this way, after many disorders, disturbances, and the danger of disagreements that arose between the plebeians and nobility, the creation of the tribunes came about for the security of the plebeians, and these tribunes were established with such power and prestige that they could always thereafter act as intermediaries between the plebeians and the senate and could curb the insolence of the nobles.”

The excess, and tyranny, of the elite was checked by growing conflict initiated by the plebeians. Without earlier representation, despite a de jure “republican” system of government, Machiavelli saw the Roman state after the dissolution of the Roman monarchy as still being tyrannical. Greater liberty emerged after the overthrow of Tarquin and his sons, but that revolution for greater liberty and equality had yet been realized.  Continuing his reflections, Machiavelli wrote, “If these disturbances were the cause of the creation of the tribunes, they deserve the highest praise, because besides giving to the people its role in democratic administration, the tribunes were established as the guardians of Roman liberty.”

It was political conflict, perhaps best epitomized in Shays’ Rebellion, that led to the dissolution of the Articles of Confederation and the strengthening of the American republic through the adoption of the Constitution. Likewise, it was political conflict between the agrarian and banking classes in early American public policy that led to the gradual expansion of democratic enfranchisement—the steady movement to a “more perfect union” which, in Machiavellian terms, is a more perfect republic. While one may quick to criticize shortcomings, as has become the fashion today, such knee-jerk reactions often miss the point. The march of development is a long game. It builds and grows overtime. It therefore calls us to do our part in this developmental process.

America’s constitutional order is designed for conflict. It is the Machiavellian constitution par excellence in this respect. There is a deep distrust sown between all three branches of government, as well as federal and local. The dynamism of the American constitution, and of the American republic, has been its success in handling political conflict and crisis and producing the best results from it. “After many quarrels and disputes that occurred between the people and nobility,” Machiavelli wrote, “in order to establish new laws in Rome which would strongly reinforce the liberty of that government, they both agreed to send Spurius Postumius with two other citizens to Athens for copies of the laws that Solon gave to that city.”

Excessive parochialism, comfort in one’s existing order, and a lack of challenges (both internal and external) breeds decadence, nepotism, and stagnation. The ruling order is not kept on its toes, becomes unaccustomed to challenge, and is subsequently unable to deal with conflict and hardship when it erupts. But political conflict leads to an outward looking mentality. Not only does it force the ruling order to look to others within its citizenry for talent and insight, it often forces the people and ruling classes to look overseas for models to emulate and be influenced by.

What hard constitutionalists won’t often admit (or know) is how American exceptionalism was born from outside of America. During the constitutional convention and debates, Greek, Roman, biblical (Hebraic), and Islamic sources for the construction of the American Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, especially, was an ardent defender and incorporator of Islam into the American political fabric. Jefferson even hosted an iftar—the evening meal that ends the Ramadan day fast—long before the Clintons and Obamas. The Founders took inspiration from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero (especially), Moses, Mohammad, John Fortescue, John Seldon, Montesquieu, Locke, and the unwritten natural laws of the English Common Law tradition to build the Constitution and the republic on which it stands. A truly diverse and pluralistic net of thinkers and ideas all of whom came from outside the territorial jurisdiction of the nascent republic.

Checks and balances presuppose political conflict which is why America often thrives upon and survives intense political conflict and division. And with such conflict comes the need to look beyond oneself, to look to others, to compromise, and to make concessions with the other. Historically, checks and balances and the separation of powers caused tremendous in-fighting as America’s political parties were often internally conflictual and far less homogenized as is the case today. Democrats and Republicans, for one, came together in the “Conservative Coalition” to oppose what they perceived to be the excesses of New Deal.  Democrats and Republicans had to work together to advance the civil rights legislation of the 1960s as the Democrats were internally divided between its segregationist and anti-segregationist wings and hard anti-statists in the Republican Party (like Barry Goldwater) wouldn’t support such measures either. Countless other examples can be provided throughout American history of this political dialectic within the structures of checks and balances playing itself out to enhance liberty and order just as Machiavelli envisioned.

The twelve tablets of Roman law, the first attempt by the Romans to produce a codified body of written law, occurred only because of the intense conflict between plebeians and patricians. Political conflict is not, as conventionally assumed, evidence for weak governance and politics. It is oftentimes the exact opposite. Political conflict is evidence of the ongoing development of political order, law, liberty, and equality. Most of the major developments in American political history occur in times of tumult which demand the developments be made: The adoption of the Constitution, “Jefferson’s Revolution,” the abolition of slavery and universal male suffrage, labor rights, women’s suffrage, social welfare reform, civil rights, etc.

While it is true that political conflict can also lead to deconstruction, and Machiavelli was certainly not blind to this reality—and one can always look at the many constitutions of France as evidence of this—political conflict has generally spurred legal and political development and not the other way around. This has been particularly true in the United States where, despite many crises and conflicts, the republic has emerged stronger, freer, and more equal as a result. To this extent the 2018 elections give us this opportunity.

Some may complain about divided government. Others may seek political retribution. But we should all sing the praises of divided government and see the tremendous positives that come with it. Far from lockstep unity and the overcoming of political division and conflict, we should celebrate such conflict and division and build up the republic from this unique dynamic on which the United States has long thrived. For it is through political conflict that greater representation is born, more interests come to the table, and the expansion and development of liberty and order comes about.

Paul Krause holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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