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  • If you've been thinking about US politics

  • and trying to make sense of it for the last year or so,

  • you might have hit on something like the following three propositions:

  • one, US partisanship has never been so bad before;

  • two,

  • for the first time, it's geographically spatialized --

  • we're divided between the coasts, which want to look outwards,

  • and the center of the country, which wants to look inwards;

  • and third,

  • there's nothing we can do about it.

  • I'm here to today to say that all three of these propositions,

  • all of which sound reasonable,

  • are not true.

  • In fact,

  • our US partisanship goes all the way back

  • to the very beginning of the republic.

  • It was geographically spatialized in almost eerily the same way

  • that it is today,

  • and it often has been throughout US history.

  • And last,

  • and by far most importantly,

  • we actually have an extraordinary mechanism

  • that's designed to help us manage factional disagreement and partisanship.

  • That technology is the Constitution.

  • And this is an evolving, subtly, supplely designed entity

  • that has the specific purpose

  • of teaching us how to manage factional disagreement

  • where it's possible to do that,

  • and giving us techniques for overcoming that disagreement

  • when that's possible.

  • Now, in order to tell you the story,

  • I want to go back to a pivotal moment in US history,

  • and that is the moment

  • when factional disagreement and partisanship was born.

  • There actually was a birth moment --

  • a moment in US history when partisanship snapped into place.

  • The person who's at the core of that story is James Madison.

  • And at the moment that this began,

  • James Madison was riding high.

  • He himself was the Einstein of not only the US Constitution,

  • but of constitutional thought more globally,

  • and, to give him his due,

  • he knew it.

  • In a period of time of just three years,

  • from 1785 to 1788,

  • he had conceived, theorized, designed, passed and gotten ratified

  • the US Constitution.

  • And just to give you some sense of the enormity

  • of what that accomplishment actually was,

  • although Madison couldn't have known it at the time,

  • today that same constitutional technology that he invented is still in use

  • not only in the US,

  • but, 230 years later,

  • in places like Canada,

  • India,

  • South Africa,

  • Brazil.

  • So in an extraordinary range of contexts all over the world,

  • this technology is still the dominant,

  • most used, most effective technology to manage governance.

  • In that moment,

  • Madison believed that, having solved this problem,

  • the country would run smoothly,

  • and that he had designed a technology

  • that would minimize the results of factions

  • so there would be no political parties.

  • Remarkably, he thought he had designed a constitution

  • that was against political parties

  • and would make them unnecessary.

  • He had gotten an enormous degree of help

  • in the final marketing phase of his constitutional project

  • from a man you may have heard of, called Alexander Hamilton.

  • Now, Hamilton was everything Madison was not.

  • He was passionate, where Madison was restrained.

  • He was pansexual,

  • where Madison didn't speak to a woman expect for once

  • until he was 42 years old,

  • and then married Dolley and lived happily ever after for 40 years.

  • (Laughter)

  • To put it bluntly,

  • Hamilton's the kind of person

  • about whom you would write a hip-hop musical --

  • (Laughter)

  • and Madison is the kind of person

  • about whom you would not write a hip-hop musical.

  • (Laughter)

  • Or indeed, a musical of any kind at all.

  • But together,

  • they had become a rather unlikely pairing,

  • and they had produced the Federalist Papers,

  • which offered a justification

  • and, as I mentioned,

  • a marketing plan for the Constitution,

  • which had been wildly effective and wildly successful.

  • Once the new government was in place,

  • Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury,

  • and he had a very specific idea in mind.

  • And that was

  • to do for financial institutions and infrastructure

  • exactly what Madison had done for constitutions.

  • Again, his contemporaries all knew it.

  • One of them told Madison,

  • who can't have liked it very much,

  • that Hamilton was the Newton of infrastructure.

  • The idea was pretty straightforward.

  • Hamilton would give the United States a national bank,

  • a permanent national debt --

  • he said it would be "immortal," his phrase --

  • and a manufacturing policy that would enable trade and manufacturing

  • rather than agriculture,

  • which was where the country's primary wealth had historically been.

  • Madison went utterly ballistic.

  • And in this pivotal, critical decision,

  • instead of just telling the world that his old friend Hamilton was wrong

  • and was adopting the wrong policies,

  • he actually began to argue

  • that Hamilton's ideas were unconstitutional --

  • that they violated the very nature of the Constitution

  • that the two of them had drafted together.

  • Hamilton responded the way you would expect.

  • He declared Madison to be his "personal and political enemy" --

  • these are his words.

  • So these two founders who had been such close friends and such close allies

  • and such partners,

  • then began to produce enmity.

  • And they did it in the good, old-fashioned way.

  • First, they founded political parties.

  • Madison created a party originally called the Democratic Republican Party --

  • "Republican" for short --

  • and Hamilton created a party called the Federalist Party.

  • Those two parties adopted positions on national politics

  • that were extreme and exaggerated.

  • To give you a clear example:

  • Madison, who had always believed

  • that the country would have some manufacturing and some trade

  • and some agriculture,

  • began attacking Hamilton

  • as a kind of tool of the financial markets

  • whom Hamilton himself intended to put in charge of the country.

  • That was an overstatement,

  • but it was something Madison came to believe.

  • He also attacked city life,

  • and he said that the coasts were corrupt,

  • and what people needed to do was to look inwards

  • to the center of the country,

  • to farmers, who were the essence of Republican virtue,

  • and they should go back to the values that had made American great,

  • specifically the values of the Revolution,

  • and those were the values of low taxes,

  • agriculture

  • and less trade.

  • Hamilton responded to this by saying that Madison was naïve,

  • that he was childish,

  • and that his goal was to turn the United States

  • into a primitive autarchy,

  • self-reliant and completely ineffectual on the global scale.

  • (Laughter)

  • They both meant it,

  • and there was some truth to each of their claims,

  • because each side was grossly exaggerating the views of the other

  • in order to fight their war.

  • They founded newspapers,

  • and so for the first time in US history,

  • the news that people received came entirely through the lens

  • of either the Republican or the Federalist party.

  • How does this end?

  • Well, as it turned out, the Constitution did its work.

  • But it did its work in surprising ways

  • that Madison himself had not fully anticipated.

  • First, there was a series of elections.

  • And the first two times out of the box,

  • the Federalists destroyed the Republicans.

  • Madison was astonished.

  • Of course, he blamed the press.

  • (Laughter)

  • And in a rather innovative view --

  • Madison never failed to innovate when he thought about anything --

  • he said the reason that the press was so pro-Federalist

  • is that the advertisers were all Federalists,

  • because they were traders on the coasts who got their capital from Britain,

  • which Federalism was in bed with.

  • That was his initial explanation.

  • But despite the fact that the Federalists,

  • once in power,

  • actually enacted laws that criminalized criticism of the government --

  • that happened in the United States --

  • nevertheless,

  • the Republicans fought back,

  • and Madison began to emphasize the freedom of speech,

  • which he had built into the Bill of Rights,

  • and the capacity of civil society

  • to organize.

  • And sure enough, nationally,

  • small local groups -- they were called Democratic-Republican Societies --

  • began to form and protest against Federalist-dominated hegemony.

  • Eventually, the Republicans managed to win a national election --

  • that was in 1800.

  • Madison became the Secretary of State,

  • his friend and mentor Jefferson became president,

  • and they actually, over time,

  • managed to put the Federalists completely out of business.

  • That was their goal.

  • Now, why did that happen?

  • It happened because in the structure of the Constitution

  • were several features that actually managed faction

  • the way there were supposed to do in the first place.

  • What were those?

  • One -- most important of all --

  • the freedom of speech.

  • This was an innovative idea at the time.

  • Namely, that if you were out of power,

  • you could still say that the government was terrible.

  • Two,

  • civil society organization.

  • The capacity to put together private groups, individuals,

  • political parties and others

  • who would organize to try to bring about fundamental change.

  • Perhaps most significantly was the separation of powers --

  • an extraordinary component of the Constitution.

  • The thing about the separation of powers

  • is that it did then and it does now,

  • drive governance to the center.

  • You can get elected to office in the United States

  • with help from the periphery,

  • right or left.

  • It turns out,

  • you actually can't govern unless you bring on board the center.

  • There are midterm elections that come incredibly fast

  • after a presidency begins.

  • Those drive presidents towards the center.

  • There's a structure in which the president, in fact, does not rule

  • or even govern,

  • but can only propose laws which other people have to agree with --

  • another feature that tends to drive presidents

  • who actually want to get things done

  • to the center.

  • And a glance at the newspapers today will reveal to you

  • that these principles are still completely in operation.

  • No matter how a president gets elected,

  • the president cannot get anything done

  • unless the president first of all follows the rules of the Constitution,

  • because if not,

  • the courts will stand up, as indeed has sometimes occurred,

  • not only recently, but in the past, in US history.

  • And furthermore,

  • the president needs people,

  • elected officials who know they need to win election

  • from centrist voters,

  • also to back his or her policies in order to pass laws.

  • Without it, nothing much happens.

  • The takeaway of this brief excursus

  • into the history of partisanship, then, is the following:

  • partisanship is real;

  • it's profound;

  • it's extraordinarily powerful,

  • and it's terribly upsetting.

  • But the design of the Constitution is greater than partisanship.

  • It enables us to manage partisanship when that's possible,

  • and it enables us actually to overcome partisan division

  • and produce compromise,

  • when and only when that is possible.

  • A technology like that is a technology that worked

  • for the founders,

  • it worked for their grandchildren,