Thinking With Justin Amash

July 5, 2019 Updated: July 7, 2019

Commentary

On July 4, Rep. Justin Amash declared his independence from his political party. Having been a Republican congressman representing Michigan’s 3rd District since 2010, he is now officially an Independent.

This isn’t the first time Amash has caused waves, recently becoming the first and only Republican elected official on the national stage to call for an impeachment vote against President Donald Trump.

I won’t either condemn the congressman’s decisions nor defend them. Such reactions have already served to prove Amash’s main point—that we think too much in terms of partisan labels. Republicans have denounced him, including the president calling him one of the dumbest members of Congress, and Democrats have seized on his action in order to claim something is wrong with the Republican Party.

What Amash actually did, however, was much more important. He did leave the Republican Party, but what his bigger point was, and what partisan reactions fail to address, is that he was declaring independence from the two-party system and the intellectual calcification that has come with it.

“I’ve become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.”

Amash rightly points us to George Washington’s Farewell Address, something I recently tried to do in this publication, as well. In that important lesson for America, our nation’s Father tried to warn us about “the spirit of party” that would divide our people, become a vehicle for foreign influence, and which, throughout history, had proven to “distract the public councils and enfeebled the public administration.” As with Amash, his lesson was less about any particular party and more about the spirit of party that can distract us from the common good and the needs of our constitutional order.

But, Amash could have also pointed us to James Madison, arguably the “Father” of the Constitution, to help make his points. The Federalist Papers, of course, are the greatest exposition ever written on the intentions behind the Constitution and one of the most important documents of political theory written by Americans. We should listen to them today more than ever.

The Danger of Factions

In The Federalist No. 10, Madison is concerned with what he calls “factions” and their great danger to liberty and free government: “The instability, injustice, and confusion, introduced [by these factions] into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have every where perished.”

The founders referred to these forces as factions; today, we call them political parties.

Here, Madison defends his vision of growing a big and diverse nation (something considered pretty radical at the time) on the basis of its ability to break the spirit of faction. Here’s how it was to work: Believing that small states would be more prone to the growth of ideological or economically driven parties, who could dominate and crush the rights of minorities, he argued for one big republic under the Constitution that would bring together so many different interests and parties that they would all end up checking one another’s power and allowing ordered liberty to flourish.

Madison and the other founders didn’t anticipate the small factions would eventually (pretty quickly, actually) consolidate around two major party labels that would compete for power. This consolidation has led to much less room for interest to check interest and thereby allow some to rise above the partisanship. Now, it’s two-way warfare between Republicans and Democrats with declining room for independent thinking, in what often looks to be a zero-sum game. Either we win or we lose.

In The Federalist No. 51, Madison describes the separation-of-powers system and how it will only be successful if it’s actually a “checks-and-balances” system. The founders understood tyranny to be any concentration of power into any hands—the one, the few, or the many. The tendency of most political figures, they understood, is to attempt to concentrate power into their own hands. The system needs to be set up to resist such concentrations.

And so, as Madison put it so famously, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Without our political leaders having the right motivations, the constitutional system will provide nothing more than what he called “parchment barriers” defending liberty.

In other words, our senators and representatives were to have a loyalty to the Constitution, but their ambitions would be satiated by fighting for the integrity and power of their own office/place in the system against the others. Senators were to defend the Senate. House members were to defend the House. Presidents were to defend the presidency. In so doing, even if they weren’t acting patriotically, they would at least be serving the system of separated powers.

To put it simply, the founders anticipated institutional warfare, not partisan warfare.

Bridging the Institutions

To the degree our senators and representatives have become party animals, to the degree they seek power for their party, to the degree they support a president simply because of the initial after his name (or oppose him for the same reason), they are violating the tenets that are designed to hold the system together.

The parties today, unfortunately, have come to act as “bridges” over the institutions in the constitutional system that were meant to be separated and checked. Woodrow Wilson and a whole host of progressive thinkers urged just this upon us as a way of getting a more energetic and active government. Where the Constitution separates, partisanship unites.

Large chunks of both parties now are so sunk into identifying as party members that they can no longer see how we have strayed from the founders’ vision.

Whatever we think of Amash’s politics or his decision, his piece should serve to remind us all that we must have higher callings than worshiping our political party and living for partisan warfare. We should all declare independence, if only intellectual and ethical independence, from the two-party system.

We can continue to organize as Republicans and Democrats, but we should think like Americans. We can continue to vote as Republicans or Democrats, but we should reward those who serve the Constitution and the rule of law, not those who serve their party first or their own ambitions under a party banner.

Gary L. Gregg is the host of “Thinking with Plato,” a podcast exploring ancient ideas about politics and life, and is author of numerous books on American politics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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