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Mischiefs of Faction 

Every four years, we reaffirm our national unity; this time feels different

Earlier this week, Apple won its appeal of a court order to unlock its iPhone technology. This test of Americans' privacy rights looks like it could wind deeper into the courts, perhaps ending up on the Supreme Court's docket, where... nothing may happen.

Due to political mischief, that crucial Supreme Court seat could be left empty for one, maybe two years. In the event of 4-4 decisions, that would mean there's no law of the land. In political science, that's textbook anarchy.

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The Founding Fathers would know exactly what to call such heresy: "the mischiefs of faction" is how James Madison described it in Federalist No. 10. They diagnosed this condition precisely as the cancer that might kill their American experiment. And here we are all these years later, factions running wild, left to recall Benjamin Franklin's comment after the Constitutional Convention to a passerby who asked, "What have we got — a republic or a monarchy?"

"A republic," answered Franklin, "if you can keep it."

Well, can we?

While this election may seem like the same old routine, albeit more juvenile than usual, something's different. Laws of gravity aren't working, and political parties seem to be falling back to earth. It's a free-for-all, with insubordination everywhere: elected officials have systematically undermined our president since the day he took office; institutions and traditions are being thrown overboard; decorum is quickly becoming a quaint memory.

This is a nasty strain of political nihilism — something our Founding Fathers saw coming. Any number of European bloodbaths told them a mob can be inflamed; passions, they knew, must be kept in check. But they didn't want to enable a despot — human liberty had to come first. Finding this balance would be the toughest part of their mission. (Many of that era disagreed, however, citing human nature as too powerful to tame — they were the anti-federalists.)

A consistent question in The Federalist Papers is what to do about factions — those groups who would undermine the whole for their own ends. Madison agreed with Alexander Hamilton that representative democracy was best, as elected officials would think big-picture and pledge themselves to defend the greater good.

George Washington, who saw many die for the dream of America, wrote in his Farewell Address that "The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government." (Washington also had thoughts on low-information voters: "It is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.")

In other words, elections matter. Have it out every four years — and the Founders lived in truly rough-and-tumble political times — but in the end, find enough common ground to maintain national unity.

Despite these centuries-old warnings, our modern arsonists keep fanning the flames of unrest. So we find ourselves less unified than perhaps at any time since the Civil War.

The Founding Fathers worried that their experiment could fail, knowing something different would fill the vacuum — something more restrictive of liberty, something less just. You can already catch glimpses as our own anti-federalists run their states. Some sacrifice economic opportunity for their citizens at the altar of austerity; others legislate women's health clinics out of business, or deny medical coverage to their poorest. These states have become laboratories, experimenting in what a more fractured America might look like.

The Founding Fathers were careful students of the ancients; our particular form of government was inspired by the Lycian League, a collection of 20 or so city-states in Asia Minor that seemed to thrive in the orbit of Athens and, later, Rome.

But Lycia's success was only clear in contrast to the chaos around it. "It is impossible," Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 9, "to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and... kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy."

Those vibrations of tyranny and anarchy ended the Roman Empire and ushered in 800 years of darkness. Our Founding Fathers brilliantly carved out a place between, where individual rights and enlightened leadership preserve the correct balance between majorities and minorities. They built the greatest political system in human history.

But like ungrateful children, we are beating the tar out of our republic. America is weak, we are told, government is evil — our leaders corrupt. Blame immigrants. Vilify Muslims. It's ugly.

Pundits seem to think the whole thing is a hoot and reward the most outrageous behavior with more screen time. It's not funny: What's happening is our Founding Fathers' worst nightmare.

George Washington treasured our national unity and spoke of the "sacred ties" that bind us with reverence. Read his Farewell Address — it was written for times like these.

Can we keep our republic? Of course we can. We must. It starts by understanding how precious, and vulnerable, a gift we have been given. ♦

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