Dennis Behreandt: In Praise of Gridlock

By Dennis Behreandt

According to conventional wisdom, the U.S. government’s legislative process is broken. What’s more, this opinion is held on both sides of the aisle and by the media. If there is anything anyone in America can agree on about politics it’s that the U.S. government is hopelessly botched.

Helpfully making the media’s case is CNN. “Is Congress capable of doing anything right?” asks Alan Silverleib in a column titled “Why Congress won’t stop hurting you” published by CNN on September 26.

Discussing the latest contentious funding bill before Congress and the specter that government will shut down if not funded by passage of the measure, Silverleib writes: “The details have differed with each threatened shutdown, but the basic plot remains the same. Democrats want to spend more while Republicans are using a series of statutory deadlines to force an agenda of spending cuts. The two sides have proven incapable of compromising until the last possible second.”

Silverleib has no trouble finding partisans from both sides of the aisle who agree that Congress is not functioning properly. On the administration’s side, he points to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who has said that we have a “political system that looks manifestly broken.”

From the Republican side, he points to Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

“The gridlock and partisanship in Washington right now is disgusting,” Brown said. “It’s unacceptable for Congress to add more uncertainty to the marketplace by threatening another government shutdown.”

Then there is the “problem” of choice in the marketplace of ideas. In the age of blogs, Facebook, and YouTube, people have too many places to turn to for news and opinion. Instead of being told what to think by the monolithic mainstream media people get their news elsewhere and from multiple sources resulting, pundits moan, in a fractured and increasingly partisan electorate.

“More choice in news may be good, but it often comes at a cost of viewers and readers seeking affirmation of their opinions rather than a challenge to their world views,” Silverleib writes.

As a result government is no longer efficient. Progress cannot be made.

Silverleib does not follow the thread of his “reporting” to its logical end. He makes the case that government is broken but having done so he doesn’t follow it up with any recommended solutions. That, in good journalistic style, is for the reader to decide. But any reader following Silverleib’s line of thought is going to end up right where CNN wants them to be — determined that the current American system of government is no good whatsoever. The implications of Silverleib’s article are clear: if we want to reform government, we need to get rid of Congress, and while we’re at it, regulating the media might not be a bad way to reduce partisanship among the electorate.

Again, Silverleib is giving voice in his essay to the so-called conventional wisdom that it is bad that government is in gridlock and that partisan bickering gets in the way of progress.

Conventional wisdom is wrong. Gridlock is exactly what we need and is exactly what the Founding Fathers intended.

Silverleib and mainstream media and most politicians and government bureaucrats prefer to ignore the central idea of American political thought that government should be constructed in such a way that there are multiple checks and balances established among competing interests. These checks and balances prevent one faction from dominating others and potentially a tyrannical regime.

The Founding Fathers insisted on this arrangement because they were intimately familiar with more “efficient” forms of government. They had fought a war against a monarchy that, while somewhat restrained by parliament, nonetheless could wield a great deal of power arbitrarily against its subjects, riding roughshod over the traditional rights of the English people (who the American colonists believed they were). The framers of the American government, then, were careful to create a system that would efficiently cause gridlock as a means of preventing abuses.

Learn more about the Founders position and intent in the Federalist Papers: The Federalist Papers

Modern Americans, to often predisposed to think of the Framers and antique rubes unfamiliar with sophisticated problems of modern life, will be surprised to find out, for example, that James Madison anticipated the problems of partisanship at the time of the writing of the Constitution. Writing in the Federalist no. 10, he observed:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

Today’s pundits, it seems, would prefer to either destroy liberty or regulate the media to make certain everyone has the same opinions, passions, and interests. The result would be a form of tyranny in either case.

“It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease,” Madison explained. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The second solution, to regulate ideas, is not only obscenely repulsive, it is also impractical, Madison says.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The only option to mitigate faction and preserve liberty is to create a system of government characterized by checks and balances. Madison focused on the functioning of a properly republican form of government composed of representatives of competing interests. Importantly, this government should admit to many factions representing competing interests.

Explaining the desirability of a large over a small republic, Madison wrote: “The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

Basically, Madison was calling for gridlock as the only sure way to prevent one faction from gaining an upper hand and oppressing everyone else.

The next time you hear a pundit or politician bemoaning our “broken” system of government, complaining that the parties can’t seem to reach a compromise, or pining for regulation of the media and of ideas, take two things away from it.

First, the person doing the complaining is a budding tyrant who has been frustrated in his or her tyrannical designs.

Second, give thanks to James Madison and the Framers of the Constitution who designed a “dysfunctional” government precisely to thwart the designs of those budding tyrants.


The Moral Liberal associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald, and former long-time contributor, serving both as Senior and Managing Editor, to The New American magazine, writing hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. Mr. Behreandt’s research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.