By Carol Frenier
The Covington Catholic High School fiasco reminded me of James Madison’s argument about the need to control factions. In Federalist No. 10 — part of the newspaper series designed to convince Americans to vote for the Constitution — he spelled out the danger of factions and how the new Constitution would restrain them from rolling over all opposition in their way.
Madison described a faction as “a number of citizens … united … by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The “causes of factions,” Madison asserted, are “sown in the nature of man.” In short, they are inevitable. Because we are born and raised in different places, with different parents, of different genders and nationality, in different churches, in different education systems, different climates, different economies, etc., there will never be a time when factions will not form. There will always be people similar to us in background and thought, and others who see the world differently, however many ideas and experiences we have in common. Right now in America we have factions around abortion, guns, educational policy, climate change, religion, health care, immigration and on and on the list goes.
Of all the pundits reporting on the Covington Catholic schools incident, the only one who seemed to grasp this reality was Julie Irving Zimmerman, whose headline in the Atlantic read, “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test.” She acknowledged that she jumped the gun and gave insightful details into how, in conversation with her son, she became aware of her own bias.
She wrote: “The story is a Rorschach test — tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of issues.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we would probably agree with her.
A faction becomes dangerous when it deteriorates into a mob. This can happen in a flash, all the more so in the age of social media when individuals can become the target of death threats within hours of unsubstantiated postings on Facebook. But as Madison concluded, you can not remove factions without “destroying liberty,” which in his view is worse than the disease. The only option is “controlling its effects.” The Founding Fathers did this first by limiting the powers of government; second, by separating the three branches of government; third, by giving each branch checks and balances over the other two branches; and last, by spelling out the rights of individuals such as free speech, religious expression and due process. The idea was to slow down the faction steamroller and allow a wider range of opinions to get heard.
Every now and then — unnervingly frequently it seems these days — we see an event like Covington Catholic that reminds us of how passionate and volatile factions can be, how ready we are, at the drop of a hat, to demonize our opponents. The Founding Fathers came up with the best system known to man to mitigate the effects of factions, but we ought not to forget that even that system can only slow things down.
What we need to do as individuals is take responsibility for our own participation in this process. What have I done today to tone things down? If we were all asking ourselves the kinds of questions Zimmerman asked herself, much of the Covington furor might have dissipated before it became a national screaming contest.
But there is also a danger of assuming that toning things down alone is sufficient to resolve conflicts between factions. When passions run highest is when innocent people are most vulnerable and good ideas — balancing and more inclusive ideas — are most needed. Sadly, it is also when both are most likely to fall victim to a factional mob. The failure of Covington Catholic to withhold judgment about their own students is appalling to me because it was a surrender to that mob. The utter failure of the press, the very people who bear the professional responsibility to inform the public, to search out all sides of this story — and so many others — strikes me as truly dangerous for our country.
Whatever you think of President Donald Trump, he hasn’t surrendered. For those who are mystified by his appeal, his strong stand in the face of mob outrage would be a good place to look. The Kavanaugh hearings and now the Covington incident have sobered the general public who see their husbands, brothers and sons as increasingly subject to irrational attack. I was heartened by the almost immediate fact-based push back on the Covington story from a wide variety of sources.
Carol Frenier is a business owner living in Chelsea, Vermont, and the chair of the Orange County Republican Committee.