Hamilton is a global fellow with the Wilson Center. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the authors of the research report "Government Information and Propaganda: How to Draw the Line?"
Shortly before he died on April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay, "Rules for Ruining a Republic." He had been a master of satirical letters — we might call them hoaxes — written for political purposes. Among the more famous was one he quill-penned in 1773 to warm the British that they were setting themselves up for an American revolt. The title was "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One."
That letter was written in a steady hand. His deathbed letter, dated March 28, was in a shaky one and was apparently slipped into a loose joint in the floorboards of the bedroom he occupied in his Philadelphia home.
Or perhaps his daughter Deborah hid it hastily at his death, having taken some of his last words literally. When she had said he would survive his pleuritic attack, he replied he would rather not — he had done his work.
In any event, the letter has since fallen into our hands from a source we are not at liberty to disclose. We believe the time has come to publish it.
Rules for Ruining a Republic
This Republic, this novus ordo seclorum, was forged on the shores of this fair continent through toils and blood. We have repelled the mischief from foreign malefactors, and our public affairs and economic commerce are now under our aegis.
Just days ago our first president gave his first State of the Union Message, as required by our new Constitution, in which he congratulated the Congress assembled in New York "on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs."
Yet, I keep coming back to what I wrote last November to a French friend, "Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes."
Now, as I lie here, I find myself imagining ways that at some distant time our nation would become like Rome, which as the solon Cicero said, "may retain the name Republic, but we have long since lost the actual thing." After all, opposition newspapers have called our first president "debauched" and various citizens have launched armed insurrection over policies they dislike. Some have declared that only elites should vote.
Tho' collapse is not imminent, I address myself to those future countrymen and officials who minister their affairs that they may have a handy guide to completing the task of ruining the republic when they so wish.
I. Political democracy entails dispute, even hot dispute. For the stakes are often high for citizens, and choices are rarely between the perfect good and the absolute bad, but commonly between better or worse. The debate over the framing of the Constitution, ratified two years ago, was such a set of ideas and the better for it, even if improvement — and more debate — are needed. But if dispute is salubrious, there are ways to make it poisonous, namely by employing dispute as a form of obstruction, rather than a means of betterment. Thus, you would be wise to seek political leaders who say, when someone is elected to the nation's highest office, that their goal is "to ensure that the president cannot achieve anything that could be called a success."
II. Words are to democracy as beams are to a house. Our Constitution, our laws, hold up the edifice of the Republic. Whilst the democrat must have reverence for words, the foes of democracy must eat away at them like so many termites. Truth and falsehood must be meaningless. Impression is all that counts. Inconvenient facts must be called lies, not met with evidence. Disagreeable opinions must be called conspiracies, not judged by reason. In this way the beams weakened and the house easier to bring down.
III. Further to the matter of word abuse, wreckers of the republic must cloak themselves in the garb of principle, however obvious it is that their modus operandi is naked cynicism. Indeed, the more naked, the better, for in this way the effect of the hypocrisy is greater. To illustrate, consider what may be done with the Supreme Court, which sat for the first time a few days ago. High, tho this Court of our constitutional charter may be, it easily can be debased. Although it may seem too farfetched to contemplate seriously, a Senate dominated by a president's opponents could deprive him or her of the right to appoint new members by some pretext, perhaps the argument that an election will occur, and thus new appointments should await the outcome. Even better will be the subsequent opportunity to ignore this previous injunction when the majority's president is in power.
IV. This leads us to a second vulnerability of democracy, elections themselves. A democracy without elections is not a democracy. Contemptuous actions such as the one mentioned above, in which presidents are prohibited from acting on the behalf of those who elected them, inculcate in the minds of citizens the idea that voting is meaningless. The sagacious destabilizer will find myriad other opportunities to achieve the same effect in our nascent democracy. For example, a coalition, cabal, or faction making a majority in one of the chambers of the Congress could strip some member of another faction of committee assignments for remarks they found odious, rather than letting the member's constituents decide the matter in the next election. The great virtue of stripping committee assignments is that the ultimate harm is to the members' constituents, as they will not be fully represented in the legislative process and thus alienated from democracy.
V. Elections are fevered contests, and inevitably produce disappointment for one side. As in sport, honour demands the defeated to admit defeat. It follows, therefore, that individuals set on dishonoring democracy should claim, when they have lost, that victory was snatched from them by some sinister force. This does not have to be proven, as it is implied by myriad actions such as those mentioned above, and, in any case, it is better to suggest that unseen malefactors are subverting the public good everywhere.
VI. Those who would ruin a republic will encourage pathologies of the publick mind. They will cast barbs at publick officials, and decry the entire class as debauched. The most nefarious of wreckers will encourage disaffection of the very notion that the republic is worth defending, that it was corrupt from conception.
VII. In the quest to stymie government from achieving anything meaningful on behalf of citizens, readers of wise Juvenal will recognize the virtue of selecting leaders holding little experience in publick affairs and promising panem et circensus. These readers will, in their pernicious wisdom, promote the election of those who profess as their chief virtue no knowledge of government. Tho it makes no sense for an ill person to seek a cure from a cobbler, citizens should be told that a healthy republic is best led by quacks because they are closer to the people.
VIII. In his State of the Union Address, President Washington advised Congress that "providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." 'Tis true. But the subversive official will note that the military also is a unique threat to the Constitution, as it is the one element of the Executive Branch with the means to summarily usurp the presidency. Washington acknowledged this when he ceremoniously surrendered his sword to the Congress after our successful revolution. The enemies of democracy will teach generals and admirals, including those recently returned to private life and with time on their hands, to be active in politics and forthright in their critiques of sitting politicians.
IX. As Montesquieu recently wrote, "The spirit of a legislator ought to be that of moderation." This is to be discouraged. Extremes should be sought by all sides so that cacophony shouts down harmony and nothing is achieved except increasingly heated emotions and little wise deliberation.
X. Finally, even when the republic seems to function, the wrecker should not lose heart. If there is any law of government that stands above the others, 'tis easier to destroy Democracy than it is to create it. As Plato said, Democracy "is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.
(The above op-ed is a satirical piece imagining a discovered long lost letter from Benjamin Franklin.)
Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and co-editor of the recently published "Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform" (University of Chicago Press).
Unless you were hiding under a rock you heard that Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was pushed out of her Republican leadership position in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In both instances, the cause of the schisms is the party's continued embrace of Donald Trump, and its refusal to hold the former president accountable for sowing distrust in the 2020 election results and stoking protests that culminated in the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol.
In a speech on the floor of the House, Cheney said Trump's refusal to accept the results of the election threatened the stability of the republic. "Today we face a threat America has never seen before; a former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election, has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him." She cited the various instances of newer democracies around the world backsliding into authoritarianism.
The gentlelady from Wyoming subsequently told the press she believed the nation needs a GOP that is "based upon fundamental principles of conservatism" and that she would "do everything I can to ensure the former president never gets anywhere near the White House."
The group of GOP dissenters struck a similar note in their declaration. "When in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice."
That Trump has brought the GOP to this difficult place is no surprise. He never has been a committed member of the Republican Party. His partisan registration has flipped frequently, and he long was a large donor to Democrats. To him, party registration appears to be no more than a means to end: acquiring office.
Additionally, the GOP schism we see erupting is a regular feature of the two-party system. As scholar James Sundquist long ago explained, America's political parties regularly undergo realignments due to various factors, such as demographic shifts, the rise of new issues and the emergence of new candidates. Consider the Democratic Party's shift over the past 25 years. Bill Clinton helped turn a pro-union party into a "third way" coalition that worked with Wall Street. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reversed that development and have inserted the far left "social" in the Democrats governance agenda.
Current Republican leadership has viewed the present situation as a choice: Win back control of Congress and the presidency by keeping the petulant Trump in the GOP tent by humoring his claims, or do the right thing and cast him out. Many observers have been calling for the party to take the latter course. Some have argued for the party to purge itself of all the rabid Trump supporters. Historian Matthew Dallek observed that the respectable right distanced itself from the John Birch Society and other extremists in the 1960s.
Yet, America's two-party system strongly incentivizes trying to keep politicos and their voters in the fold. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who a few months ago said he was done with Trump, recently put the GOP situation succinctly: "If you look at a political analysis, there's no way this party is going to stay together without President Trump and his supporters. There is no construct where the party can be successful without him."
Moreover, there is a brute sociological fact: Issues that resonate with a slice of the electorate, even if they offend the majority, tend to get picked up by one party or the other. In the 1990s, the GOP sidelined Patrick Buchanan and his America First platform, which featured criticism of excessive immigration, minorities and free trade. Trump campaigned on these very same themes, which neither party wanted to champion.
This is why, as Sundquist observed, "[s]ince the founding of the Republic, except for a few brief intervals, the American political system has been based on competition between two major parties." (Which is to say nothing of the various policies that entrench the two-party system.)
Hence, Cheney and the 100 GOP dissenters have set themselves a short-term and a long-term challenge. First, they need to sufficiently imperil the GOP's electoral calculations that they can extract from party leadership a promise: Under no circumstance can Trump be the nominee. They might achieve this by continuing to talk about Jan. 6, wooing GOP campaign donors to withhold their dollars and convincing voters to deregister from the party. In short, be a spoiler.
The long-term challenge is far more vexing: What to do about those voters who are attracted by Trump and Trumpy candidates? There are no easy answers here — not in a two-party system.
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For the past 15 years, public disapproval of the performance of Congress has averaged around 70 percent. Typically, when people look at Washington, as former Speaker Paul Ryan once observed, "It looks like chaos" — not leadership or governance, regardless of which party is in control.
What's wrong with Congress? Most frequently the problem is framed as a people problem. Congress has bad people in it. There are clowns, cranks and crooks, and we should throw those bums out. Others point to Capitol Hill having too many rabid partisans. Best to send them packing, too, in favor of new legislators who will choose "country over party." Still others point to the corrupting influence of lobbyists and the campaign finance hustle as the proximate cause for congressional dysfunction.
All of these diagnoses have merit, and their corresponding remedies are worth pursuing. But we should not forget about the "congressional capacity" problem.
Like any organization — a charity, restaurant or automobile repair shop — congressional performance is greatly, but not entirely, affected by Congress' capacity. It can only do as much as it is capable of doing.
In the congressional context, capacity can be defined as the human and physical infrastructure needed to resolve public problems through legislating, budgeting, holding hearings and conducting oversight. Some specific aspects of congressional capacity are intra-chamber organization (the organization of committees, for example), the processes for allocating resources (the leadership selection process is one of them) and the processes for executing tasks (such as how legislation gets to the floors of the House and Senate). And, of course, the people — the legislators and staff whose efforts produce governance.
During the past 40 years, the demands upon Congress have grown immensely. The nation's population has increased by one-third and federal spending has increased sevenfold. Today, the federal government has more than 4 million civilian and military employees and an annual budget in excess of $4.5 trillion. The executive branch has around 180 agencies, which administer untold thousands of statutes and programs. The government also funds, and to a degree directs, hundreds of thousands of contractors and subnational organizations.
And as a lengthy study by me and a couple of dozen scholars found, congressional capacity has declined during this same four decades. Today, Congress has fewer staffers than it did in the 1980s. It also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and its other legislative branch support agencies. And turnover among Hill staff is high: The average experience of a person working for Congress is three years.
Remarkably, the number and structure of congressional committees has evolved only a little to meet the new issues that have confronted the nation in the past 40 years — the opioid epidemic, to cite but one example. The size of the House remains at 435 members, who somehow are supposed to represent 330 million people. (That's an average of 758,000 for every legislator.) And the rules and procedures by which Congress conducts oversight and advances legislation look much as they did when Tip O'Neill was the speaker of the House and Olivia Newton-John was crooning "Magic."
All of which means Congress' responsibilities have ballooned and its capacity to handle these challenges has contracted. This is a formula for bad governance. Certainly, no private company could survive were it so dilatory to update its structure, operations and people power.
The process has begun. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has put together a list of nearly 100 reforms for the House. But only a third of these improvements have been enacted, and those are just the tip of the iceberg. Decades of neglect mean the work of upgrading Congress will take years.
So, let us throw out the members of Congress who show little interest in governing, and let us reduce the perverse incentives that reward elected officials for their fundraising skills and behaving like partisan hacks. But we must also tackle the problem of congressional capacity if we want to have a Congress that can behave like the "first branch" of a national government that can well serve the people.
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