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  • The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
    --George Washington, Farewell Address, September 26, 1796
  • I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of this society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
    --Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820
  • There must be a positive passion for the public good… established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.
    --John Adams, letter to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776
  • I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men … where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
    --Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789
  • Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
    --James Madison, Federalist No. 10, November 23, 1787
  • If we move in mass, be it ever so circuitously, we shall attain our object; but if we break into squads, everyone pursuing the path he thinks most direct, we become an easy conquest to those who can now barely hold us in check.
    --Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Duane, 1811
  • Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
    --James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
  • Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.
    --John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776
  • A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
    --James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
  • With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.
    --Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
  • The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
    --George Washington, Farewell Address, September 26, 1796
  • Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.
    --John Adams, Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
  • … the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and…no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.
    --James Madison, Federalist No. 45, January 26, 1788
  • …that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
    --Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
  • In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil.
    --James Madison, Parties, January 23, 1792
    
Living Up to the Founding Generation's Vision

At its core, The Common Interest is an effort to more fully realize the vision that the founding generation had for government by, for, and of the people. Over 200 years since they declared our independence, it's difficult for us to fully appreciate the audacity of that act. Never in the history of the world had popular government succeeded for any extended length of time or on any large scale. Although intimately familiar with that record of failure, they dared to fight for an opportunity to give government by the people another try even though it would require defeating the most dominant military power since Rome.

It is a stunningly bold vision. Yet, if all they had had was a bold vision the American republican experiment would likely have suffered the fate of early efforts. The members of the founding generation were remarkable because they combined an audacious vision with a practical, clear-eyed assessment of why popular government had always failed in the past. Understanding the source of past failures, they fashioned path-breaking innovations that were essential to making our system of government by the people the most enduring in history.

They well understood, however, that their innovative ideas were necessary but insufficient. In their view, the government they founded would also require wise citizens who were not only informed about the issues of the day, but who also understood the pitfalls of popular government and did their part to avoid them.

The Common Interest is based on a careful reading of the Founders' vision and an earnest attempt to heed their guidance.

The Problem of Faction: The Central Problem of Popular Government

The Founders' agreed that a leading explanation for popular government's abysmal track record was its vulnerability to what they called the "problem of faction." Once the ultimate power resided in the people, it had always proved too tempting to engage the political process in ways that would advance one's narrow self interest at others' expense. Those with similar interests inevitably banded together to vie with groups that had competing interests. The resulting contention had always resulted in unjust policies and instability that eventually led to all popular governments' collapse.

James Madison, in particular, studied the history of democracies' failures extensively and the problems of America's own early experiments. He captured a central conclusion he drew from that study in the opening lines of Federalist No. 10, the most famous and influential of the 85 Federalist essays. Madison writes:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.

George Washington was equally convinced that the problem of faction was the primary weakness of government by the people. On September 17, 1796, he announced that he would not seek a third term as president and thereby became the only leader of a successful revolution in history to voluntarily lay down power. Knowing the attention his historic announcement would garner, he went on in his Farewell Address to warn that the "Spirit of Party":

...exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.

More the 200 years later, we see a rising tide of special interest influence, with the number of professional lobbyists in Washington D.C. more than doubling in the last ten years to now exceed 34,000. We hear our political system described as a "culture war" in which faithful conservatives and secular liberals contend with one another. In our day the founding generation's assessment that our greatest vulnerability lay in our susceptability to faction seems painfully accurate. The need for citizens to understand and address that vulnerability is more accute than ever.

A Two-Fold Solution: The New Structure for Popular Government and Wise Citizen Participation

The Founders agreed that soley relying on people's willingness to resist factions and nobly put the broad public interest ahead their narrow self interest was naive. More than any other Founder, Madison labored to erect defenses against factionalism through the structure of government. In Federalist No. 10, he turned centuries of conventional wisdom about popular government on its head by arguing that a large republic would be more enduring than a small one. Previously, the assumption had been that the only hope for avoiding the crippling effects of faction was to have a republic small enough that the similarity of people's interests would reduce the diviergent interests that are the source of factionalism.

Madison argued, however, that the diversity of interests within the broad sphere of the United States would actually protect against the evils of factionalism. Particularly if combined with a structure of divided government with checks and balances, Madison argued that the diversity of interests in a large American republic would make it difficult for one faction or another to gain enough power to pursue their narrow self interests at everyone else's expense. Measures that had wide popular support because they were in the broad public interest, he suggested, would be the only measures with good prospects for prevailing.

Just a few years after helping to persuade the country to ratify the Constitution, Madison become more convinced than ever that these constitutional structures, while necessary, were insufficient protection against factionalism. In particular, he started to recognize that the system he, more than anyone, had designed had some unique vulnerabilities to faction. Since the system was, by design, so complicated, it was easy for common citizens to feel that it was impossible for them to effectively participate and influence it. To the extent that common citizens checked out, they surrendered the ground to narrow factions, making it easier to impose their self interest on others. Accordingly, he began concerted efforts to educate citizens to this danger and to mobilize them to excercise their responsibilities for protecting the system against it. In 1791, four years after writing Federalist No. 10, Madison published an article in a national newspaper in which he argued to the American people that it would need to be:

…the patriotic study of all, to maintain the various authorities established by our complicated system, each in its respective constitutional sphere; and to erect over the whole, one paramount Empire of reason, benevolence and brotherly affection.[emphasis added]

Madison continued to argue throughout his career that citizens' informed reason combined with their brotherly affection, the opposite of factional contention, was an essential compliment to our structural protections. Five years after Madison's 1791 appeal to citizens, the problems of factionalism were continuing to grow more dire, leading to Washington's warning in his 1796 Farewell Address that, "The common & continual mischiefs of the Spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of wise People to discourage and restrain it.”

The Common Interest: An Effort to Heed the Founders' Warnings

In an era when Washington D.C. and the 50 state capitals seem insistent on having partisan and special interest food fights rather than mature and respectful deliberation about practical solutions in the broad public interest, the need for wise citizen participation is more important than ever. The Common Interest's track record of legislative accomplishment after only three years of existence and with no outside funding is confirmation of the Founders' wisdom. Just as they had hoped, when we inform ourselves about practical solutions in the common interest and organize in sensible ways, we can prevail over the excesses of partisan and special interest politics.

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