Nobody made the case for government as a cooperative enterprise more compellingly than Benjamin Franklin. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were of many minds, and debate was robust. Franklin did not agree with all elements of the Constitution that finally emerged from the long debates and many compromises. But on the last day of the convention, September 17, 1787 — the date we now celebrate as Constitution Day — Franklin, who was old and weak, wrote out an impassioned plea and gave it to his fellow Pennsylvania delegate, James Wilson, to read. Franklin readily admitted that there were parts of the Constitution “which I do not at present approve” but, he added, “I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.” Franklin closed his remarks with an appeal to his fellow delegates to join him in approving the Constitution that guides us today. “On the whole, sir,” he wrote, “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument.”
This problem becomes even more intractable in the context of a Congress divided between rival teams, each operating from its own “facts” and each in a position to come down hard on any teammate who thinks for himself and begins to question the accepted orthodoxy. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, noted the penchant of individuals to seek to belong to something larger than themselves, something transcendent, a cause to which they can devote themselves and in which they can place their faith. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1971, Hoffer observed that both absolute power and absolute faith demand “absolute obedience… simple solutions… the viewing of compromise as surrender.” When “true believers” are able to dominate a political party, for example through closed candidate selection processes, and can demand allegiance to their dogma, political rigidity ensues. When party leaders are given the additional authority to punish unfaithfulness, the compromise necessary for a functioning democracy disappears.
Are there ways, then, even given the current party system, to reduce partisanship and encourage more independent thinking? Marcel Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” If members of Congress come to their tasks with eyes fixed firmly on their responsibilities as part of a political machine, we can expect no more from them than what we have been getting. But if we open their eyes to the bigger entity to which they owe loyalty, we can change their behavior. Two of the nation’s premier scholars, University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and Harvard professor Dennis Thompson, addressed the problem in a November 2011 op-ed in The New York Times. Noting that “there is no external escape from an environment that rewards those who stand tenaciously on their principles and demonize their opponents,” Gutmann and Thompson put it very bluntly: “Members of Congress need to change their minds about compromise, or voters will need to change the members of Congress.”