A party is a political grouping that supports the interests of one or more constituencies on behalf of what is believed to be the public interest as a whole. A faction is a group that represents its own interests over and against all others. Party can be seen as a good thing, functioning as an organizing principle of popular government. Faction is always seen as a bad one.
In early modern England, parties did not exist because the public interest, at least in royalist ideology, was always vested in the monarch. Any public grouping not sanctioned by him or her was illicit; any that opposed the royal will was treasonous. Faction, especially in a Parliament, was the worst and most dangerous thing that could be.
Party devolved from faction when, in the 17th century, two English kings were deposed by revolution, and Parliament, not the monarch, emerged as the sovereign power in the nation. This was the state of England the Thirteen Colonies rebelled against.
When the Constitution was devised, political parties had not yet developed in America. The Founding Fathers did not contemplate them but imagined a harmony emerging from the balance of power they attempted to create in the institutions of government — the presidency, Congress and the courts. Any other interest was dismissed as faction, as it had been in pre-revolutionary England. In this sense, what the Fathers created was a very backward-looking document, and, in the context of what had already developed in England, an unrealistic one.
Sure enough, political parties developed almost immediately in the newly minted United States, largely around the question of federalism but in short order including sectionalism, industry and commerce and, above all, slavery. This two-party system has defined our government ever since.
The Founding Fathers did contemplate irresolvable conflict emerging in the form of treason or corruption, and they instituted a method derived from England for dealing with it: the removal of public officers, including the president, through bicameral action in Congress.
This is popularly called impeachment, although strictly speaking the term refers to a bill of indictment handed down in the House of Representatives, to then be tried in the Senate. The House, however, has thus far declined to deliver its current bill against Donald Trump to the Senate, pending approval of protocols for a trial that will include the calling of witnesses and the providing of documents — items the President refused the House itself despite a subpoena.
So, here we stand as the new year begins. Trump’s defiance of the House, and, by extension, the full Congress, has become an item of impeachment in itself.
The Republican-dominated Senate has thus far refused to call witnesses or documents for its own proceeding. If they do not, they will undermine the subpoena powers of Congress as a whole, for to fail to vindicate them in the Upper House would eviscerate them in both chambers. And since the first article of the House impeachment charges in part that Trump improperly impounded funds voted for the defense of Ukraine, the other most critical power of Congress, that of the purse, is likewise in play.
Whether those funds were a good idea — whether we should help protract a war in Ukraine that has killed more people than any but one on European soil in the past 75 years — is a matter on which opinion may differ, and mine certainly does. But that they could not be withheld by unilateral presidential action, both as a matter of federal statute and fundamental constitutional principle, is indisputable as law. A failure to defend the subpoena and spending powers of Congress would make it a mere rubber stamp of the Executive branch. Senate Republicans destroy the very institution in which they serve.
Apparently, Senate Republicans are fully prepared to do just that, as were their colleagues who voted unanimously last month against impeachment in the House. Republicans of both the House and Senate, at least to this point, have thus shown themselves willing to destroy the very institution in which they serve. In so doing, they appear willing to renounce all claim to represent a public interest. That would leave them no longer a party, but, as we have defined it, a faction.
To be sure, political parties are messy and imperfect bodies, and what they represent as the public interest is essentially that of governing elites — the rich and powerful. This is so obviously the case that the late Gore Vidal denied that two parties existed in the United States in any meaningful sense at all, but only a single entity that he dubbed the “Demoblicans.” If this was an exaggeration, it was not a great one. But it is not an exaggeration to say that only one party, flawed though it be, remains in our politics today. That party is the Democratic one.
The story of how the Republicans devolved into a faction is a long one. Republicans have of course long been the warriors of Wall Street. But they claimed, even recently, to represent Main Street as well. They allegedly stood too for certain virtues and principles: hard work and self-reliance; limited government and balanced budgets; self-sufficiency at home and neutrality abroad. They also stood once, in fact as well as theory, for the abolition of slavery and the equal protection of the laws for all. They even impeached a president of their own party who stood in the way of achieving these last goals.
Nothing of these principles has remained for a long time, except for the right of employers to extract as much hard work as possible from their workers at the lowest possible wage. And the constituencies Republicans supposedly represented had, by 2016, come to understand this.
That is how Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president and was able to win the presidency itself. He ran, far harder than Hillary Clinton did, against the Republican Party itself. Its former constituencies belong personally to him now, and Republican office-holders serve him on plain of political extinction. They are the camp-followers of a would-be tyrant, and perhaps it is too much to even call them a faction.
Donald Trump won’t be removed from office by impeachment short of anything but divine intervention or his own limitless capacity for blunder. The Democrats can only refuse to surrender to a sham trial in the Senate that would make a travesty of the Constitution. Where that will leave the Constitution itself is another matter.