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Passions, Interests, and Local Politics: A Madisonian Argument for the Re-election of Jo Butler

Guest Op-Ed

By Marc D. Weiner

JamesMadisonOn the front page of the January 8th Town Topics, a Princeton former political elite is quoted as saying ”There is some discord on Council. Everyone is aware of it.”

That statement relies on a normative assumption about local politics, that there should be little or no discord, where all municipal political elites “get along.” You know, “go along, to get along.” That, apparently, is the type of local governance the elite group thinks is best for the newly consolidated Princeton.

Me, I don’t think so.

Going along to getting along is just so much groupthink; rather, I like the dialogue, I like the debate, I like the challenge to the status quo. And if that involves difficult personalities, so be it. That’s how I see it, and that’s how James Madison saw it. At times like these—when human nature interacts with politics—I like to consult the Federalist Papers, as Hamilton, Jay, and especially Madison, understood something about what happens to human nature when you contextualize it in the frame of self-government.

The real story of America, and especially of the newly-consolidated Princeton, is self-government, and the proper goal of electoral politics is to populate the devices of self-government. The issue is not with whom the power base of the current council will best get along, but rather, who, between the three so-far-declared candidates, is best to bring a spirit of checks and balances to municipal level self-government.

In this passage from Federalist #10, first published on Friday, November 23, 1787, Madison discusses the relative virtues of a “pure democracy” and a “republic” form of government, or as we might say today, direct versus mediated democracy. The discussion is largely academic in that the very size of the country, even in the 1780s, made direct democracy all but impossible, but because it was the Athenian model of governance, it was used as an ideal form as the Founders crafted the Constitution. In this discussion, Madison considers the “small number of citizens” who administer government; this, in modern terms, is the political elite of a small town:

…a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention;

If all of my elected representatives go along to get along, which is what it seems the loud elite is up to, then leave me out of it. I’ll vote for the more independent voice, not because James Madison wants me to, but because I believe in self-government, and I believe in the spirited, turbulent, contentious spectacles that sometimes municipal-level self-governments must be.

Mr. Weiner is the associate director at the Bloustein Center for Survey Research at Rutgers University.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    Your article was absolutely magnificent. I agree with you. Patrick Simon, Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler are council members who do their homework, express their opinions, and actually vote accordingly to what they honestly think serve best for the town. So, yes, I will always vote for those independent voices, who go to bed with clean conscience and the satisfaction of having done a good job.

  • Marc Weiner

    There’s no irony. My relationship to Mr. Simon was disclosed to the editor of the Princeton Planet when the piece was submitted.

    And, could explain your use of quotation marks around the word editorial? Also, if you’re really interested in “full disclosure,” how about using your real name. Full disclosure next time, “saljoe1.”

  • saljoe1

    The irony of this “editorial” is that Mr. Weiner is the partner of Pat Simon, who works for Jenny Crumiller’s husband. Full disclosure next time, Mr. Weiner.

  • Dill Harris

    Yes, the obstructionist practice of the excessive use of closed meeting by the Council is, as you write, not valuable.

  • JZ

    To use the phrase “political elite” in reference to Princeton Council is a little silly, in my opinion. We live in a relatively small community where everyone has very good access to our officials, meetings, issues, etc. The PCDO, who I suppose could be called the overseer of this “elite” group, practically begs people to be involved and vote on pending candidates. And yes, dissenting opinions and positions are valuable; obstructionist practices are not.

  • Blake Cash

    It should be obvious to anyone that without debate there are no new ideas. Without new ideas there is no growth. Without growth there is no life.

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