By Marc D. Weiner
On 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.