John Lewis, a Democratic member of Congress from Georgia, recently stirred controversy with some remarks about the alleged “illegitimacy” of the incoming Trump administration.  He said the following to NBC’s Chuck Todd:

I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president.  I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Lewis made his name in the 1960s as a civil rights activist; he was also a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton.  Trump predictably fired back an angry rebuke.  At that point a number of other Democrats predictably rushed to tweet their own comments to try to present Trump’s response as an unprovoked attack on Lewis’s integrity:

Some Democrats have even declared that they will boycott the presidential inauguration.  I believe strongly that Lewis’s comments were unethical, dangerous, and shockingly disrespectful of the federal government he was sworn to serve.  I am a fan of neither Clinton nor Trump; my only goal here is to show why such sentiments publicly expressed by a legislator introduce dangerous factionalism and encourage sedition by the public.  They are disrespectful of the nation’s institutions and should not be tolerated.

U.S. Representative John Lewis speaks before he helps unveiling the Harvey Milk Forever Stamp at its dedication ceremony at the White House in Washington May 22, 2014. The ceremony marks the first day of issue for the stamp honoring Milk. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTR3QG78

There is nothing wrong with party disagreement in a republican democracy.  Up to a point such differences are healthy and actually strengthen the functioning of institutions.  Rep. Lewis and his colleagues have every right to oppose the president’s policies, to argue with him, even to mock or ridicule him.  This is part of the democratic process and no one is arguing that a president should not be attacked or criticized.  That much should be clear.

But what Rep. Lewis did was something very different.  He was questioning the legitimacy of the president-elect: and by doing this, he is directly undermining respect for the institution of the executive branch itself.  Persons can be opposed and disagreed with; but a lawmaker should never question the legitimacy of the office itself.  This has the effect of fomenting sedition among the populace, which is something that no state can permit.  For if one accepts that a president is not legitimate, then it follows directly from this that one can disregard his orders with impunity.  It is a direct attempt to corrode public faith in government and to incite the public against the chief executive.

The very first ethical rule listed in House Ethics Rule XXIII, Code of Officlal Conduct, is that a lawmaker should act in a way befitting his office:

A Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.

What is even more disturbing is that fact that so many Democrats were willing actually to take Lewis’s side.  Instead of seeing the matter as one of indiscipline and disrespect for the nation’s institutions, some Democrats tried to recast the incident as an attack on a “civil rights leader” by Trump.  Whatever Lewis did or may have done in the past is totally irrelevant, of course, to the matter at hand, which is his unethical and calumnious behavior.

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The great dangers of factionalism and calumny to the health of a free republic were well-known to Machiavelli, who commented on them in his Discourses:

It is clear…in what detestation calumnies should be held in free cities and in all other forms of society, and how with a view to checking them no institution which serves this end should be neglected…There is no need of witnesses or of any other corroboration of the facts to set calumnies going, so that anybody can be calumniated by anybody else.  But one cannot in this way be indicted, for indictments must be corroborated and circumstances be adduced to prove the truth of the indictment…Where provision for this has been made, and due recourse is had to it, calumniators should be severely punished.

Calumnies, too, are among the various things of which citizens have availed themselves in order to acquire greatness [i.e., power], and are very effective when employed against powerful citizens who stand in the way of one’s plans, because by playing up to the populace and confirming the poor view it takes of such men, one can make it one’s friend.  [I.8.  Trans. by L.J. Walker, S.J.]

As a perceptive commentator on what things could make–and unmake–republican governments, Machiavelli looked with alarm on the evils of factionalism.  What Rep. Lewis did was precisely what is described in the passage above.  To curry favor with his electorate—and possibly to burnish his relevancy in the modern era—he directly undermines public faith in the institutions he is a part of.  Such comments fuel the fires of political factionalism and lead directly to civil unrest and disorder.  The behavior is reprehensible and he should be disciplined immediately.

This is unlikely to happen, as we all know.  Congress as a whole long ago abandoned its obligation to look after the public good and opted for factionalism, influence-peddling, and special interests coddling.  And yet a record of these incidents must be made, so that when future generations ask how the collapse of our institutions took place, we will have illustrative examples to point to.

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