Federalist Paper No. 10, authored by James Madison, is dedicated to the defense of the United States against factions, which he calls a “dangerous vice”.
Madison defines a faction as “a number of citizens…who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
He says factions are inevitable: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
So do we have an issue with factions today?
Class warfare comes to mind, in so much as we have politicians attempting to pit one segment of our population against the rest based on a single issue of wealth. One could argue that those who buy the false narrative of the rich not paying their fair share of taxes constitute a faction adverse to the aggregate interests of the United States economy.
Unfortunately, this has been true since the founding of our country. Madison: “But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”
Sounds like us, right?
This becomes especially true and dangerous if politicians are pushing such narratives for the sole purpose of obtaining or holding on to political power. Of course, political parties themselves represent factions who far too often give the appearance looking out only for the interests of their party and not the common good of the United States and her citizens.
Madison writes: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
It’s a problem, it’s existed since the nation’s founding, and it’s one that threatens our very democracy.
Madison again: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”
So what do we do about it?
Fortunately for us, it’s a problem for which our founders prepared, having designed our Constitution with the tendencies of human nature in mind.
They knew trust in a single politician is not the answer: “It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
They knew a majority rule democracy is not the answer: “Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
Okay. So what DO we do about it?
According to James Madison: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”
We’ve already established the causes of factions to be the fallibility of man and the liberty to exercise it. We can’t control one, and removing freedom would create a problem worse than the cure. So, we’re left with controlling its effects.
James Madison: “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”
He elaborates: “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
Examples: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”
A republic, Madison explains, by keeping politics local and within divisions, prevents popular movements from spreading quickly. This aids in keeping factions in check.
How do we differ from Federalist Paper No. 10?
Unlike the Constitution James Madison defends in Federalist Paper No. 10, we elect our Senators, since 1913, by direct vote rather than by state legislatures. Our population has also grown considerably, so each politician represents a greater number of citizens. We also live with a 24-hour news cycle in the age of social media. News travels fast, and inaccurate information spreads quickly.
It is therefore as important as ever to ensure as much political activity as possible is managed at the local level where citizens know their representatives and can more easily have their ear. We should keep the electoral college in place to prevent a few large cities from controlling our presidential election. And, most importantly, we should individually make certain our opinions, decisions, and communications are deliberate and based in factual knowledge.
By these means, we can still, even in our age, control the effects of political factions.