Factions, insurrections, and the Federalist Papers

Sometimes political philosophers think of the The Federalist Papers as fairly minor contributions to the history of political theory — time-bound, parochial, and written by colonial bumpkins who couldn’t really hold a candle to Locke or Hobbes. When addressed at all, they are often used simply as evidence about the “original intent” of various constitutional provisions in the US Constitution (link). Now that I’ve included several of the papers in a course I’m currently teaching on modern political thought, however, I’ve come to a new appreciation of what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were attempting to accomplish — in contrast to Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. And I have gained a new appreciation of their sophistication as political philosophers and theorists. Most strikingly, I’ve seen today something that was invisible in the 1960s: how some of the work is enormously relevant on the assault to democracy we are currently experiencing from the far right in the United States.

The approach taken by the writers of the Federalist Papers is one of psychological realism. They want to design political institutions that work for citizens as they actually behave, not as we would wish them to behave. Here is a fine statement of their approach in FP 51, offered in their analysis of the institutional idea of “separation of powers” in government:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (FP 51: 268-269)

One of the key problems that Madison and Hamilton confront, in a very serious way, is that of “faction”. We might think of this problem in a fairly trivial way: “I say potato, you say potahto”. We’re different. But what they have in mind is much more critical to the health and stability of a democracy than that. It has to do with groups that potentially endanger the survival of the republic itself, and the liberties of the citizens who make it up. Madison opens No. 10 with these words:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. (FP 10: 42)

Madison and Hamilton hope that they and their colleagues in institution-building in 1787 will be able to design governance arrangements that reduce the dangers of “faction” to the viability of the emerging American democracy.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (FP 10: 43)

It is worth observing that a faction is not simply a group united by a shared set of preferences — citizens who advocate for a new public park in a city, say — but rather a group that advocates for actions that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. Ku Klux Klan activists in Alabama in the 1950s who sought to intimidate African-American men and women from exercising their rights to vote would be a faction; so would a group that seeks to undermine a community’s ability to prevent the spread of polio among its children.

Why do factions and inter-group conflict arise? Madison (and Hamilton) approach the problem of politics realistically; and that means that they take human beings as they find them, not as we would wish them to be. Moreover, this is true both for citizens and leaders. Here is an extended passage:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. 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. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (FP 10: 43)

Madison notes that it is impossible to prevent the occurrence of factions and the conflicts they create; individuals are not fully rational, just, or self-controlled.

If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know, that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.(FP 10: 46)

And likewise, rulers are not angels either:

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: nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole. (FP 10: 45)

But Madison believes that appropriate institutional arrangements can minimize the bad effects of ordinary citizens exercising their passions and their interests. One such arrangement that serves as a buffer to the hazards of factions is representative government, or what he refers to as a republic. Political decisions no longer depend on the direct votes of citizens, but instead emerge from a decision-making process involving their elected representatives. He believes that the elected representatives will be more moderate than the factions of the public and “more consonant to the public good” (46). But, realist that he is, he also realizes that there may be a process of faction formation within the government itself:

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people. (FP 10: 47)

We seem to have examples of both hazards to democracy in contemporary US politics: a substantial minority of citizens who come together with the goal of attacking legitimate public institutions (public health departments and school boards, for example) and legislators “of sinister design” who gain the votes of their districts and then act out of ideological and personal self-interest. Madison confirmed that this was a possibility in 1787, but he thought it unlikely as the electorate grew larger.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters. (FP 10: 47)

Finally, Madison believed that the plurality of states within the Federal republic would be a buffer against extremism in the legislature:

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: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: 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. (FP 10: 48)

Both of these replies suggests a confidence in something like the “wisdom of the crowd”; but both are refuted by the politics of the recent past. “Factious leaders” have gained national followings, with adherents in multiple states. And multitudes of voters and citizens have been swept up into populist fantasies leading them to support policies and candidates who advocate those fantasies. Right-wing populism, fueled by conspiracy theories and social media, seems to have swamped democratic republicanism.

Madison and Hamilton were asking the right questions: How can we design democratic political institutions that are resilient in the face of ordinary men and women, extremist factions, and unscrupulous leaders? Perhaps there are good answers to these questions that haven’t yet been explored. But unhappily, Madison and Hamilton did not themselves arrive at a convincing solution.

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