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What Can Federalist No. 10 Teach Us About Contemporary Politics?
Why America needs more institutional pluralism and new democratic methods for resolving deep cultural conflicts. (Part one in a new series.)
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere 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.
—Federalist No. 10, James Madison
Federalist No. 10 is perhaps the most well-known and influential of all the Federalist Papers. When people talk about “Madisonian” political thought, they often reference this document which lays out in a concise manner the realities of human nature and the hard logic of dealing with its effects by creating mechanisms to avoid the narrow-minded outcomes of partisan politics rather than trying to eliminate different viewpoints or change people.
Madison’s larger goal, of course, was to figure out a way to preserve human liberty and protect minority rights from tyranny while simultaneously instituting a national government capable of serving the common good.
In No. 10, he makes the clear-eyed observation that “factions” are inevitable given human nature and people’s “zeal for different opinions” on religion, government, and political leaders. Madison famously locates the most durable source of faction in the “various and unequal distribution of property” which produces creditors and debtors, landed and manufacturing interests, and other divisions based on trades and property ownership that inevitably generate conflicts.
Madison argues it is impractical and unwise to try to eliminate the causes of these factions, since this would mean restricting people’s individual rights and freedoms or forcing people to conform to one way of thinking about public matters. Instead, Madison says the new national government must be designed to mitigate the effects of factional divisions on the overall good of the nation. Other installments by “Publius” make the case for the separation of powers with various checks and balances to preclude majority tyranny based on factional capture of government.
In No. 10, however, Madison’s chief concern is how the formation of a republican form of government will expand and disperse the number of factions in America by first channeling them through representatives and then balancing them through institutional mechanisms to reducing the likelihood that any one faction—or combination of factions—can wreck the country for everyone else.
In Madison’s formulation:
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.
Madison was an astute guy. His basic theory of dealing with the malign impacts of factions by enlarging the overall pool and geographical distribution of competing interests, and reducing opportunities for institutional capture by any one segment of factions, remains sound. It is a key intellectual contribution to what is known as pluralism—the peaceful coexistence of people with different backgrounds, interests, beliefs, and life choices within a democratic system.
Why is pluralism relevant today? After all, we have the constitutional government that Madison, Hamilton, and Jay desired—one that has survived many direct challenges to its existence over centuries including secession and wars. And Madison’s worries about property owners having their wealth confiscated by the factional rabble turned out to be a bit overblown (see the “Mansion” section of the Wall Street Journal).
In political terms, however, we are quickly losing the Madisonian advantages of a pluralist system that protects the nation by enlarging and checking factional impulses and promoting the common good without circumscribing minority rights.
Instead of balancing interests, and forging compromises across factional lines, political competition today has virtually been extinguished across large parts of the country—and within the two parties themselves.
Consider this: there are only 11 states in the country in 2023 that are not under the unified control of one or the other party (Alaska, Nevada, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Vermont) and only 4 states that will be seriously competitive in the 2024 presidential election (Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia). Likewise, one-party rule is increasingly the norm within states as most major metropolitan areas are run almost exclusively by Democrats and rural counties by Republicans.
In the absence of real political competition, Americans and their leaders have lost the commitment to value pluralism within many important institutions—most notably, the two major parties. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans used to be commonplace in American politics, but the former is now an endangered species and the latter nearly extinct.
Do Americans genuinely accept other people’s different viewpoints? Do Democratic and Republican politicians really respect ideological, cultural, and regional differences? Or are citizens and party officials simply trying to rally like-minded ideologues and partisans to defeat the other side (and internal dissidents) at all costs and implement whatever one-sided policies and executive orders they can before getting tossed?
Politics today is mostly organized trench warfare between culturally and demographically distinct coalitions that tell themselves their own interests and values are always right, and that the other side’s interests and values are always wrong.
It’s difficult to see how this intransigence works out for the benefit of everyone over time.
Instead, we could try to reimagine Madison’s pluralism for modern times.
This will require both a civic project to help citizens better understand one another and learn to accept people’s different viewpoints, and an institutional project to increase overall political competition at all levels of government and to implement more ideological diversity within each of the two political parties.
These two projects will be explored in future posts in this series.
For now, go back and read Federalist No. 10. It’s a masterpiece of political theory and writing. James Madison had a deep understanding of human nature—and a brilliant model for political development—but he could not have envisioned what would happen to a system when the institutions and people themselves mostly give up on trying to respect differences and instead figure out ways to capture political institutions for total domination on cultural and other policy grounds.
Revitalizing Madison’s original theory of democratic pluralism for contemporary times remains a vital national project.