Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Madison and Factions, Part I

We've titled this blog "Mischiefs of Faction" in honor of James Madison's use of the term. It's common to talk about modern parties using Madison's language, but it doesn't translate directly. This is part one of two posts about that. Are parties "factions," and if so, is their mischief cured?

Madison's argument is as follows. We have a problem in a republic, in that a group of people who are not interested in compromising with everyone else might be able to capture control of government and rule against the interests of the whole. This would be bad. But we can't just ban such groups. They flourish because (a) we disagree and (b) people are free to organize and act on those disagreements. So what should we do?

What we should do is ratify the Constitution, Madison says. The result will be a large republic. In such a republic, it will be very difficult for a faction to organize. If you implement a republic in your 6th grade homeroom, a clique of jocks and cool kids might be able to dominate. But if you expand to the entire school, then the cool kids from different classes might not recognize each other, and they would be unable to exercise control.

We undoubtedly have a large republic. We also have parties. If Madison was right that the former would cure the latter, what went wrong?

Madison had never seen a modern political party, and it's rather likely that if he did, he would say that it was a faction. But it wasn't what he had in mind. He was thinking about groups with a common interest. Something closer to an interest group. But modern political parties are coalitions of many different interests. Indeed, they are formed in part to directly surmount the obstacle Madison put in front of them. The republic is large, and the individual interests in it are small. It is hard for them to coordinate and organize. But they do. And to do so, they use the institution of a political party. It is how the interests of Wall Street coordinate with the interests of religious conservatives. It's how the interests of the working class unite with the interests of gay rights activists.

So Madison's cure is beaten because various interests unite to become a large interest, which can coordinate across the large republic.

And they unite even without having a common cause. But very recently, the two parties have become increasingly homogenous. Next: What Madison has to tell us about ideologically pure and polarized parties.


  1. Great opening...we political scientists need to do a lot more of this type of blogging. May you be blessed with many readers!

  2. Interesting - but how does the second argument Madison makes for the constitution vis a vis factions come into play? I'm referring to the argument in 51 concerning separation of powers/institutions. It is unclear why he offers both or needs both. Perhaps the separation of institutions argument is a useful counter to parties in the case where size doesn't do it.

  3. Josh -- worthwhile point. I focused on the first argument for brevity, but in my classes I also note the Fed 51 argument. And there, too, parties' united front of many factions makes it easier to capture control of more than one branch. Divided government is in fact rare. But yes, this is a more effective counter for parties. Also effective: having more than one party. The ambition of the Democrats can be made to check the ambition of the Republicans.