Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Madison and Factions, Part II

Tuesday, I wrote that, in Madison's terms, it's best to think of modern political parties as coalitions of factions. What makes them able to overcome Madison's cures for their mischief is that they form a united front, even when they might have different internal interests.

But one notable feature of contemporary parties is how much they really do agree. We do not live in the age of the oversized New Deal coalition, uniting northern liberals and southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. Or even the union of Taft and Eisenhower wings of the Republican Party. While the parties are still coalitions, with significant internal disagreements, for the most part the two parties are now ideologically cohesive, and the division between the parties is orders of magnitude more important than squabbles within them. (Calling them ideologically distinct is, I think, better than "polarized," but I am getting at the same idea.)

This development is the subject of my current book project, "The Coalitions Merchants." And it magnifies the difficulty in curing the mischiefs of faction through Madison's means. Not only do the parties unite to form alliances across the large republic, but they also represent two broad ideological "factions" that might be large enough to compete on their own. Moreover, those ideological "factions" don't have to capture control of Madison's republic, they merely need to control one of its two major parties.

In short, ideologically distinct parties are more effective at thwarting Madison than big tent parties are. I am probably less concerned about "polarization" than some, and Mischiefs of Faction no doubt delve deeper into its implications in the coming months. Greg and Seth already have. For now, we should observe that one of the common cures for polarized parties is exactly what Madison warns us against.

Concerned observers generally react to ideological polarization by insisting that one or both of the major parties is behaving badly. They just need to stop being so extreme. At best, proposals aim to either circumvent the party system or try to otherwise mitigate the influence of ideological voices.

These would not be Madison's solutions. They amount to saying that some perspectives should be be allowed to participate in the process, something Madison called "worse than the disease." Rather than trying to fix our party system, Madison would advocate fixing out institutions, so that they would, in his words from Federalist 51, "oblige [government] to control itself." In short, we shouldn't be trying to fix our parties to make them work within our institutions. We should be trying to fix our institutions so that they can handle our parties.

1 comment:

  1. What do you make of the notion that there are two Madisonian solutions (a la the arguments made in Kernell's book): the Fed 10 solution and the Fed 51 solution?

    Also, I wonder if the electoral system were different (i.e., one that does not promote two parties) that the problem of ideological parties doesn't change. That is to say: isn't the problem you are identifying above the problem of not just ideological parties, per se, but the problems associated with polarized, ideological parties in a rigid two party system? Wouldn't a multiparty system allow for more factional balancing on given issues (a la Fed 10)?


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