Today’s political turmoil highlights the insightfulness of James Madison’s Federalist Papers Number 10, which addressed the need to “break and control the violence of faction.” Madison said that often “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
He continued, “ 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.”
But he saw inequality as one of the most important factors dividing nations. “But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”
Madison said that the answer to the threat of factions or parties was the creation of a republic, rather than a democracy. Extensive representation, rather than direct participation by all citizens should ameliorate the threat. He thought the representatives in the republic would tend to be men of good character more inclined to seek the public good.
Madison saw republican government as something like a pyramid, which each higher level of representatives made up of better qualified people than the lower levels. This has been true in some cases, and not true in others.
It seems widely thought that the system of primary elections in the US has contributed to the bitter political conflicts we face today. To some extent this bears out Madison’s argument, because primaries have a relatively small number of voters and they tend to emphasize the ideas of the few people voting, so that Democratic primaries tend to select candidates further to the left than the general electorate, and Republicans tend to select candidates more to the right than the general electorate. Thus, primaries tend to produce extremist candidates who foment political turmoil.
Another example of Madison’s legitimate concerns about the unrest created by small, democratic forms of government is school boards. Many school board meetings have degenerated into shouting matches.
In writing a constitution that embodied representative (republican) government and other checks and balances (among the three branches of government), Madison and his colleagues tried to avoid the problems with pure democracy that he enumerated, but they were not totally successful. Their system of government faced a civil war less than one hundred years after they created it, and we face deep challenges today. Perhaps, as Churchill said, it is the worst system of government, except for all the others.