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10B: “To Break and Control”

January 16, 2013

10B: “To Break and Control…”

The Federalist 10: The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. First published November 22, 1787. Author James Madison. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.


This post is a part two of my post on Federalist 10, widely-considered one of the most important Federalist Papers. 10A, on Monday, summarized Madison’s argument that a large republic is the best way of avoiding factional division.


Who doesn’t hate political parties? The Democrats and Republicans are hardly popular; if they were, I would be able to walk through downtown Portland without being harassed by petition-signers seeking my help enabling third party or nonpartisan candidates. Meanwhile, the number of Americans identifying as independent hit an all-time high in Gallup’s 2012 poll. A full 40% of Americans now consider themselves independents.

A record number of Americans now call themselves independents.

A record number of Americans now call themselves independents.

If you look to Publius for sympathy, I have good news: Madison (author of Federalist 10) hates parties too! Much of Federalist 10 is devoted to explaining their dangers. The other half explains how America’s new constitution will, thankfully, prevent the formation of permanent political parties.

Wait. Hold on a minute? The Constitution was supposed to have done what?

On this one, it seems, Madison could not have been more wrong. America was a divided country in his own time, after all: the Federalist Papers had their Anti-Federalist Papers. These factions weren’t labelled for the nation’s first few years, but were beginning to solidify behind the scenes.

XKCD infographic illustrating the partisan history of the US Congress (license: CC BY-NC)

XKCD infographic illustrating the partisan history of the US Congress (license: CC BY-NC)

Soon enough, Congress split into Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. Indeed, two of Publius’s three authors were to lead the rival parties!—Madison headed the Democratic-Republicans; and Hamilton the Federalists. They were succeeded by Democrats and Whigs, and from 1854 by those most-familiar names: Democrats and Republicans (see the fantastic xkcd US Congress infographic, pictured, for much more info).

For over 150 years, America has been governed by the same two parties. Clearly Madison was wrong in believing a large republic would prevent the formation of permanent factions. While the parties’ beliefs have shifted, their leadership has remained broadly continuous.

So, the power of faction ultimately proved too much for Publius’s hopes. We must then ask the next question: Was Publius right about the dangers of faction? And if he was, did the US Constitution manage to restrain those dangers?

The answer is no, and once upon a time. I realize independence from parties is a cherished American ideal: None of us, even the most partisan, likes the idea of submitting his identity to some label. But it is not parties that are the problem.

Plenty of countrie have parties that are far more ideological and far more powerful than their American counterparts. Britain is the classic example: In the British parliamentary system, the party determines whether a candidate rises or falls. Politicians live their lives inside the parties, and once they work their way into parliament they are expected to vote their party line. It’s politician as expression of the party’s will.

Madison, author of today's Federalist, who later lead one of the political factions he so despises in Federalist 10.

Madison, author of today’s Federalist, who later lead one of the political factions he so despises in Federalist 10.

Yet British democracy seems to work reasonably well; at any rate, Brits are able to make tough policy decisions when they have to, unlike us Americans. Americans have punted on deficit-fixing plans for decades. Britain’s 2010 coalition government implemented a radical plan to cut the deficit, at great cost to social services, education, and tax rates. Nor was austerity Britons’ only hard choice—her current government is an uneasy coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, a measure every bit as radical as it sounds.

The problem these days is not the party, not faction. It is us, of course, but it is also the system that Publius and his colleagues gave us.

In Federalist 10, Madison discusses how to prevent dangerous actions by an oppressive faction. But he sidesteps, in Fed 10 at least, the risks of dangerous _in_action. And it is dangerous _in_action that has come to govern modern American politics—particularly the politics of the right, though Democrats must come in for some blame too.

Hamilton, major contributor to The Federalist Papers, and leader of the Federalist party.

Hamilton, major contributor to The Federalist Papers, and leader of the Federalist party.

Doubtless, Madison foresaw that inaction carries risks. But he and his colleagues decided that an efficient, active government was more risky than a slow, inactive one. The Founders designed our government not to do very much very easily: look at the three branches of a divided government, all checking and balancing one another. It was a system designed to delay action.

This system has now broken down. It has become the tool of the very factions Madison despised. The debt ceiling debacle has dragged on for almost two years, almost certainly because a divided government means the Senate, House, and President are almost certain never to agree on anything of substance. Meanwhile, the economy and millions of ordinary Americans are constantly teetering on the brink of disaster, unsure when the nightmare will end.

It is time, in fact, to consider changing the system Madison and his colleagues gave us. Small proposals might help: Redistricting reform, for instance, to force congresspeople to fight for reelection, instead of coasting to victory inside partisan fortresses. Slightly more radical proposals would alter small constitutional bits: The Economist’s S.M. has proposed extending a Representative’s term from two to four years.

This 200-year-old cartoon demonstrates that gerrymandering—creating bizarre electoral districts to ensure partisan control—has blighted American politics for a long time.

This 200-year-old cartoon demonstrates that gerrymandering—creating bizarre electoral districts to ensure partisan control—has blighted American politics for a long time.

Personally, I’m ready to consider more radical changes. Britain and many other European countries are able to make tough policy decisions because their governments are not as divided as ours is: An elected government in Britain can simply change laws, and there’s not much the opposition can do about it. If the voters don’t like it… Well, they can always throw the bums out.

I think I’d like to try having a government that can make exciting mistakes, don’t you? A government that can cut entitlement spending, or restrict gun access, or massively expand charter schools? Sure, mistakes would happen. But right now, a few mistakes seem a hell of a lot better than American super-paralysis.


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From → The Papers

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