James Madison on Majority Rule, Factionalism, and the Common Good

The greater the obstacles, the more freedom from oppression

We act as if Twitter has created a shit-show of opinions, that there was once some golden age of unity and mutual respect in argument before social media became the popular go-to place for moronic opinions and mob idiocy.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Social media has the power to amplify on a global scale what is essentially a common human impulse: to disagree, to find others who agree with our disagreement, and then form into factions of mutual animosity both great and small, disposed as James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, “to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.”

Here’s the full quote: “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.”

Factionalism defines the current state of America and, of course, social media is a representation of that factionalism. We are divided into factions by politics, religion, thought leaders, and more ominously, skin color. We are so predisposed to factionalism by by nature that even the most trivial conflicts (think condo home owners’ associations or faculty meetings) can send us into battle: “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.”

According to Madison, the cause of factionalism is the unequal distribution of property in society. By property, he doesn’t just mean property, i.e. land owners, but all goods for trade that make up a mercantile society (this is the same definition of property that John Locke had in mind in his Second Treatise on Government, the inspiration for the Founders little experiment in government by the consent of the governed).

The problem is that whether individually or in factions, people will pursue their own self-interest rather than justice or the common good. The cure for this is not enlightened statesmen who will steer various factions back on the course of the common good. You only need to look back on the presidents we’ve elected in the 21st century, all of whom have been more the catalysts for factionalism rather than the cure, to see the fallacy of the “enlightened” statesman in action. So, what is the cure?

Madison concludes that since the cause of factionalism, being the natural state of mankind, cannot be removed, perhaps the best we can hope for is to control its effects. If a faction is a minority, then the majority can control its oppressive impulses through voting; if the faction is a majority, well, things get trickier. “To secure the public good, and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our enquiries are directed.”

How to control the oppressive impulses of a majority? That’s the question.

The answer is, basically, you can’t, which is why America was not founded as a “pure” democracy consisting of majority rule: “Hence it is, that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Unfortunately, we currently have majority rule at the federal level: the House, the Senate, and the White House are all in the hands of one political party, who now seeks to “expand” the Supreme Court to bring it in line with the ideology of that single, majority party. Remove the obstacles and the utopia of the Woke will reign.

Madison saw a republic, a scheme in which various points of view have representation, as the cure for this type of theocratic impulse.

In arguing for a republic where a large number of citizens choose a limited number of representatives, he states that “you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

Herd mentality is death to a republic. As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote inin Dialectic of Enlightenment,”The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and in the scorn poured on the type of society which could make people into individuals.” Minorities of thought and opinion act as obstacles against the majority’s impulse to oppress not just individuals; these obstacles act as a check on factionalism as well.

The current impulse is to cancel, to censor any opinion that the majority doesn’t currently agree with, to remove the obstacles of diverse thought and opinions.

America the republic is becoming America the university campus, where diversity of thought and opinion is anathema to Woke ideology. The advantage of a greater variety of parties and interests “consists in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority.” Those obstacles are being canceled, censored and disappeared by a majority that, no matter how idealistic the ideology being espoused, will in the end seek to oppress and invade the rights of those citizens who don’t agree with that ideology.

This is what we see happening now in America, in politics, in academia, in the media, in Hollywood, publishing, and on social media. The “republican remedy” for factionalism, rebranded as “white supremacy” is being aggressively removed and replaced by an ideology of conformity and control in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As Madison warned, if this comes about, our democracy will be short in life and violent in its death.

Writing. Literature. Philosophy. Culture. Ph.D. University of Arizona. Author of The Kingdom of Absurdities and other novels. BTC/ETH: brucegatenby.crypto

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