Federalist #10, the Violence of Factions and Interest Groups

Power Points:

This week we look at the constitution from one angle. We focus on one of the key principles within the document -- republicanism. This is a fancy way of saying indirect democracy. We often speak of the United States as a democracy, but forget how worried the framers of the constitution were about the consequences of tying public policy closely to the preferences of the general population. Though they saw a necessity for a connection between the two to exist, they believed that the instability and passion they noticed among the people woudl be harmful for the preservation of the republic. In Federalist #10, James Madison lays out his argument favoring an indirect democracy -- a republic -- and bases his argument on an interesting assessment of human nature, and and even more interesting statement about what to do about it. We'll discover that the constitutional system is desinbed to thwart the majority at least as much as it is designed to yield to it. This is how minority rights are protected. The caveat is that the minority whose rights are being protected are the wealthy and propertied people who were concerned about what [policies a poorer middle and lower class would promote. Redistribution of wealth was not out of the question. If it was up to a majority vote, it could have happened, but only if the majority coudl act in unison.

We will also contrast the democratic nature of the Texas Constitution with the national document. Texas, as well as all other states which were established after the original 13 colonies became states, were populated with people who desired greater majoritarian control of their governments. The checks on majority power we notice at the national level do not exist at the state level.

Goals: You should be comfortable with the following after you read this material:
  • What were the Federalist Papers? Who wrote them and why?
  • What were the Anti-Federalist Papers? Who wrote them and why?
  • Be able to outline the argument in Federalist #10?
  • What is a faction?
  • What are the mischiefs of faction? - Why do factions undermine popular governments?
  • What are two reasons why the causes of faction cannot be removed?
  • What does Madison say about human nature?
  • What is a pure democracy and why can they not cure the mischiefs of faction?
  • What is a republic and how are they able to cure the mischiefs of faction?
  • Why are smaller republics more dangerous than large republics according to Madison?
  • What are the principle criticisms made about Madison's argument since he wrote it?
  • What is "demosclerosis?
  • What is an interest group?
  • What factor lead to the formation of interest groups? Are some interest more easily organized than others? Why?

The Federalist Papers
Let's begin with a word or two about the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were series of newspaper editorials, written under the pseudonym "Publius," by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. They were designed to persuade the people of New York to support the ratification of the Constitution. New York, as other states, was divided about the merit of the new document. The Constitution would be narrowly ratified. The Papers are also regarded as being perhaps the most important contribution made by American writers to political thought. In the 85 articles, many of the traditional complaints and suspicions about democratic governments were addressed. The authors hoped to explain how the design of the Constitution produced in Philadelphia solved many of these problems. Step by step the provisions in the Constitution were explained and justified. This was not done simply for altruistic reasons. The Anti-Federalists had begun writing articles blasting the Constitution. In the eyes of the Federalists, they were spreading misinformation and rumor. The Anti-Federalists, in turn argued that the Constitution would undo the benefits earned in the revolution by returning the United States to a monarchy. The Federalists would disagree. They would argue that the "well constructed union" contained in the Constitution would allow for popular rule while preventing the nation from falling prey to the "mortal diseases" previous republics had suffered from. The Federalist Papers were intended to react to those arguments. These tw loose groups are important to know because they would eventually become the Federalist Party and the Democrat-Republican Party. The former would argue in favor of expanded national power, while the latter would argue against it. Taken together, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers provide a fascinating overview of the pros and cons of the Constitution.

A word on pseudonyms and names is useful since they carried meaning.
- Publius -- after Publius Valerius Publicola.
- Brutus
- Cato
- Federalists
- Nationalists
- Anti-Federalists

Federalist #10 is often regarded as being one the most important of the papers because it concerns the Achilles' Heel of the entire endeavor, the fact that democratic governments tend to be violent, contentious, and short lived. The more violent they are, the less stable they may turn out to be. Since history had demonstarted that unstable governments are ripe for take over by tyrants who promise peace in exchange for individual liberty, this problem deserves serious attention. James Madison, the author of this paper, provides it, and argues that the very structure of the governing system, its republican organization, provides the solution for the problem.

- Background about Federalist #10 can be found here.

In this section we will come to terms with one of the major problems the founders had to confront. How can a system based on popular rule be maintained when it is based on a mass populace that is often driven by passion to do not very nice things to weak groups and individuals? This was no abstract concern. Popular governments -- democracies -- had been established before, but had eventually crumbled often due to violence that seemed to inevitably result from their creation. Democracies are notoriously unstable and prone to violence led by passionate unruly majorities especially when led by demagogues. This is made worse by the notion that individuals should be free, or at least that individual freedom is a virtue. Doesn't freedom, despite the nice things we say about it, create problems for republican government? Freedom allows us to say negative things about groups we dont like. The solution to this problem lies in how a governmental system is organized. Federalist 10 not only outlines the nature of the problem that republics and democracies had posed in the past, it provides a justification for the system established in the Constitution. The trick isn't to minimize freedom, but to make it difficult for passionate majorities to form and to carry out plans to tyrannize unpopular groups or individuals. The creation of large republics (an indirect democracy), with diverse interests, makes it difficult for permanent majorities to form.

Federalist #10.

Prior to proceeding with this section I want you to read through Federalist #10: Click here for the text of Federalist #10.

For lecture classes, we will read through the bulk of this text in class. What follows is commentary that should help focus attention on the most important parts of it. After the commentary I will attempt to apply Madison's ideas to contemporary understandings of interest group politics.

Factions Introduce Instability Into Democratic Systems.

Madison begins by stating that a "well contructed union" will be able to break apart the violence of factions. He states this is the vice that democratic government have fallen prey to. Democracies are not stable and that the source of this instability is a self interested majority:

"The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished. ... Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that 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."

The source of the problem is the existence of "factions" which he describes as: "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Note that it is not the factions that are the problem as much as the violence that they can foster.

The Causes of Factions Cannot be Removed.

Madison proposes that there are two means of preventing the mischiefs of faction. The first is to remove the causes of faction. There are two ways that this can be done, the freedom to form factions can be removed and factions can be made irrelevant by making everyone the same. The first he disposes with very simply and by doing so makes an imprtant point. Removing the liberty to form factions is worse than the disease. This is of course a tactic used by totalitarian systems regularly. Any such system will make it illegal to congregate, or form assemblies, or speak in public, or form political associations or distribute news. Political life is extinguished if freedom is removed, meaning that the very justification of the American system would be violated by doing so. This is the dilemma implicit in this exercise: Liberty allows for the development of institutions that can destroy democracy, but to destroy liberty in the name of democracy is a contradiction. Destroying liberty also destroys democracy. The trick is to retain liberty and also preserve democracy.

The second way to eradicate factions, he states, is not practical. Here Madison makes some fascinating observations about human nature, and our inevitable tendency to form into factions:

"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves."

This is a depressingly negative assessment of the human thought process. We reason falsely, but our ego is wrapped up in the products of our reasoning nevertheless. In addition, some of us are smart, some of us not so smart. This leads to the establishment of different interests in society, and these interests will lead to heated, and sometimes violent, divisions in society. Teh followign is my favorite paragraph in any of the Federalist Papers:

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. 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. 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. 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. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government."

The existence of various interests in society is inevitable, and the task of legislation is to regulate between these various interests. Ideally a sense of justice will determine how best to reconcile differences between these interests, but legislatures are not set up this way. They make decisions based on the interests of the majority. The public good, as a result, will fall prey to the self - interest of the majority.

He concludes from this analysis that the causes of factions cannot be removed, and that a solution instead must be sought by minimizing the effects of factions.

Pure Democracies Can Admit of No Cure for the Mischiefs of Faction.

Madison divides factions into two groups, the majority and the minority. The minority faction, he argues, does not pose a problem because as a minority, it can be defeated by a regular vote. Other groups can vote it down. But the majority faction does present a problem, because they can win elections and use governmental institutions as mechanisms for repressing the minority. But this can only occur, Madison argues, in a pure democracy, or what we would call a direct democracy because the design of the government allows for "impulse" and "opportunity" to coincide. It is not enough to want to do something, even if it is bad, one must have the opportunity to do it. If the opportunity presents itself in the heat of the moment, we are capable of most anything:

"If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control."

A well constructed constitution will ensure that this will not happen, but:

" ...a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. 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."

It is the speed of decision making that allows a direct democracy to create problems. Policies will be established in the heat of the moment without the reflection necessary to ensure that the policy will in fact benefit the public good, or protect the rights of the weaker party. Madison states that a republic, an indirect democracy, solves the problem of majority factions by introducing a filter (in the form of an elected legislative, executive and judicial branch) between the public and public policy.

The Two Ways Republics Can Cure the Mischiefs of Faction.

A republic, simply put, is an indirect democracy, and Madison points out two ways that republics differ from pure democracies. First, they are representative in nature. The opinions and preferences of the population will be filtered through an institution composed of a group of individuals selected by the general population. Second, as a consequence of this representative scheme, the republic can encompass a larger territory, with a larger population, and a larger number of interests. This makes it less likely that a permanent majority faction can form and tyrannize a minority.

The first point ought to be controversial, because it is quite elitist:

"The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose."

In other words, representatives may be able to better figure out what is in the people's best interest better than the people themselves. But he does admit that this may not always be the case:

" . . . the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are most favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations."

The interests of the minority are better protected in a large republic than a small one because the small number of interests in the small republics allow for the development of majority factions. The large number of interests in the large republics make this difficult because each additional issue can split a majority apart.

"The other point of difference is the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere and 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; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other."

In other words, a majority may form around ethnic distinctions, but the majority ethnic group may be internally split based on, say, occupation. They may then be further split by educational level, or whether they live in a city or suburb. The end result is a society composed of nothing but a large number of minority groups. This can have negative consequences (see below for a description). Madison says they can "clog the administration or convulse the society," so they can have a negative impact, but they cannot become tyrannical, which is Madison's principle goal.

The Smaller the Republic, The More Dangerous the Republic.

Madison concludes with a controversial, and largely forgotten, conclusion:

" . . . it clearly appears that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy in controlling the effects of faction is enjoyed by a large over a small republic-is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. . . The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it, in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire State."

States are more threatening to minorities than the nation, counties are more threatening to minorities than the states. Again, the reason has to do with the smaller number of interests in the smaller districts. Permanent majorities are more likely to develop in the smaller districts -- the counties. It is also more likely that the majorities in these small regions are better able to act on their impulses. This suggests that Madison did not share the same enthusiasm for state and local governments that some of his contemporaries had, or that some have today.

Madison's Ironic Conclusion: A Republican Solution to a Republican Problem.

The problem, as Madison sees it, is that factions can subvert the public good, but his solution is actually to have more factions. To remove factions either violates individual rights or is impossible. So the solution is to highlight the fact that not all factions are dangerous to democracy, only the majority faction. The minority faction is not. By designing a constitution that facilitates the creation of a large number of factions, it is more likely that only minority factions will exist and the majority faction will not.

What this means of course is that the large number of interests that exist in society must be absorbed within the governing system, especially in the legislature. When we complain about interest groups politics, we are actually complaining about the necessary consequence of Madison's solution to majority factions. The existence of multiple minority factions also makes it necessary for these groups to compromise among themselves in order to pass legislation. This means that compromise, which no one seems to like, is also a necessary part of the American governing process.

Criticizing Madison: Can all Factions in Society Organize Equally?

The study of factions has evolved considerably since Madison wrote Federalist #10. Rather that refer to them as factions, we use the term interest groups. The difference is subject to debate, but consider a faction to be a group of individuals that share a common intersest, and an interest groups as being the institutionalization of that shared interest. One is latent, the other is material. In other words a group of people may have a shared interest in gun ownership, but the National Rifle Association is the organization that has developed to effectively represent that interest. The same holds true for the large number of other interest that exist across the country. A criticism that some authors have made of Madison's argument is that he seems to assume that simply because an interest exists, a faction would develop around it. This is not necessarily the case. One of the more prominent critics is Mancur Olson who argued that collective action problems make it difficult for some interests to effectively organize. First, interests don't organize themselves, they need a catalyst, or a political entrepreneurthat identifies an interest and developes an effective strategy to organize supporters around that interest.

The principle problem these entrepreneurs have to face is the free rider problem, which is the tendency of people to not work for common goals of they will receive that benefit whether or not they do the work. David Hume described this as the "tragedy of the commons." The work may still get done if enough people show up, but as more people realize that they needn't work to reap the benefit, nothing gets done. It is the job of the entrepreneur to determine how to get people to work for the group. The key is determing what types of selective benefits they can offer individuals so that they will work for the group. These benefits are designed so that individuals will receive something they might otherwise not receive. There are four types:

  • material: by joining the group, one can gain job and business opportunities that migh othewise be unavalilable. These groups can include labor unions, chambers of commerce and professional organizations.
  • purposive: joining the group allows one to impact an issue that has importance -- though not a material one. These issues imapct a grander "purpose" and can include religious, environmental, poverty concerns among many others.
  • solidary: the group allows individuals to meet and socialize with others that share common concerns.
  • informational: by joining the group, one is made privy to inside information that would not normally be available to others.

Of these, material benefits are the most effective. These are pocketbook benefits -- higher wages, job, business and contract opportunities -- that allow potential groups members the opportunity to place a dollar amount on the benefits they receive by joining a group. Other benefits tend to not persuade joiners as well as material benefits. As a result, groups orgainzed around material benefits tend to be more powerful than others. Not all interests are equally effective.

The Problem of Minority Factions.

While Madison was more concerned with the tendency of pure democracies to allow for a tyranny of the majority to emerge and sacrifice the interests of the minority, he also mentioned problems with minority factions: They can "clog the administration" and "convulse the society." Both fall short of the majority's ability to dominate the governing institutions and use them as ways of turning their interests and prejudices into law, but they can pose problems for the ability of a democratic society to govern itself.

Jonathan Rauch developed the term "demosclerosis" to describe this process. He defines the term as follows: “government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt” due to interest group pressure. This is a key criticism often levied at government. It cannot solve problems because any given solution will harm some well connected interest group. These connections are probably what Madison had in mind when he wrote that minority factions can clog the administration. By taking advantage of the right to petition for a redress of grievances, interest groups (the ones that can afford it anyway) are able to establish close connections with the legislators who write laws and the executive offical who implement them. These relationships result in the establishment of subgovernments, these are also sometimes called issue networks and iron triangles. Think of these broadly as any relationship that ties together the various groups that are impacted by any policy affected by government. Education, health care, energy policy and all the rest are affected by the agencies, groups and institutions whose interests are affected by the nature of policy. If they are impacted negatively by a proposed change in existing policy, they are in a position to stop that change.

These are the three dominant players in the typical iron triangle:

  • congressional committees
  • executive agencies
  • interest groups

The classic example of an iron triagle is the Military - Industrial Complex. In a speech towards the end of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower noted, critically, the development of a tightly knit group of interests that had taken control of the military appropriations process and was seemibngly driven more for the financial gains they could reap from increased military spending rather thean the actual defense needs of the country. Similar terms have developed to describe such groups in a variety of other fields including agriculture, health, education and others. Just as the iron triangle helps describe the groups which seek to stifle change in policy, the term dissident triangle has been developed to describe groups that seek to change it. The principle difference between the two is that while the iron triangle prefers to do its work behind closed doors, the dissident triangle seeks publicity. So the media is considered to be a vital player in this group, as are any groups that wish to rally public opinion to theri side.

Is the Public Really as Irrational as Madison Thinks?

Obviously Madison's argument rests on the claim that the public is in fact prone to "vex and oppress," do violence to the minority, and be driven by passion rather than logic. Is his assessment too bleak? As a wealthy property owner, is he subject to the criticism that he wanted to limit democracy because it served his own interests?

The Rise of Direct Democracy

Despite the negative attitude towards democracy, as the nation grew and expanded westward democratic particitation grew as well. Elites were less able to dominate political and governing institutions. The general assessment of the ability of the "common man" to make rational decisions increased. Parties also saw advantages in an expanded electorate and pushed ot expand suffrage. Many of these developments occurred under the watch of Andrew Jackson, or at least were tied to him. Many states that came into existence after the original 13 allowed for greater popular participation. This included Texas. More offices were elected and many of them had short terms of office which tied them tightly to the short term preferences of the population. This system of government is refered to as Jacksonian Democracy.

A further expansion of direct democracy came at the hands of the progressive movement. Among its goals was the limitation of the power of both governing and political elites by strenghtening the direct connection between the electorate and the law. These included promotion of the following:

- Initiative Elections.
- Referenda Elections.
- Recall Elections.
- The Direct Election of Senators.
- The Primary Election.

Factions and the Texas Constitution.

Among the principle differences between the design of the Texas Constitution and its national counterpart is the greater democratic nature of the Texas design. Fewer checks exist on the preferences of the population. This is largely the result of the extention of democracy which began soon after the ratification of the Constitution and picked up speed when property rights qualifications were removed as requirement to vote. This is the era of Jacksonian Democracy, and the spirit greately influenced the manner in which many state constitutions following the original thirteen were written, Texas included.

Additional Sources:

Past Written Assignments

1 - Fully outline the argument in Federalist #10. What are the main points is Madison making? How does he take human nature into account in the design of the "well-constructed union? How in fact does a republic help break apart majority factions?
2 - Apply the argument in Federalist #10 to contemporary politics. in what manner does the republican design of the American governing system inhibit the likelyhood that a tyrannic majority can form and jeopardize the rights of minorities?
3 - In Federalist #10, Madison refers to a small number of interests in society. Obviously the Unted States has not only grown in size since the 1780s, but the number of groups that can participate in politics has expanded considerably since then. As best you can, list the range of interests that exist in the United States as a whole. Then limit this to Texas. Now, finally, limit this to your local community.
4 - Fully outline the argument in Federalist 10. Focus especially on how the deisgn of the American system is argued to break and control the volence of faction
5 - Apply the argument above to a contemporary issue. Pick a controversial topic that pits one groups liberties against another and speculate about how the American system prevents one groups from tyranizing the other -- if in fact it does. Perhaps you can find a case where the American system does not protect one group from another. If so, what happened?
6 - Fully define the term "democracy." Critically evaluate whether the United States and Texas are in fact democracies.
7 - Federalist #10, which establishes the principle of republicanism, in essence argues that indirect democracies are preferable to direct democracies. What are the problems with the former and the advantages of the latter?
8 - In Federalist #10, Madison says some pretty brutal things about human nature. What are they? How is the constitutional system set up to compensate for these deficiencies?
9 - Madison was not overly concerned about the problems the minority faction posed for governance. Why? He did argue that the minority could create problems though. What are they? Discuss the problem of demosclerosis. This is a contemporary term that describes Madison's concern.