When Madisonian Democracy Breaks Down

Hans Noel is blogging Madison and parties over at the new blog. I agree with much of his approach to Madison, but I figured I should jump in and give my own version of this, which overlaps with his.

Madison, as I see it, considers majority tyranny the worst enemy of democracy.* I think he sees it primarily in practical terms: under true majority rule, the minority will revolt and, if possible, impose some other form of government, because permanent minorities will be better off if democracy is overthrown. Madison is acutely aware that the history of republics is one of failure, usually before very long. No one has ever figured out how to make a democracy last, and Madison thinks that the trick, which involves making it very difficult for majorities to act. He proposes to do that two ways. In Federalist 10 he suggests a very large polity, so that interests are diverse and therefore no natural majorities will form (that is, no single faction will be very large). And in Federalist 51, he proposes a scheme of checks and balances; by breaking up the government into many competing branches, unified control will be difficult.

As Hans says, this focus on faction, or what we would call interest groups, overlooks that which did not yet exist: political parties, which can knit together smaller interests into a majority and which can co-ordinate across branches of government. Still, I’d argue that this does not, in fact, under most conditions, violate Madison’s plans.

I count three threats to Madison:

1. Everyone begins to care deeply about the exact same issue, especially one which appears to everyone to have only two choices. This is, essentially, the story of slavery; we can think of the Civil War as the consequence of everyone believing that everything hinged on slavery and all compromise positions disappeared, leaving only two choices.

2. The party one: everyone begins to be passionately partisan. In this case, not only are the stakes very high if your side loses and election, but a loss threatens to be permanent, because if everyone is partisan then there will be few if any swing voters.

3. Ideology. Everyone becomes convinced that all issues are linked together in some fashion so that if you support X then you also support Y and Z and A and B and C.

What they all have in common, I think you can see, is that they return to Madison’s original problem: if elections are high-stakes and at least threaten to be permanent decisions, then the losers will prefer other options to democracy.

Now, we clearly in my view do not have a situation matching situation #1 or #3, at least among the general public. I’d argue that we also don’t have a situation #2 situation, although we’re closer to it than we once were.

So what to do? Hans suggests:

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.

I’m not sure where Hans is going next, so I won’t try to guess. But what I think Madison would suggest is that the institution(s) needing fixing are the parties themselves, and that you do that by finding new and different incentives for party actors.

Can that be done? I really don’t know. I guess I tend to think that the big problem is neither ideology nor partisanship, but something else that’s wrong with the Republican Party that winds up with that party (1) undermining democratic norms and (2) advocating a principled aversion to compromise.

That’s not to say that a round of institutional tinkering would necessarily be a bad thing; in particular, I do think that the current (post-1993, post-2009) de facto rules of the Senate are dysfunctional and should be reformed, and I’ve advocated other reforms in other areas. But while I certainly agree with Hans about Madison’s point concerning the virtues of allowing participation in whatever form it winds up taking, I also don’t know that we should necessarily take the current state of the parties as a given. And to the extent that governmental design can nudge everyone away from Madison’s three problematic situations, that would be a good goal.

*Two clarifications: one is that yes, I know that Madison used a slightly different vocabulary, but I think we’re better off translating into modern vocabulary; we should use “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms. And, yes, we cannot assume that the Constitution is the perfect embodiment of Madison’s ideas, or that Madison’s words written in the context of a political fight are always the best guide to what he thinks.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.