Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Posts Tagged ‘party strife

Pure Democracy vs. Republic: The Federalist No. 10

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SOME claim that today we urgently need a pure democracy — i.e., a system of government in which all social issues are decided by popular vote.  While pure democracy is a logical and effective system for governing small organizations, experience shows it ill-suited for managing large groups.  The framers of the US Constitution considered the alternative of pure democracy, but rejected it  Instead, based on a thorough study of history, they concluded that a republic, where representatives elected by voters make laws, was a more stable, just and democratic system.

The reasoning is best articulated in the The Federalist No. 10, by James Madison.  In this important work, Madison first identifies factionalism as the fatal flaw of pure democracies:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished. [italics added]

Madison lays out his arguments methodically.  First he notes that the seeds of factionalism are sown in human nature itself:

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. [italics added]

The last words are central his argument.  He emphasizes that it is concern for the common good that is the essence of democracy, and implies that this requires a spirit of cooperation, not competition, to achieve.  To the extent that pure democracy promotes and empowers factionalism, it is extremely undemocratic.

In a pure democracy, the larger faction will use legislation to oppress the minority:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

But a minority faction can do its own damage with obstructionism and sabotage:

If a faction consists of less than a majority … [i]t may clog the administration, it may convulse the society.

The instability and injustice characteristic of pure democracies also supplies a pretext by which true tyrants (“adversaries to liberty”) may come to power.

Madison wraps up the first half of the article summarizing the problems of pure democracy:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that 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. [italics added]

The advantage of a republic is that citizens are represented by elected legislators, who supply a buffer against the selfishness, injustice and fickleness of popular opinion:

The effect of the first difference [of a republic] 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.

The benefits of having elected legislators include that they can (1) consider the well-being of all citizens, (2) study and debate issues in depth, (3) base decisions on long-term interests that popular opinion often disregards; and (4) avoid flip-flopping as voter majorities change.

Questions

1. Do modern social and mass communication media increase or decrease the relevance of Madison’s reservations about pure democracy?

2. Much of his argument for a republic depends on the ability to elect capable and honest legislators. What steps could society take to make this more likely?

Further Reading

  • James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),” Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.
  • The Federalist Papers (Wikipedia)

George Washington’s Solemn Warning Against Party Strife and Plea for Unity

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From George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

A solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion….

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another….

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,

it is of infinite moment
that you should properly estimate
the immense value of your national union
to your collective and individual happiness;
that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it;
accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it
as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity;
watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion
that it can in any event be abandoned;
and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt
to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,
or to enfeeble the sacred ties
which now link together the various parts.

~ * ~

Written by John Uebersax

February 17, 2016 at 5:33 am