Federalist 10 and the Search for Common Ground

The caricature of Federalist 10 is that Madison aims to fracture majorities to prevent factious rule—what Tocqueville would later call “the tyranny of the majority.” That reading is wrong on several levels, including the fact that Madison never actively fractures anyone. He simply observes that the natural conditions of an extended republic make it difficult for majority factions to form or, if they do, to prevail. In his Preface to Democratic Theory, Robert Dahl spotted what he thought was a fatal flaw: “[N]o modern Madison has shown that the restraints on the effectiveness of majorities imposed by the facts of a pluralistic society operate only to curtail ‘bad’ majorities and not ‘good’ majorities….” 

No modern Madison is needed for that puzzle because the original Madison already dispensed with it. Federalist 10 identifies three barriers to factious majorities forming or, if they do, acting: (a) There are so many interests that forming an unjust majority will be difficult. If such a majority does form, (b) its views will be “refined and enlarged” by reasonably high-quality representatives or (c) its passion will dissipate before it can discover its own strength.

None of these barriers operates against Dahl’s “good” majorities because (a) successful coalitions in a diverse society must aggregate on the basis of public rather than private interest, (b) representatives have no reason to impede majorities pursuing the public good and (c) these majorities will be based on reason rather than passion and will therefore be able to endure.

When Madison reformulates the argument in Federalist 51, he concludes from the converse direction: In an extended republic, “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good….” The implication is that a majority of the whole society can form if it is just and its perspective is broad.

That is an elaborate windup to this observation: President-Elect Biden is attempting a daring feat that fell by the wayside sometime between 1800 and 2020: coalition-building. The Washington Post reports on Biden’s effort to, in the paper’s words, “tame the Senate.” But what Biden actually appears to be doing is reaching out to Republicans in search of common ground. In that regard, his restraint as Mitch McConnell shamefully deferred acknowledging Biden’s victory may prove fruitful.

That search for common ground should not override—or be used to disparage—institutional conflict between Congress and the White House. There is a strain of political puritanism that overrates common ground as an intrinsic good. But Biden’s efforts does suggest something of a revival of Madisonian activity in the following sense: Biden recognizes that no one group is entitled to get its way in an extended republic without taking the views of others into account.

Contrast that with an interview Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently gave to The Intercept, which got some attention for her statement that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer—longtime stalwarts of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing—needed to go because they were holding the left back. Ocasio-Cortez called the Republican Party “extraordinarily barbaric,” warned of “nefarious forces” and dismissed criticism of “democratic socialists” as racially inflected. 

The difference in approach is instructive on Madisonian grounds. One of the moderating features of an extended republic is that we do not all agree with each other, so we have to trim and accommodate. We are not entitled to prevail simply because we are convinced that our cause is morally unassailable. The claims that that more than 74 million Americans voted for “extraordinary barbarism,” that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is insulated from criticism for embracing a throwback, ill-defined “democratic socialism,” and that only faceless “corporatist” forces could possibly explain the failure of the left to ascend reject a fundamental obligation of citizens: engaging, persuading and accommodating our own desires to other citizens with whom we share a country.

Madison’s point is not simply that we are divided by interest. He does say unjust majorities will collapse. But he also suggests that any hope for majorities prevailing depends on a recognition that we are stuck with each other. Biden seems to embrace that. Ocasio-Cortez seems more focused on imposing her side’s vision of what is just on those who disagree.

One thought on “Federalist 10 and the Search for Common Ground

  1. Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a completely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

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