The collection of documents that came to be known as the Federalist Papers were written expressly for reasons of propaganda. All propaganda has an agenda and in the case of the Federalist Papers that agenda was to drum up support for the Constitution. These were originally letters that appeared in a publication known as The Federalist. Alexander Hamilton was the originator behind the effort to gain support; specifically his goal had been to influence representatives from New York in the very real struggle to ratify the Constitution. Eventually, Hamilton would enlist the talents of James Madison and John Jay. The historical consensus is that the Federalist faction eventually triumphed over the Anti-federalist faction primarily because of the intellectual advantage that developed as a result of these publications.
Federalist Paper 10 was written by James Madison and it specifically addresses the issue of the power and inherent danger of factional interests. The overriding argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists rested upon the fear of too much power in the hands of a centralized government. To counter these legitimate concerns, Madison’s contribution to the Federalist Papers turned out to be one of the most important. Madison’s argument rested upon the proposition that one of the finest achievements of the Constitution was that it offered a method of controlling the dangers of factions. Madison defined factions as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. These factions are created by differences of opinion and interests and Madison regarded them as inevitability. The hidden danger of the inevitability of factions is that even when no single faction becomes too powerful, the political infighting can often lead to an obstruction of the interests of the larger public and they have the potential for disenfranchising entire groups and infringing upon the rights of the less powerful.
Madison’s contention that factions are an inevitable part of a society revealed the soft underbelly of even a representative democratic state. Those who have wealth to protect will tend to gravitate toward others with the same economic interests. Factions can be created around any shared interest or goal, but the primary issue behind the rise of factions will always be power and wealth and the distribution of each. Madison contended well before Karl Marx that property owners are in constant conflict with those who do not own property. The extrapolation from this assertion is that heart of factionalism in the United States arises as a result of the divergence between the haves and the have-nots. Since property is bound to be divided unequally, and since property means different things to different people, even the interests of those who own property may differ. Madison declares in Federalist 10 that it is in the interest of the government to offer protection of the interests of property owners, while at the same time regulate the inevitable conflicts that arise between property owners and those without.
Madison argues that controlling a faction can only be accomplished by eliminating the cause of the conflict or taming its effects. To eliminate the cause of conflict would require the surrender of certain liberties and rights and Madison considered this to be a cure that would do more harm than the disease. The only other way to eliminate the causes of conflict would be to somehow ensure a system in which such things as opinions and interests were shared. Obviously, that would be impossible. The only choice left is to control the effects of the conflict that creates factions and Madison proposed the Constitution as the finest mechanism by which such control could be enacted.
Pure democracy was deemed to not be the answer as Madison and the architects of the Constitution favored a representative system based upon democratic ideals rather than an absolute democracy. Absolute democracy is a government in which every citizen directly participates in the decision making process. The flaw in this system, according to Madison, is that conflicts between factions cannot be adequately controlled because the largest faction would dominate the process. Pure democracy results in unregulated majority rule, which in turn disenfranchises viable minority opinion. A weak faction would forever be at a disadvantage, regardless of the rightness of their opinion. The answer to the inherent contradiction in a pure democracy was, according to the Federalists, in a system in which the people elected representatives.
The theoretical imperative behind Madison’s view that elected representatives of the people could better control the impulses of factionalism is one that may be difficult for the contemporary American to fathom. The theory held that those were elected into representative positions would somehow be less likely to place their own interests or ambitions above the common good. The larger the number of citizens casting votes, the less likely the chance of someone being elected who would be betray the interests of those people or indulge in corruption. This concept springs forth from the idea that that larger the populace the greater the number of capable citizens who will forego such corruption. In addition, the more people it takes to get elected, the more difficult it becomes to use illegal or unethical means to secure enough votes to win.
The question of size is very important to Madison in Federalist Paper 10. With size arrives diversity and with diversity comes the promise of increased competition among their various interests, reducing the potential for significantly large factions to form and gain power. This is certainly to be admired in the sphere of pure theory, but history has proven it simply has been the case in reality. Corruption among elected officials has been the bane of America’s democratic ideals throughout history. A pure form of direct democracy in which the people vote on every decision seems today to be a far better system to insure against the potential for corruption and elected officials all too willing to put private aims above the good of the people.
James Madison proposed a solution to dealing with the problem of factionalism that attempted to marginalize its influence by constructing a wall between the people and the government. With elected representatives making decisions for the entire electorate, the power of factions both large and small would be diluted. The foremost concern at the time was keeping the powers of the states in check; a state of affairs clearly absent from the original Articles of Confederation. Throughout American history, concerns about the power of conflict between factions and too much power getting into too few hands has remained a constant. In the world of contemporary politics Madison’s factions are better known as special interest groups. Special interests groups and lobbyists have become the modern day equivalent of those factions against which Madison wrote. The kind of factionalism being exhibited in politics today also deny the theoretical construct at the center of Madison’s writings.
Special interest groups have access to representative officials that simply do not have. These groups, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the tobacco industry lobby also have access to greater wealth than the grossly underrepresented lower classes. The very danger of a small minority of people actuated by a common impulse that is adverse to the rights of citizens that Madison specifically warned against is precisely the danger that is threatening democracy in the 21st century. The promise of a large population as a protection against base individuals being elected to power would be considered a laughable proposition by the average voter. With so much money in the hands of special interests who expect favors in return for everything from campaign contributions to free junkets to “fact-finding missions” that turn out to be nothing more than glorified vacations, the rights of the disenfranchised and the poor are more likely to be violated than every before. What does remain in place and what makes this situation too complex for the most obvious simple answer of outlawing special interest groups form having contact with elected officials is that to do so would be to go against Madison’s admonition against surrendering the rights and liberties of those factions.
That factionalism still presents a danger to democracy cannot be argued; the ways in which factions appear and behave are the only things that have changed. The danger of factionalism in the form of special interest groups that have too much influence on elected representatives is very real and may even be more egregious than the kind of factionalism that Madison specifically wrote about. The solution proposed by James Madison in Federalist Paper 10 has managed to sustain the nation even during the factional disagreements that led to the Civil War, however, so there seems to be little reason to not feel confidence that the system can defeat the worst that special interest groups may have to give.