James Madison was angry. Two months into the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his efforts to marginalize state legislatures in favor of a strong, national government were melting into the sweltering summer heat. During the convention’s opening weeks, he’d prevailed in several topical debates. He’d convinced his fellow delegates that both houses of the new Congress should be apportioned by population—a victory that those representing small states would later walk back. He’d prevailed in arguing that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a free person. He’d even persuaded the delegates that the national legislature should have the right to “negative” (meaning veto) unconstitutional state laws.
But as June had turned to July, several smaller states, including Delaware and New Jersey, had grown concerned that proportional representation would empower slave-preponderant Virginia to dominate the new national government. When Alexander Hamilton suggested that the new government’s chief executive serve in perpetuity, the delegates began to focus more on how to rein in the new national government. What, they asked, would prevent a demagogue from wielding too much influence?
Stewing at his desk, Madison took careful notes when Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker representing Pennsylvania at the convention, stood up to argue that the new nation’s wide expanse would prevent the executive branch from becoming “the tool of a faction, of some leading demagogue in the legislature.” Boston College Law School’s Mary Sarah Bilder argued recently that Morris’ remarks helped to shape what would become one of Madison’s most famous essays, Federalist 10.
“Extend the sphere,” Madison wrote months later when the individual states were considering whether to ratify the Constitution, “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.”
Nearly 230 years later, Americans still frequently assume that a divided government will be a more effective and responsible one. But in other parts of the world, the preponderance of factions tends to argue against democracy. When Americans hector government officials in Beijing to embrace democratic norms, the Chinese frequently respond that China isn’t properly equipped to devolve power to ordinary people. It’s too big and fractious. Sun Yat-sen once famously suggested that the Chinese were just a “heap of loose sand.” Absent the sort of unity prevalent in most Western countries, members of the Communist Party worry that democracy in China would lead to chaos.
What made colonial America different? In Madison’s own words: “the spirit of locality.” In 1807, Samuel Benninger, an Congregationalist minister visiting from England noted that, in contrast to Europeans, Americans tended to sort the world by “village and congregation.” In other words, rather than sorting themselves by class or nobility or profession, they identified themselves by geography—and each town or neighborhood had a whole mix of people from different background and with divergent points of view.
The result was that American factions weren’t isolated from one another so much as they were in perpetual contact. Every congregation had wealthy merchants and landed gentry and working stiffs alike—and none could avoid conversing with the others. Sure, certain corners of the country might work up some zeal for an agenda that might tyrannize a competing faction, but the workaday interactions of ordinary Americans would give everyone a greater appreciation for the common good. In essence, strong community would prevent rampant demagoguery.
Fast forward to today. For the first time since the Revolution, American communities aren’t organized along “village and congregation.” On the one hand, social media has made it possible for Americans to connect directly with people much further afield. On the other, those networks and other new technologies have made it much easier to keep in close contact with our most intimate ties. Lost in the middle are the informal, local relationships that propelled Madison to believe factions would temper democracy’s excesses.
Americans are more likely now to spend evenings with family members or friends who live far away but less likely to share a meal with a neighbor, according to the General Social Survey. That shift has opened the door to a different brand of politics. When you don’t know anyone who takes a different point of view, it’s much easier to caricature and dismiss those who see things differently. Compromise and collaboration become a kind of apostasy, rather than a virtue.
Near the end of Federalist 10, Madison wrote: “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.” That might have been true in 1787. It might still have been true in 1997.
Is it still true today?