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James Madison Was Right About Factions

Updated on January 12, 2013

If you ever get the chance to read The Federalist Papers, definitely pick it up. Particularly focus on Article #'s 9 and 10, in which James Madison mentions what he calls "factions". You'll see that Madison had an almost eerie grasp of reality and human nature.

Madison described factions as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority 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". Sound familiar? Today, there is a great deal of faction in our country and society, not just in our government, (mostly Congress) but also among interest groups and other communities as well.

Lets start with the most obvious example of modern day faction; the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. No one these days agrees on much, but I think we can all agree that the ideological divides between the two parties is the chief reason that nothing has been done, or will be done, in Congress, regardless of who is President. It used to be that the two parties could get along fairly well together. Remember Ronald Reagan and Tip O'neill? The two men were right old pals, despite their disagreements.

Today, you would be lucky to name more than 5 bipartisan friendships within Congress. What's more, all of the moderates are being driven out of Congress, either because they were voted out, or because they chose to leave. An example would be Olympia Snowe, who decided to retire, citing "an atmosphere of polarization" and "my way or the highway". Snowe is just one of many political figures, of both parties, who have either already quit, or will retire after their current term. Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad, on the Democratic side, and Joe Lieberman are all retiring as well. In short, the deal makers are leaving the scene.

What we have left is a Republican Party obsessed with ideological purity and a Democratic Party bent on righteousness. The two sides are finding it harder to work together now, at a time when the country probably needs compromise the most. The effect of this extreme partisanship is that, while Democrats and Republicans slug it out, the silent majority of Americans, such as Independents, and those drawn to third party candidates, are increasingly disenchanted by a political system they see as corrupt and inefficient.

James Madison was probably thinking a lot more about political parties when he wrote his articles, but he implied other factions as well. There was, after all, no shortage of interest groups in his day. There never has been such a shortage. Interest groups are a key part in how Washington D.C functions. Interest groups try their hardest to influence the outcomes of any legislation that goes before Congress; Some groups vouch for said legislation while others try their best to prevent its being passed.

Both parties, and every politician, are supported by interest groups. This is and always has been true. The problem now is that those interests are now so opposed to each other that they help prevent any meaningful change in Washington. When Unions and Corporations clash in the Capital, you can bet that the result will be a clash in the Capitol, between Democrats and Republicans.

Why are factions a threat to American democracy? Because, in all of the political infighting and cutthroat style maneuvering in Washington, the best interests of most Americans are being ignored. Did you know that, when President Obama originally presented his Health Care Reform bill, he was told by Karen Ignagni* that, in order to get health insurance companies to back him, he had to support the individual mandate, which Obama had opposed during the campaign? The result was that, in all of the kerfuffle over the bill, those who supported the public option were ignored.

It is a part of human nature for people to join with those who share their political views, and to form groups to protect their self-interests. In fact, in a democracy, that is probably a very good idea, because it can sometimes force opposing sides to compromise. But, as Madison feared, the factions of today have become so far removed from the mainstream that they will likely not wish for such compromise. They have become so firmly entrenched in Washington that they dominate the political games that go on there. And the American people are neglected as a result.

*Karen Ignagni is the President and Chief Executive Officer of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). She is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington and is one of the most influential people in health care. (Source, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Ignagni).



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