Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How the Fall of Eric Cantor Continues to Prove James Madison Wrong, or Something Like That

My friend Michael Austin has become a skilled pundit, and his observations on American politics are usually smart, historically informed, and wise. But his latest column, in which he claims somehow that the historically unprecedented defeat of a sitting House Majority Leader in a primary contest--which is what happened to Eric Cantor yesterday, when the Tea Party-influenced (though interestingly, not actually Tea Party-backed) quasi-libertarian David Brat defeated him soundly--is a demonstration of James Madison's logical argument for large republics in Federalist #10, is just strange.

Michael gets the basics of the tenth and, arguably, most famous of all the Federalist Papers correct:

Federalist #10 is Madison’s argument for a strong central government. The greatest danger to a republic, he argues, is a faction (a party or interest group) that becomes too powerful and begins using the power of the majority to oppress the minority. The only way to keep this from happening, Madison believed, was to place so many factions in competition with each other than none of them ever held power long enough to become oppressive. And the only way to do this is to create a large enough political entity to make sure that factions are always unstable.

I think Michael is leaning too much here on the idea of "unstable"; Madison (like Alexander Hamilton, his political-enemy-but-for-once-ally in the fight to get the proposed Constitution ratified) hated instability, comparing it with "injustice and confusion" in government, and blamed the existence of all such things on the partial interests of popular factions in the first place. Of course, Madison then goes on to show that, since we can't get rid of factions, free governments need to focus on "controlling its effects." This leads many readers--especially those partial to a kind of pragmatic pluralism, as Michael generally is--to see factions as one of the frustrating-but-managable realities of liberal government, and leave it at that. But that's not where Madison himself left it, I think; rather, he engages in a halfway-republican move (perhaps necessarily, given the political realities of the ratifying convention in New York State that the Federalist Papers were being written to influence), and argues that by obliging the representatives of factions (which, as he and every other person involved in the writing of the Constitution assumed, would be highly educated members of their respective communities, or as he put it, "men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters") to interact with one another in a legislative setting, you increase the likelihood that the government will act in accordance with the common good.

How was that supposed to work? First, Madison talked about how representative democracies "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." So, representative government improves the chances of a free people being able to discern the true public interest. Second, Madison urged that the republican system be extended: by "tak[ing] 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; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other." In other words, in being forced to deal legislatively with one another, the ability of any one faction to subvert the common good in the name of private interest is interrupted by the necessity of respecting differences--as Madison concluded, "communication [referring here, I think it is fairly obvious, to lining up other legislators to vote along with you] is always checked by distrust, in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary."

The ultimate point of all this mostly well understood by scholars of the Federalist Papers: Madison made the claim (whether he actually believed it or not is a somewhat different question) that homogeneity and community are not the best way to balance human freedom with civic virtue; rather, the best thing to do is throw the door open to lots of factions, which, through their necessary intercourse with one another, will both allow representative action to articulate a common good, and will prevent partial interests from being able to infringe upon on the common good by obtaining majoritarian power.

What does any of this have to do with Cantor? That's exactly my complaint; I really don't think it explains anything about Cantor--in fact, if anything, the fact that a small faction (Tea Party-influenced libertarian-constitutionalists) within another faction (the Republican Party) can, through winning a low turn-out primary election, probably put effective political end to a much needed bit of legislative action, mainly just proves how much our systems doesn't actually adhere to Madison's understanding of representative government at all.

This is the way Michael summed it up:

Like most pragmatic Republicans, Eric Cantor understood that his party could not remain nationally competitive unless it could find some way to capture some non-trivial portion of the Hispanic vote...But he also knew that Republicans had damaged themselves badly with Hispanic voters by their persistent anti-immigration stance. He embraced immigration reform carefully and pragmatically because he understood that, without it, the Republican Party could be virtually shut out of national elections for the next two generations. It was a politically astute decision, and it cost him his political career....

The tea party appears to have more power within the Republican Party than it ever has, and establishment Republicans will increasingly have to choose between their long-term political fortunes and their short-term survival. The more success the conservative movement has, the more ideological purity its true believers will demand, and the less successful the conservative movement will be. Everything, in other words, is going according to Madison’s original plan.

I really don't follow this argument at all. Michael's assertion seems to rest on the idea of that a "successful" party is one that will be "nationally competitive." The Tea Party may have great influence, but as a faction it cannot succeed if it maintains its ideological purity, because that will mean....I guess that we won't ever have a immigration-reform-opposing, Hispanic-unfriendly, Tea Party-candidate win the presidency, or otherwise be able to do (in regards to "long-term political fortunes," anyway) what representatives are sent to the legislature to do. It will fall apart, as Madison predicted.

First, I don't see any indication in Federalist #10 that Madison held any kind of comprehensive view on the life-cycle of factions. (If he did have such a view, one might argue that his trenchant comments about how we can see throughout history factions destroying democracies that he seems them as rather durable, to the point of overwhelming and destroying, parasite-like, their own political hosts.) Second and more importantly, Michael seems, in this column, to be choosing not to think much about the institutional realities of American electoral politics. We operate with an electoral system that privileges two-party dominance. The sort of regional, cultural, religious, and economic variations throughout our country which once complicated the positioning of factions within those two parties have become ideologically streamlined--particularly in the case of the Republican party. And, of course, we have a separation-of-powers system and a legislative body with a large number of veto points, controlling the possibility of genuine legislative action. And, of course, you have all the flaws of our campaign finance system. The result of all this, as everyone knows, is democratic gridlock. In the case of immigration reform, you have significant majorities of Americans who recognize that something needs to be done--and you have a small faction, a faction within a faction really, who has probably been able to effectively paralyze the U.S. Congress on this issue for the rest of Obama's term in office. Since stopping the kind of immigration reforms which were actually on the table in Congress was one of candidate Brat's oft-stated goals, that sounds to me like a faction that is "successful," don't you think? Brat doesn't have to run for president, and Boehner doesn't have to continue on as Speaker of the House, for a faction to succeed in gumming up the "communication" that Madison thought ought to happen in the legislature.

I suppose Michael is ultimately wagering on what he assumes the long-view to be: Madison said there will be factions and we have to manage them, or they will manage us, and that is what's happening, so Madison, in general, was right. Since I don't know what Madison's long-view was, I can't really say. But to the extent that Madison, as I read him, claimed that an extended republic would allow for more and better representatives to more faithfully and responsibly eliminate threats to and work towards the common good, I think he was mostly wrong about how representative democracies have come to work. Cantor's loss, if it suggests anything, I think proves more on the anti-Madison side than otherwise.

3 comments:

Michael Austin said...

"Since stopping the kind of immigration reforms which were actually on the table in Congress was one of candidate Brat's oft-stated goals, that sounds to me like a faction that is "successful," don't you think?"

In the short term, yes. But in the long term, the most likely result stopping immigration reform is that Republicans will be less likely to win local, state, and national elections because Hispanic voters in key states will be much more likely to vote for Democrats, which will lead to exactly the immigration reform that this election may have prevented in the next term.

Which is my point. What strengthens a faction in the short term ends up weakening it in the long term. Factions are destabilized by the very things that give them short term power--which is how I have always read Federalist #10, though, apparently, you read it differently.

Potato, Potahto, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I have read Madison in the past as if he were a modern libertarian. Lots of factions combined with various veto powers prevents legislatures from doing much.

Withywindle said...

Your analysis assumes that only a small faction of voters is opposed to amnestying illegals. I would suspect that only a smallish number really cares about the issue, alas, but I would say that intense support for amnesty is also limited to a fairly small faction--and perhaps a smaller one in numbers, if far better represented among the various elites.