The Federalist #10 (cont): A Democracy vs. A Republic


Image: J. Crocker. Statue: Daniel Chester French (died 1931

Building on the subject of faction in federalist #10, James Madison then moves into a discussion of the differences between a pure democracy and a republic:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. . .

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. . .

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. . .

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice. . .

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,—is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.

I found this passage interesting because we have become so accustomed to referring to our nation as a democracy that we forget that democracy can assume a variety of forms, and that we have been founded as a democratic republic. Here, Madison demonstrates a distaste for direct democracy, equating it with untrammeled faction. He posits that republicanism is the best fit for the United States, in that the larger a republic is, the more organically it will encompass, as well as focus, a diversity of perspectives, and thus reduce faction. He furthermore envisions a larger republic as a natural fire wall to the spread of corruption.

This presents us with a critical insight into how republicanism was conceived as a focusing lens for a systemic balance and regulation of conflict. This concept of representation and its relation to conflict is well-worth considering, as we need to consider whether that balance continues to be upheld in our system today.

A friend of mine informed me that the US has shifted more towards a direct democracy since its founding, and that this is problematic, given that the system was originally envisioned as Madison proposed here. I don’t know enough about such things to determine this, and would appreciate any further guidance on this from my readers.

Another point to consider is whether technology has shifted the nature of how representation should function, and whether some balance can be achieved through the use of facilitated communication and structured decision-making via online platforms and channels.

I can relate to some of this discussion at a micro-level in that much of my work within public schools has been in the role of facilitating groups, and I know that to allow unstructured conversation and debate results not in democracy, but rather in the domination of the voice of a few. I have found that to enable a more democratic dialogue, conversations must (perhaps paradoxically) be well structured, planned, and guided. Equitable conversation, in other words, requires the willingness to enforce shared rules, and such enforcement must take place through the adoption of set roles and responsibilities.

But beyond such procedural strictures, of course, comparisons are difficult to make in applying those workings to that of a large republic. However, I do posit that perhaps technology can be harnessed to change the nature of representation. One of the great deficiencies of our current system, arguably, is that we often perceive our representatives, even at the local level, as far removed from the realities of the commonweal. We also often see that the given political power of a locality can be determined by unscrupulous mapping. Remove the constraints of physical location and empower more individuals via structured online communications, and perhaps the nature of representation can be shifted to encompass a greater number of people without necessarily leading to greater faction.

Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

3 thoughts on “The Federalist #10 (cont): A Democracy vs. A Republic”

  1. My understanding is that democracies tend to “decline” into populist societies where the people vote for whoever will give them the most goodies from government; whereas Republics are run by the most capable stewards who run things right, carefully husbanding and investing resources, and resisiting the pleas of both minorities and majorities!. Rome flourished in its early century as a Republic, but declined thereafter. Perhaps, any society as it grows larger and more affluent will fall prey to populist sentiments. The current problem with unfunded benefits owed to public employees shows the danger of excessive favors granted, a too generous redistribution of wealth, and deficit spending. Unrestrained populism will always fail when it runs out of money; printing more will only postpone the inevitable crash.

    Madison wrote and thought for the ages, but he didn’t see a few things coming: Billion dollar campaigns masterminded by spin-masters and mass media; the extreme complexity of 1,800 page legislation that no voter can possibly interpret; the gross corruption between Wall Street Bankers and Washington pols; an education system tilted to populism, celebrity worship, sports, and current events– with little time for history, finance, and basic economics. Clearly, a society cannot long survive when a tiny minority are in league with the elites ripping off the financial/banking system while the large majority of its people are primarily concerned with the lives of celebrities, their favorite sports team, the latest lurid murders, their next check from the government, and whether they can get food stamps, a fuel oil subsidy, housing allowance, or qualify for diability or unemployment. Very little of that was happening when James Madison wrote. He sought to minimze “the mischiefs of faction,” but our elected representatives have found a way to live off factions–by stirring up passions over hot topics to distract the electorate from the real business of government.

    The question has been raised whether America’s citizenry is wise, endowed with common sense and sound judgment, or is uninformed and subject to emotionally charged issues and selfish motives. Most young Republics, and many are mentioned in the Federalist papers, were made up of small homogeneous populations, united by the struggle to survive and build a secure homeland. Those people on average were undoubtedly wiser, less selfish, and more patriotic, than the huge populations that followed them after a century of growth and prosperity. Of such is the Rise and Fall of Nations. It is natural to be prudent, thrifty, and ever-alert when you have nothing; but it’s quite difficult to maintain such virtues amidst plenty.

    There is no doubt that a benign dictator can successfully combine the advantages of both democracies and Republics. The Italian Renaissance cities moved back and forth from Republics to autocracies regulary, and the “Princes” brought order and sound management while still allowing and encouraging the citizenry’s constructive activities. But pure democacies are “tempoarary states.” Abe Lincoln believed that you couldn’t fool all the people all the time, but our 21st century pols have found a way to fool enough of them to do us in.

    It has been said that a people get the government they deserve, and if that is the case, our people are a disgrace!

  2. Thanks, as always, for your comment, Bill.

    The issue with a benign dictator being that they aren’t all that easy to vet in the interview process! :)

    I agree that the amount of disinformation, combined with a lack of strong civic knowledge and awareness in the general populace, has resulted in a provincial sort of populism that is detrimental to sound governance.

    This is why I wonder how and in what way we can shift our model of democracy to better address the realities of our society. Along the lines of technologically savvy democracy, another friend just told me about the concept of “Liquid Democracy” . Worth exploring, I’m sure!

    Ultimately, it seems that we need to somehow update our operating system of governance. As to what flavor we should adopt–that’s the real difficult question that needs to be addressed and that we need to have transparent conversations about as a nation. I’m hoping that explorations of “The Federalist Papers” can provide some grounding for such a discussion.

    1. Yes, benign dictators are hard to find, and are few and far between. And few people deliberately go that route. But when a government spins out of control, goes bankrupt, or civil disorder precludes any ordinary functioning, history shows that only a “strong man” or the military (as in Egypt today) can restore order. And, on occasion, that strong man has been a benign despot that restored order and economic freedom, allowing a gradual democritization of the nation. Singapore, Chile, and a few of the small Middle Eastern kingdoms have followed that route and gained both order and prosperity.

      History shows that it is economic freedom, not democracy that enables a people to prosper and enjoy the fruits of their labor. The Renaissance cities and the Hanseatic League demonstrated this in the late Middle Ages when the “Prince” followed Machiavelli’s advice to never meddle with his subjects property. Hong Kong has long been a bastion of relative freedom because it respects the private property of its inhabitants. What’s more important: the right to work and enjoy the fruit of your labor, or the right to vote? What good is voting when the choice of candidates is limited and all candidates are simultaneously puppets for the richest — 1% while bankrupting the nation by pandering to the masses?

      I will check out your reference to “liquid democracy.” In the meantime, I am not confident that the internet age will change “the amount of disinformation, combined with a lack of strong civic knowledge and awareness in the general populace.” The elites in control of America’s media and finances have mastered the technique of confusing the public with disinformation and diverting their attention with phony crises, scandals, and hot-button topics that sway single-issue voters to extreme partisanship. Congressmen vehemently attack each other about how best to “save the middle class,” or “punish the 1%.” Yet in private, they make deals over pork for their district and congratuate each other on holding onto their seats!

      Unfortunately, the reality of American society is best revealed by the fact that half the population pay no taxes, and instead, draw benefits from the government. Like trained dogs, they respond to a handout, a treat, and have lost the motivation to maintain any semblance of independent self-reliance. Change can only come from a population that is educated, thrifty, industrious, and moral. Sadly, our population shows less and less of those qualities every decade!

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