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.

The Federalist #10: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using Vocabulary.com to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.

The Great Bathroom Debate

Recently Newt Gingrich made some remarks about poor children learning the value of hard work through janitorial duties that has generated some commentary in the Twitterverse and on blogs.

My first thought in reaction to this, aside from a general distate for Gingrich’s firebrandism in general, was that he’s got it completely backwards: it’s in fact the rich kids who must be taught the value of hard work. These are the kids who will most likely never have to really struggle, and that have been raised with the expectation that the world caters to their needs and whims. Though poor kids may struggle with developing a strong work ethic in the menial jobs that many of them are unfortunately slated to endure (more on that below) — they hold no illusions that the world centers around them.

But after hastily posting something to this effect on my Twitter, which I botched since I was using a junky old phone, I rethought the classism inherent in both of these positions.

The fact is, as Andy Rotherham points to in his take on Newt’s statements, ALL kids need to be “systematically taught life-skills.” This doesn’t have to be a poor vs. rich kid conundrum. But the issue it does raise is whether in our frantic push to get all kids “college ready,” we are neglecting those character building experiences that help children to learn the value in hard work. We have a tendency in the United States to demean the challenge and value of technical skills and craftsmanship. Recently, I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was inspired by French President Sarkozy’s speech, in which he wisely advises not to consider “manual knowledge to be less noble than academic knowledge, less capable to create wealth and well being.” This is advice we should learn to heed here in the United States.

I personally learned the value of hard work by cleaning bathrooms. I cleaned a lot of them over the 5 years that I worked at a camp and conference center in South Lake Tahoe, and trained others in how to clean them as well. And I believe that cleaning a bathroom truly shows the nature of one’s character.

To clean a bathroom well, you have to be committed to the personal experience of a complete stranger, whom will most likely not even appreciate, let alone notice, your work. You have to struggle to pick all the hairs out of the crevices of the tile, stuck to the edges of the tub, caught in the base of the toilet. You have to get down on your knees to scrub the grime out of the shower curtain, and the soap residue caked onto the soap dish. Not to get too in depth here, but you sometimes have to witness and clean up the extremely unpleasant aftermaths of a stranger’s digestive issues. That’s a deep commitment to the service of your fellow man.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible idea to suggest that all children should learn to serve others, not merely themselves. Perhaps cleaning bathrooms is a bit too unsavory to expect them to have to perform*, but certainly engaging them in tasks that better their school or community environment, such as cleaning their classrooms, or collecting recycling, or picking up garbage in their local park, or planting gardens around their school, should be considered an essential part of their public school experience.

But let’s remove the prejudice that only certain children need to be taught the value of hard work. And in this recognition, let’s further recognize that we must stop demeaning the value of vocational education and technical skills. We all need to learn to value and appreciate those who serve us, every single day, stocking our supermarkets and convenience stores with produce and products, cleaning our bathrooms and hotels, serving our food and maintaining our cars. There is nothing wrong or undignified with being a plumber, a car mechanic, a janitor, an electrician, or a housekeeper. My grandmother came from Sweden and worked her way around the country, as a single mother, cleaning houses and serving families. In my personal work experiences, I have cleaned bathrooms, made beds, stocked shelves, and served customers in both retail and hospitality industries, and now as a teacher, I serve children and their families. And I value this work I have done and am proud of it, because working hard and serving others is the foundation of our economy.

Until we learn to stop demeaning such work, most children will naturally never learn to see the value in working hard to serve others or to take pride in working their way up through a trade or industry. Especially when it’s perceived as menial labor with no positive outcomes. And while some of our children will be “college ready,” until we teach them concrete skills and the values they will need to succeed, most children will not be “life ready.”

* One of the things Rotherham points to in his article in Time is that cleaning bathrooms is too dangerous for children to perform due to the chemicals that are used. Having cleaned many bathrooms using chemicals, I am acutely aware of this danger, and so as housekeeping manager, I researched and developed my own non-toxic cleaning solutions to protect the safety and health of myself and my employees. These solutions are cheap to make, just as effective in cleaning as the chemicals we unnecessarily invest in, and scalable for larger operations. Please visit my website, Environmentally Sound Solutions, for the specific solutions I used.