Losing Our Common Understanding

“A couple of years ago, reporting from San Francisco, I noted an erosion of public meaning which seemed to getting in the way of civic progress. A key cause, I suggested at the time, was technology’s filtering effects—the way that, as we lived more of our lives in a personal bespoke, we lost touch with the common ground, and the common language, that made meaningful public work possible. Perhaps filtering effects are at play, but nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. The most dangerous intellectual spectre today seems not to be lack of information but the absence of a common information sphere in which to share it across boundaries of belief.”

–Nathan Heller, “The Failure of Facebook Democracy” in The New Yorker

Have we lost Madison’s vision of a representative democracy?

By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
George Thomas has an insightful piece exploring the perils of populist democracy that is worth reviewing, especially in light of what happened last night.

Thomas critiques the movement on both left and the right during this election towards a simplistic, “folk theory” of democracy, in which political leaders are completely beholden to populist will. And what is lost, he argues, is the educative function of representative leadership.

Obscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants. This is curious because it is so at odds with the understanding of liberal democracy that underlies our Constitution, an understanding that is increasingly under pressure. It is particularly curious that Republicans, who not only purport to revere America’s Constitution but have made a habit of insisting that it is being undermined, have embraced a populist view of democracy.

As a recourse, Thomas turns to Madison’s vision of a representative democracy. We’ve reviewed Federalist #10 before, examining the distinction that Madison makes between a direct democracy and a representative democracy (in fact, it’s one of the more popular posts on this blog).

Our political institutions were crafted to be responsive to the people over time, but also to put space between the people and their representatives. Self-government also required self-restraint. This would allow the often inchoate and disparate views of the public to be formed by way of the political process.

. . . Republican and democratic government were both forms of popular government rooted in the authority of the people, but Madison favored a republic to “pure” democracy precisely because of its educative and enlightening ambitions.

A populist democracy requires a populace deeply knowledgeable about policy and politics. This is not a realistic expectation to hold about the general populace.

Ordinary citizens are busy with private life and obligations closer to home. Self-government requires them to be generally informed and able to make judgments about their representatives, but we cannot expect them to be experts on the range of issues they are now asked to speak to during elections.

Yet increasingly, voters are asked, such as on ballot propositions in California, to make complex policy decisions. And politicians, on the other hand, increasingly bow to the “will” of a populace calling for untenable extremes. As Thomas states, “[Politics] requires compromise.”

But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be composed of the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class abdicates the educative role that Madison envisioned?

What happens is what we’ve seen from the Republican party all throughout Obama’s presidency: a complete unwillingness to compromise in order to govern more effectively. Which resulted in the “abuse” of executive power that conservatives so loathed the Obama administration for.

Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy.

. . . Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources.

Thomas concludes his essay by stating, “Educating the public mind, and preparing it for democratic self-government, is more important than ever.” I’m afraid that Trump’s presidency will be guidance precisely on how NOT to govern. The extreme contrast to Obama’s measured, dignified, and intelligent administration will be illustrative indeed.

Time to Upgrade Our System, America


Like most rational people, I really didn’t think someone so clearly unfit for public office as Donald Trump could ever be elected as US president. But as of right now, it looks he has, and the electorate has spoken. What I wrote in an earlier post during the height of election frenzy, comparing Trump to a chaos monkey, has become painfully relevant.

Progressives like me in enclaves like NYC have a misguided sense of what many Americans are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. But our system is designed such that all those people have some degree of power when it comes to exercising their right to vote. And they did.

Hence, Trump. We now must live with the consequences of that vote and come to terms with our electorate. Unless we decide that our Union no longer is fit.

So the chaos begins. Can our constitutional system of checks and balances withstand Trump’s impulsive decision-making?

Will we be able to update our constitutional system to control for the sort of faction we’re witnessing occur, the very faction that our representative democracy was designed to be a bulwark against?

Can our Union endure?



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?