Faction has ever been the bane of popular governments. The spirit of faction can never be extinguished but can only be curbed. Yet if faction cannot be banished entirely, its pernicious effects can be mitigated. Madison specifies the disease and the remedies:
By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority 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.
There are two methods for curing the mischiefs of factions: the one by removing the causes, the other byu controlling the effects.
There are again two methods for removing the causes of factions: 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 doesn’t take Madison long to dispense with these two methods for removing the causes of factions. To destroy liberty is unthinkable and to give every citizen the same opinions, passions, and interests is clearly impossible.
He moves on to controlling the effects, and he contends that the very size of a large republic will control the effects of faction. In a great republic, a large number of electors will select a small number of representatives. Out of a wide field they can pick the wisest and most virtuous among them all to rule on their behalf.
It is true that a huge pool of talent will more often yield one individual who’s singularly gifted than a much smaller one. This is why huge nations with enormous populations take so many of the medals at the Olympic Games. Out of their hundreds of millions of citizens there will be a handful who’re superbly gifted. In a country with over a billions inhabitants there will be one who can run faster than anybody else, swim faster than anybody else, or jump higher than anybody else. Yet speed and height are clear and straightforward, matters of measurement and not of judgment. It takes a measuring tape and a stopwatch to gauge an athletic but to evaluate a lawmaker or a leader is far more difficult. The same leader will be seen by some as stalwart and by others as belligerent. Some will think a man wise and forbearing while others despair of him as weak.
Madison next claims that because the representative is chosen by a greater citizens, it will be harder for the unworthy to practice the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried. He doesn’t elaborate on what these vicious arts might be and we can only speculate on what he had in mind. In his era there were two chief ways that a small constituency might be secured by an unworthy and unscrupulous candidate. In very small and usually rural constituencies called pocket boroughs, a powerful landowner exerted his influence to have his tenants vote for the candidate of his choosing. Candidates also held rowdy gatherings at local farms where he’d feed his supporters and ply them with large doses of cider and whiskey.
Strong-arming farmers and hosting barbecues will work best in small villages and Madison hoped that increasing the size of the constituency would render them extinct. These pocket boroughs and boisterous, drunken barbecues are relics of the past but the vicious arts have changed to carry on in the modern era.
Nowadays, big city mayors seem the most astute, sober, and responsible of all our public leaders. Our national leaders indulge in wild and dangerous talk, spread lies, spout nonsense, and carry on in the most deplorable manner. This is nothing new and the rulers of previous ages were just as bad. What is strange is that humble municipal leaders show so much wisdom and discretion. Why are we served with such diligent, conscientious leadership at the local level while we must suffer such lunacy at the very top?
Cities, no matter how large, don’t field armies. They have police forces but these are public services designed to deal with criminals, individual miscreants, and they aren’t fighting forces. Our modern republics boast large populations and many huge cities, but unlike the scrappy and rapacious city-states of Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, they don’t make war on each other.
These municipal leaders have nothing to do with warfare and fighting. The deal with matters of utility and expense. An unsightly interstate cuts through what used to be one vital neighborhood and there’s a plan to cover it with a huge swath of green parkland. There will be great benefits, the mangled neighborhood will be reborn, and the urban oasis at the end will be beautiful but it will also be hugely expensive and lead to traffic nightmares for decades. A huge corporation is hinting it may want to move its headquarters and sizable operations into town but it wants a staggering package of incentives and tax abatements. The mayor wants to make one lane on a busy downtown street into exclusive bike lanes but the businesses along the street point out that traffic is already heavy, and nobody is riding bicycles, and there is no need whatsoever for bike lanes. In all these matters, costs are weighed against benefits and there will be disagreement, sometimes shrill and acrimonious disagreement.
Yet in none of these cases, do the citizens fear for their lives. Money is at stake but not blood. We’re a violent species and when we’re scared or furious, our wisdom vanishes. National leaders most deal with hostile states, terrorists, reluctant and undependable allies and avowed enemies. It is our curse that when our lives are threatened we can never be calm and deliberate. We can no longer weigh and measure: world leaders are either fiends or heroes, our fate either doom or conquest.
Madison felt sure that hundreds of millions of voters spread across an entire continent will group themselves into many different parties. Such a huge electorate must give rise to a correspondingly large number of competing parties. This has not been the case. For all its gigantic size, the United States has put forward two principal parties and has done so for nearly two centuries. Much smaller nations teem with minor parties, some of them quite outlandish. A large number of voters does not always result in a large number of parties.
The principal reason for this is that the executive branch is elected apart from the legislative. In some systems, the party holding most of the seats in the legislature is thereby entitled to form the executive arm as well. But to garner support wide enough to form a government, they must often form a coalition with much smaller parties. By holding a part of the legislature a minor party may be given a minor hold over the executive. But a presidential election is either won or lost. It’s a binary state, all or nothing.
The victorious party has won the executive and it has won it for a set period. The opposition parties may thwart the sitting government but they can’t bring it to an end before its term expires. The constitution does contain a provision for impeachment but that perilous and damaging expedient isn’t a practicable means to retake the executive. The losing party must score some points against the ruling party, hone its rhetoric, prepare its case, and wait for its next chance. Huge nations may support only a tiny number of parties and small nations may swarm with a legion of parties, many dedicated to regional or particular interests.