“If men were angels,” James Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51, “no government would be necessary.”
But as conveners of the constitutional convention well appreciated, a robust government power was in fact necessary to keep together a Union that risked coming apart amid domestic insurrections and economic instability.
Our modern understanding of the purposes of government is broader than it was in 1787 — for all but the most doctrinaire, it includes fighting pandemics, stabilizing interest rates, and engaging in some degree of redistribution. But the need for government to function is no less urgent.
The drafters of the Constitution saw their task as establishing the basic machinery that would make functional government possible, and then making sure that machinery could not be hijacked by a “faction” motivated by greed or passion rather than the public interest. The Jan. 6 insurrection showed us how perilously real that threat of a mob takeover remains, but today we also face another danger: that our rival passions will render government incapable of effective action at all. On matters ranging from financial stability to disaster preparedness, American government has suffered spectacular failures in the last two decades. Of course, there is also a vicious cycle at work here: If faction has contributed to our governance failures, those failures surely also contribute to faction. When people lose faith in the capacity of liberal democracy to deliver security and prosperity, they become more susceptible to demagoguery.
Many of our government-capacity problems have technocratic-sounding solutions: Reform the civil service, reduce the reliance on contracting, upgrade IT. But agreeing on those solutions and seeing them through will be nearly impossible if the problems we wish to solve are caught in the jaws of political polarization. When wearing a face mask becomes an expression of political identity, there can be no technocratic solution, let alone an honest balancing of values. Today, faction threatens not only to commandeer our institutions, but to incapacitate them. The machine Madison built must not only be guarded but repaired, perhaps even overhauled. The shield must work with the screwdriver.
Madison believed the best way to insure against the disease of faction was to establish a large, diverse republic that filtered the voices of its citizens through the devices of checks and balances and federalism. Much has changed from the Framers’ original design: We added political parties, we tortuously groped toward universal suffrage, and we built an administrative state. But the basic logic of Madison’s institutions — that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” — remains.
Why, then, are we so sick with factionalism? What can we do to make our democracy stronger and more capable of delivering the public goods we so desperately need? The contributors to this series explore our Madisonian morass and point to ways out of it.
We encourage you to check back over the next few weeks as we release more papers in this series.