Faction or Fiction?

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


During the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, one thing that worried the Founding Fathers was the issue of factions in government.  They were concerned that the internal fighting that resulted from different groups within the government could render it ineffective.  It seems clear that at some level this is what we are seeing currently with Democrats and Republicans being unable to reach agreements on a great number of things.

An example of this is the congressional super committee (formally the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction), equally split between Democrats and Republicans, which has been tasked with crafting deficit-reduction legislation.

News article following the committee: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2011/10/31/super-committee-looking-stalled

The committee has until November 23 to put forward recommendations, after which the House and Senate will vote on them.  The only problem is, less than a month remains until this deadline hits, and reports suggest that the two sides still have a long way to go before any agreement is reached.  This seems even more pathetic because the whole committee was formed in the first place because the two parties were unable to agree on what to do about the debt ceiling over the summer.

Parties seem unable to bridge ideological divides

James Madison defined a faction as, “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Now, in my opinion, the last part of this definition prevents it from being perfectly applicable to our situation.  Call me naïve, but I don’t believe that either party wants to trample the rights of the other or that they have anything but the best interests of the country in mind.  However, this just shows that the same dangers can come as a result of legitimate ideological differences and not solely because, as Madison put it, parties are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

So what is to be done?  One suggestion from Madison himself is to have a large number of parties so that no single group can become too influential over the whole.  I like this idea, and even though I don’t think that our current system is broken, it would benefit from a third major party.  Our politics today is characterized too much by an “us versus them” mentality.  It is easier to trivialize people on the other side of an issue when they are all grouped under a single label.

It seems counterintuitive that in order to mitigate the effects of faction we should encourage more factions, but there are other benefits to this as well.  There does not seem to be much of a place in today’s political climate for politicians who agree only partly or not at all with either of the two major parties.  This is because parties understandably favor candidates who are more “hardcore” and adhere closely to the party’s ideals.  As a result of this, these candidates receive funding and help with campaigning that is not available to candidates who have no major party to back them.  In this way the two-party system maintains the status quo and prevents ideas that do not fit into either of their ideologies from being given the same amount of attention.

One could also argue that no drastic change is needed to the system we have right now.  Despite the current political climate, the current system has functioned for years without major alterations and we often hear of the good old days when lawmakers had the “political courage” to put personal interests aside for the good of the country.  This leads me to believe that the disagreements we are seeing now are simply a temporary shift, and not a permanent change in the workings of our system.

What do you think?  Is it appropriate to apply Madison’s definition of a faction to our parties?  Are the issues we are seeing the result of petty factions intent on spiting the other side or principled individuals doing what they think is best for the country?  Would a third party help the situation, or exacerbate it?  Does the system even need fixing?

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One Comment on “Faction or Fiction?”

  1. asgersh Says:

    I believe that it is appropriate to apply Madison’s definition to the current political system. In recent time the petty disagreements the two parties have had with each other has stopped the government from doing what is right for the people. It seems that the two sides are more interested in getting their way and beating down the other side instead of doing what is best for the people. I do not think that the current problems the country is faced with are solely due to the two parties differences, but i believe the United State’s continued economic downfall as well as congresses inability to do anything to help the situation is largely the fault of the two sides not being able to work together to do whats best for the people who elected them. I think that if there was another or even multiple parties added to the system the citizens of the United States would be able to choose candidates that would best represent them and what they believe in. The problem with today’s system is that people are often picking the lesser of two evils. People do not even have a choice that they feel will get the job done and make the choices that need to be made. If the two current political parties cannot start putting their differences aside to do what is best for the people, more political parties might be the only solution.

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