By Benny Rosenzweig
The integrity of American government is only as strong as its institutions are democratic. More specifically, the republic of the United States of America employs systems of representative democracy, by which the voices of the people are heard through their elected officials. Modern interest groups have complicated this process since the very founding of the country. In a time of great political change, it is now more important than ever to revisit foundational challenges to American democracy, such as that of factions, and examine how they have changed over the past 250 years.
When advocating for the ratification of the Constitution in the late 1780’s, James Madison authored a number of the Federalist Papers, in which he detailed the most pressing challenges that American democracy would face in its development. Federalist No. 10 expands on the notion of factions, or groups of citizens who organize around a common interest or opinion, which might run contrary to the rights and beliefs held by their community.
Madison acknowledges that factions are an unavoidable byproduct of human existence. However, he quickly concludes that, within the context of establishing a system of governance, it is impractical to try and remove the causes of factions– which he identifies as differing opinions, passions, and interests. Instead, Madison suggests that the government should “[cure]the mischiefs of faction” by controlling their effects.Madison’s solution largely relied on the tenets of representative democracy, and we can now see that Madison’s assumptions were quickly challenged as America developed.
A theoretical representative democracy is only effective insofar as those representatives actually represent the will of the people who elected them. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
A 2014 study by politics professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page finds that, in reality, representatives are far more likely to represent the interests of exactly those “factions” that Madison warned against in Federalist No. 10. In their paper Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, Gilens and Page analyze the data they collect about whether policy-making is affected most by preferences of average citizens, preferences of economic elites, or by net alignments of organized interest groups. What the study generally finds is that the will of the people has little to no effect on legislative decision making. Rather, it is interest groups — or factions, ala Madison — and economic elites whose will is represented by elected officials.
This might not be the most surprising outcome if we already view American democracy through the lens of factions. However, in their analysis, Gilens and Page uncover the more surprising fact that the preferences of interest groups are very weakly, and sometimes negatively, correlated with the preferences of average citizens:
…the index of net interest-group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences!
There are various reasons why this disjunction between interest group alignment and average civilian preferences exists. In many cases, this boils down to the very nature of interest groups as giving a larger and more organized voice to what are usually minority, and often less moderate, opinions on any given issue.
What Gilens and Page found is not only unexpected, but runs directly contrary to Madison’s assumptions. Referring back to Federalist No. 10, Madison claims that factions are only a considerable problem when they are in the majority:
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.
What we can now see is that the data disproves Madison’s assumption that majority rule is sufficient to control minority factions. Even when the views of prominent interest groups are weakly and negatively correlated with the majority, they still have more influence on policy-making than any other demographic. This suggests that the United States needs different constraints on factions than those considered by Madison.
Federalist No. 10 dismisses the notion of addressing the causes of factions without a second thought. But our country has changed and old problems remain. Interest groups continue to corrupt not only our elected officials, but our national political conversations. Perhaps to move towards a more moral America it is time to carefully examine their causes.