Faction: The Underlying Cause of Anger and Hatred in America

Anger and hatred are recurring themes in commentaries exploring the fragmentation of American society. The growing prevalence of political faction is a principal, yet often unacknowledged cause of this fragmentation. Efforts by America’s founders to control factions in perpetuity, via both direct and spontaneous means, appear to be failing.

The founders understood the potentially disruptive power of faction within a democratic republic. They took seriously the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ pejorative characterization of faction as representing “a city within a city ... an enemy within the walls.” Accordingly, they sought to constrain the political phenomenon that Adam Smith described as “the clamorous opportunity of partial interests” to transform State power into the weapon of choice for waging neo-Hobbesian warfare.

The philosopher David Hume aptly summarized the fundamental concern: “As much as legislators and founders of states ought to be honored and respected among men, as much ought the founders of sects and factions to be detested and hated; because the influence of faction is directly contrary to that of laws. Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other. And what should render the founders of parties more odious is, the difficulty of extirpating these weeds, when once they have taken root in any state.”

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau complemented Hume: “Let us suppose now a state in which the social bond has begun to wear thin. It has, we assume, entered upon its decline; particular interests have begun to make themselves felt in it, and narrower associations to affect decisions of the wider group. The common interest, in such a state, is clouded over, and encounters opposition; votes cease to be unanimous; the general will is no longer the will of everybody.”

James Madison synthesized these antecedent remarks into a memorable essay. Writing in The Federalist No. 10, he defined “faction” as being “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.” By Madison’s lights, “the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” Madison was mindful as well of religious factions’ historically and potentially disruptive effects, but following Locke, he dismissed this concern in light of the number, diversity, and dispersion of sects within colonial America.

Alexander Hamilton’s complementary discussion in Federalist No. 9 described the pending constitution as “a powerful means, by which the excellencies of republican government may be retained, and its imperfections lessened or avoided. ... [specifically] the “utility of confederacy ... to suppress faction.” Madison explained in Federalist No. 51 that the proposed constitution enabled majorities to overrule minority factions directly, and moreover would undermine factional influence spontaneously by letting “ambition ... counteract ambition.”

Madison and Hamilton might have underestimated the ability of factions to adjust their strategies and tactics over time in order to lessen the effectiveness of these constitutional controls. Factions exist perforce because the social cost of controlling them exceeds, at some point, the expected marginal benefit from further constraining their influence. The upshot, in the argot of modern economics, is a Nash social equilibria that can, and often does, privilege factional interests over the general will.

Madison and Hamilton surely would despair over the ability of modern factions to amplify, by means of identity politics, social dissatisfaction over the “unequal distribution of property.” The founding duo also would despair over the emergence of super-factional political parties, whose secular ideologies are professed with religious certitude—theocentric and secular “religions” being closely substitutable behavioral responses to the intrinsic economic problem of resource scarcity. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, “nothing could be more ill judged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For, in politics as in religion ... [h]eresies ... can rarely be cured by persecution.”

America’s present state of social malaise manifests three consequences of factional influence: (i) adverse effects upon the bonds of national unity; (ii) destructive effects upon political ideology, and (iii) as Hume noted, “the difficulty [if not the impossibility] of extirpating these weeds, when once they have taken root.”

No certain means of reversal and extirpation are obvious at this juncture. The most likely course follows Hamilton’s belief that “the representation of the people in the legislature, by deputies of their own election [can erect a] barrier against factions.” This presumes, of course, that the people will choose, in effect, to erect political barriers against their own selfish, short-term interests. Generalized social anger and hatred are inevitable consequence if they continue choosing otherwise.

 

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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