Alexander Hamilton (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC) Alexander Hamilton (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC)

The “mischiefs of faction,” besides being a very good political science blog, is the theme of James Madison’s famous Federalist paper #10. But Madison’s essay actually begins by terming it the violence of faction, and that seems like the right place to start when thinking about the deadline dealing (or lack of it) going on in Washington right now.

D.C. dysfunction has had one side benefit from the perspective of civics education: it has produced some serious discussion about the Constitution, and the strange nature of American political institutions. (By “strange,” I mean rare, even “exceptional” – in the U.S. we naturally think our constitutional structure makes perfect sense, but its combination of “separated institutions sharing powers” across both branches and levels of government is, indeed, strange on the world stage.)  Is the system bequeathed to us by the Constitution’s framers, notably James Madison, still viable? Strange bedfellows Jonathan Bernstein (most more extensively at The American Prospect) and George Will (e.g., in an interview with NPR), among others, have been firmly on the ‘yes’ side of this. But Bernstein provides useful links to a variety of naysayers. Over on Wonkbook, for instance, Dylan Matthews proclaimed that “the shutdown is the Constitution’s fault,” pointing out its propensity to gridlock and suggesting the separation of powers can lead to instability and possibly the end of democratic governance. Matthews refers frequently to the United States as a “presidential system,” and quotes Irish professor Robert Elgie as concluding, “We can say with at least some certainty that if highly divided countries adopt executive-centered presidential systems, then they are probably making a mistake.”

Now, for the record, we do not actually have an executive-centered presidential system, or even a presidential system. At least, if we do, that’s not the Constitution’s fault. Congress is Article I, and for a reason: Congress is a hugely powerful legislative institution. It can act in almost all areas of governance, overruling the president — given sufficient unity. Indeed, Congress can get rid of the president — again, given sufficient unity.

It’s the “sufficient unity” part that is, obviously, at issue. Which brings us back to Madison – and perhaps more crucially, Alexander Hamilton.  (After all, he wrote more of the Federalist than Madison and John Jay combined. It is ironic that the national debt – the creation of which marked one of Hamilton’s greatest policy achievements – should be at the forefront of the current stalemate.)

Factions worried the framers greatly. As Hamilton wrote in 1792: “the only enemy which Republicanism has to fear in this country is in the spirit of faction and anarchy. If this will not permit the ends of government to be attained under it, if it engenders disorders in the community, all regular and orderly minds will wish for a change, and the demagogues who have produced the disorder will make it for their own aggrandizement. This is the old story.”  Several years earlier, Madison had laid out the problem in Federalist #10 as one of  “unsteadiness and injustice” which “tainted our public administrations.”  (Recall that for Madison a “faction” was any group of any size that seeks its own interest and not the common good.)

As these formulations suggest, faction was linked with “unsteadiness,” even “anarchy,” at any rate with the inability of government to act with the “energy” required. It’s true that the structure of government created by the U.S. Constitution requires consensus, so as to not to undermine stability — Hamilton’s Federalist #73 defended the presidential veto power by arguing that we should “consider every institution calculated to restrain the excess of lawmaking, and to keep things in the same state in which they happen to be at any given period, as much more likely to do good than harm.” But on the other hand, he argued in Federalist #22 (in words that echo today – in both chambers, at present!) that however appealing a supermajority approval process might seem on paper as a mechanism to defend freedom, “its real operation is to…destroy the energy of government.”  It would impose “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.” And such a situation, he warned, “must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.” (Anarchy, again.) In Federalist #37, Madison agreed: “energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government.”

How to balance stability and energy? You needed the latter, to obtain the former, long-term. That required decisions to be based on broader community interests, not on factional views.

In the past, philosophers had argued that only a small, homogenous, population could govern itself democratically. Madison turned this on its head in Federalist #10. American government would work, he argued, precisely because of its divisions and size. First, a representative democracy meant that constituencies would be diverse (and that legislators would have some autonomy in maneuvering across that diversity). Each elected official would have to cater to many different and even contradictory interests.  (Hamilton, in Federalist #27, stole this idea to stress that “on account of the extent of the country from which those, to whose direction they will be committed, will be drawn, they will be less apt to be tainted by the spirit of faction.”)

The second structural protection against faction was the size of the new nation itself.  There might be extremists scattered across the country, but they would be isolated – the crazies of New Hampshire would be unlikely to encounter the crazies of South Carolina, and thus would be unable to combine their desires in ways that would gain political traction. Minority factions were to be expected, Madison argued, but that was fine: the natural course of legislative majority rule would subsume to the common good the detrimental desires of those minorities. A majority faction could therefore be a real problem. But a majority faction would not be able to form.

Yet time and technology have called both arguments into question. The fact that each member of Congress now represents around 700,000 people (up from 30,000 at the time of the founding) should be good for diluting factions — but for various reasons ranging from partisan sorting to campaign finance shifts members have become more, rather than less, predictable in their views and votes (see Ezra Klein’s summary of some of this here).

Nor is the size of the nation still its own defense against conspiracy. It was hard to foresee jet airplanes, cellphones, a national satellite-transmitted media, or online social networking in 1787. But if distant factions found it hard to connect then, today a Facebook page is the work of a moment, and an e-mail blast for cash, or to a member of Congress, the work of a few minutes more. In many ways, organizing nationally is now the same in kind as organizing at the neighborhood level.

In itself, that does not create the majority factions that worried Madison (though it could). Most lobbies remain the organizational personifications of minority factions. Their ubiquity, however, calls into doubt his dismissal of the threat such factions might pose. Such organizations are very effective at advancing their particularistic interests: re-wording there, inserting a devilish detail there – with special success at preventing action from moving ahead. In that, of course, they do take advantage of our separated system. In Jonathan Rauch’s punning metaphor, organized interests can cause “demosclerosis,” clogging the arteries of government. Madison thought minorities could not hold up majority rule, but this, and norms such as the “Hastert rule,” suggest otherwise. A government where “minorities rule,” as Robert Dahl famously proclaimed, may threaten to teeter into a tyranny of the minorities.

So we find ourselves at a rather important place. Hamiltonian energy, channeled through Madisonian institutions, can produce dissensus as consensus. In that sense Hamilton’s “old story” seems disturbingly new. Yet Hamilton’s remedy remains the right one: the very point of having an energetic government order was to be able to act in the long-term benefit of the people, exactly because of the structural ability to withstand their short-term disdain. If, as seems likely, there exists a majority in both chambers of Congress to break the current stalemate, we can still diffuse the violence of faction — and, as Madison so gracefully put it, “behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”