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American political science quiz.

Q: In the majoritarian system delivered by the authors of The Federalist, what is the power that can (contrary to what previous political theory thought feasible) check the "factional" legislative majority -- the majority bent on ruin and injustice?

a. A minority outside the democratic system.
b. A reformation of morals in the majority itself, so that it will all on its own abandon its factional purpose
c. A coalition of other factional majorities, together composing a supermajority committed to a negative on whatever policy is being proposed.

Comments (24)

Technically, I think the answer is A, but it is oddly phrased.

Publius promises that his work will be "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." He would be a poor political scientist indeed if he supposes he can simply pull as fast one and give the sentinel power to a minority outside the system. Adding an aristocratic or monarchic or some other non-republican element as a check on the majority will, can hardly be presented as a republican remedy.

So on my reading (a) is not correct. To be sure, there are some details of the structure erected by the Philadelphia Constitution, as interpreted by Publius, that are not perfect embodiments of majority rule, but the structure is fairly described as a republican one. Majorities rule in the American tradition; it is a form of popular self-government. Publius is not blowing smoke when he tells us he has discovered a republican remedy.

I would have said c--related to the concept of the separation of powers. Basically, gridlock can often be good (on the principle of "first, do no harm," I suppose), and if one bunch or branch has a really stupid idea, there is some hope that with power spread among various branches of government which will not (hopefully) all have the same agenda, we will get gridlock on that particular stupid idea. That, at any rate, is the idea.

My answer would be (c) as well. Publius certainly encourages the cultivation and maintenance of (b) -- virtuous majorities -- but he is not so morbidly optimistic as to really count on them. His estimate of human rapacity is too realistic for that.

Separation of powers, as I see it, is suggestive of where the Federalist teaching is going, but it cannot be the same as (c), because it cannot really stop a energized majority without threatening to turn into that non-republican (a) which Publius swore off. Thus I would say that when folks (especially liberal ones) talk about "separation of powers," most commonly they mean a much later innovation on the American tradition -- that is, an innovation basically alien to Publius -- which we recognize today as Judicial branch imposition, and which is a form of rule by the few as against rule by the many.

I suppose when I think of the separation of powers, I'm also thinking of things like the requirement that Congress pass laws (so that the executive branch cannot rule on its own), the possibility of presidential veto, the possibility of congressional override of the presidential veto, the presidential appointment of justices to the federal courts, the need for the advice and consent of the Senate to the appointment of judges--stuff like that. In other words, the different branches are always being given chances to stop what the other branches are doing at various points along the way, which was supposed to make it hard for just one agenda to drive the bus. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.

In any event, c as you describe it clearly involves more than just the interactions of the branches of the federal government. It also involves coalition building among law-makers, for example, with the hope that this will check excesses of power. I guess for that to work, though, we need to get rid of payoffs and Chicago-style arm-twisting.

In any event, c as you describe it clearly involves more than just the interactions of the branches of the federal government.

Indeed. It is a responsibility that rests upon every citizen of the Republic without exception. Constructing supermajority coalitions to check factional majorities is at the very core of what Publius's constitutional morality, right at the heart of his understanding of as self-government.

There is, in my judgment, far too much of the "coalition of me, myself and I" mentality on the Right these days. If it continues, the succession of brutal defeats will also continue, despite the presence of potential supermajority opposition, and the tyranny will walk leisurely right up to our doorsteps.

If I had my way, for instance, I'd burn a half dozen bridges to various center-Right factions that have made their peace with policies and principles I regard as ruinous and repugnant. I suspect there are some readers here who wonder why I have yet to burn those bridges. Well, the reason is that that is not self-government as Publius sees it. The American tradition obliges me to think more broadly than that, obliges me to think in terms of operational coalitions broader than my own deeply-held principles. I cannot reasonably expect these coalitions to share my principles, even the ones I believe emphatically should be shared by everyone. But neither can I forswear the coalitions because of fastidiousness on principles -- not unless I am prepared to abandon the constitutional morality laid out in The Federalist.

I would choose (c) also, remembering that in the Jeffersonian model states' rights was a vital aspect of separation of powers.

Paul, I have no problem in principle with coalition building, as long as the (at least) social conservatives are at the front of the coalition bus instead of being sent to the back. I do not see anything profitable in a coalition with the likes of David Frum, on policy, as his idea of coalition building is abject surrender. And I do mean "abject." See his recent clueless article about the healthcare defeat. It's no surprise to me that Frum is turning out to be no fiscal conservative either. As an empirical matter, that seems to happen when one starts whining about how bad the social conservatives are. (See my unicorn post on the fiscal conservative/social liberal Republican.)

It's possible that Publius was just wrong about how well coalitions work. I don't know. I'd like to have some clever idea about why coalitions are always working lately (it seems) to the severe detriment of everything conservatives stand for and hence don't seem to be worth doing. I understand that it's a contingent matter. It ought to work better. But it doesn't seem to be.

It seems to me that the pertinent question, with respect to political coalitions, concerns the obligations to which they give rise, their nature and extent. I don't propose to deliver unto the readers of this site a disquisition on the subject, only to observe that, whatever the extent of such obligations, they must, by nature, be reciprocal. Social conservatives, having long been forced to the back of the bus, both in Republican politics and in the operationalization of the conservative movement, have no obligations towards the broader conservative movement, and the GOP, beyond joining with them to oppose some abortion-increasing measure, or some other such social policy failure, as circumstances may dictate. Likewise, foreign-policy realists and non-interventionists have no obligations towards either the GOP or the conservative movement, save as circumstances may contingently bring them together in shared opposition to a discrete and deleterious policy; assuredly, after the infamies of 2003, in which they were denounced as unpatriotic, un-American, perhaps even anti-American, and after the controversies of recent years, in which attempts have been made to tar even bland realists with the brush of antisemitism, it cannot but be otherwise. They owe nothing, save agreement where there is agreement, and cooperation where it is possible. Localists, decentralists, and distributists have no obligations towards either the conservative movement or the GOP, the latter having made itself into an engine of plutocracy and empire (not as though the other party really differs), and the former having demonized them, at every opportunity, as crypto-totalitarians desirous of stealing the jouissance of freedumb-loving Americans.

In other words, when possible and conceivable coalition partners send forth their ukases, and their bulls of excommunication, and their anathemas, or relegate one to the back of the bus, obligation is dissolved, because reciprocity has been traduced. If, to descend to the level of recent quotidian matters, my opposition to the Democrats' HCR owes to skepticism about abortion funding, and opposition to its plutocracy-enhancing effects, then this demarcates the boundaries between my reasons and the reasons of the GOP/conservative movement for opposition, and leaves us with a small area of overlap, as in a Venn diagram: we both oppose the HCR, sharing the concern about abortion (on the assumption that the GOP really is concerned about this, and isn't using it, cynically, as a cover for some other reason), and little else. And the obligation stops there. I am not obligated to endorse reasons for opposition which I find unreasonable, disreputable, unethical, or whatever; I am not required to endorse, explicitly or tacitly, bad arguments or bad political thought, merely because coalition partners occupy shared ground on account of them.

Without reciprocity, obligation is minimal.

I love it when a plan comes together. That my cherished colleagues Lydia and Maximos deserve each other so manifestly on this point about consensus-based politics, is, I have long suspected, a considerable part of the explanation for the rancor that divides them on other matters.

Maximos: I believe the question is a bit more subtle than you present it. I am certainly not saying that you are "obligated to endorse reasons for opposition which [you] find unreasonable, disreputable, unethical" etc.

The question, in the American tradition of consensus-based self-government, is "are you obligated to restrain yourself on these points of disagreement, so as not to force a confrontation that will dissolve the coalition"? The restraint could take any of a number of forms well short of tacit endorsement of the other coalition members' baleful views on X, Y, or Z. It could take the form of simply stating the disagreement and going no further; that is, restraining oneself from an attempt to actively persuade the others to your view. Or it could take the form of going ahead with calm persuasion while guarding vigorously against the kind of rhetorical excesses that tend to convert "we disagree" into "you can go pound sand, you SOB!"

In the context of this website, for instance, let's say that you and I disagree on X, where X is not the Jihad or Liberalism. In that case, I would say that I have an obligation to mute or downplay my disagreement on X in order to further the coalitional goals laid out for the site -- at least to the extent that my pressing of my view on X might threaten to dissolve the fruitful alliance of What's Wrong with the World.

Just to be clear, I don't think Madison provided a sufficient solution to the problem of national majority factions, only to local and regional factions. His solution is interpreted by critics to be that various methods of delay and obstruction will protect the rights of the minority, but those are merely tactics for inaction, not majority rule. To the extent the minority uses such tactics, they are operating outside the democratic system and utilizing aristocratic privilege or judicial elitism to protect minority interests. Which is fine to an extent, but it can be abused like any other power or privilege.

The question, in the American tradition of consensus-based self-government, is "are you obligated to restrain yourself on these points of disagreement, so as not to force a confrontation that will dissolve the coalition"?

I knew that this was your plan, so my next move is this: If I have an obligation to restrain myself, say, by refraining from critiques of GOP arguments - which I regard as advocacy of "go forth and die" health care - then so also do my prospective coalition partners have an obligation to restrain themselves. But, for a generation's time, as long as I have been politically conscious, they have not so restrained themselves. If they will not forbear or compromise, then neither shall I.

Of course, the best way to well and truly dissolve "the deliberate sense of the people" as a mechanism for "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government," would be to follow the pattern of Yancey and the Fire-eaters and turn your guns on the moderates and coalition-builders.

Step2: I think you have it reversed. The Federalist actually did provide a sufficient solution to the problem of national majority factions; it was far less successful in protecting against regional or state-based one.

The thing is, Paul, I've always believed in coalition-building in principle, but I keep seeing all the problems with it in practice. I don't know what the answer is. Here's just one new example:

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer were going to sponsor (with their new organization) a premiere of an anti-jihad movie about Geert Wilders. The movie was made by a Christian organization which, it turns out, has worked hard in the past to document and try to stop the gay pride days at Disney parks. (An endeavor I'm all in favor of, of course.) After the premiere of the movie was scheduled, some remarks against homosexual behavior by the leader of the organization came to light. I haven't read the actual text of the remarks (it seems rather hard to find), but I know the kinds of things the organization has been doing and have no problem with it. But Geller and Spencer canceled the premiere and issued a statement about opposing all bigotry and supporting everybody's freedom, blah, blah.

Now, their ostensible reason was that this association would be used to influence Dutch politics at a time when they are hoping for Wilders' election. But their statement pretty clearly went beyond that and sent the following message: "We're going to make an anti-jihad coalition with homosexuals and refuse to make a coalition with social conservatives who vocally oppose the homosexual agenda." (This, by the way, is consistent with other posts on Jihad Watch in the past.)

Whichever way they had gone, someone would have been upset. You can guess which way I think they should have gone. But the truth is that what with such incredibly volatile issues right now on the political stage, coalition building is becoming in practice nearly impossible across a broad spectrum. It does not seem to me within the realm of practical politics, for example, for Christian conservatives and people who are strongly in favor of the present homosexual political agenda to make an anti-jihad coalition. Each group is going to want the other to denounce things that the other group is not going to denounce, and so forth.

Madison assumed safety in numbers and area; he failed to anticipate Fox News and talk radio.

No one familiar with the political rhetoric of the Founding Era could possibly argue that Madison "failed to anticipate" partisanship, rancor, denunciation, and the rest of it.

The Federalist as a work is positively scornful of those who like to underestimate the depravity and division of man.

The practical problem nowadays with coalitions lies, it seems to me, not in some intrinsic evil in "partisanship" but in the fact that partisanship ends up cutting along lines that cut so deep. I'm not going to, for example, forbear to talk about pro-life issues. Those are non-negotiables.

It seems at least possible to me that one failure of anticipation in the federalist era was a failure to anticipate legislation about such incredibly vital matters on such a broad scale. Indeed, the very notion of limited federal government was an attempt to avoid that. I realize people do and did get very worked up about, say, tariffs, but it does not seem to me that there is or should be as great a problem building coalitions with someone who disagrees with you about tariffs as with someone who thinks sodomy should be recognized legally as a form of marriage and everyone forced to cooperate. For example.

It seems at least possible to me that one failure of anticipation in the federalist era was a failure to anticipate legislation about such incredibly vital matters on such a broad scale.
That, and modernity's mass-customized fragmentation and privatization of religion, culture and morality.

There is a reason that liberalism can unite modern people in a way that nothing else can. The conditions of modernity entail that religion is a private preference among arbitrary private preferences, and that the great multicult can only be unified through abstract freedom and equality enforced by a bureaucratic tyranny of 'neutral' scientistic experts: by liberalism, in other words.

Liberalism has its own problems, of course, not least of which is that it is an incoherent parasite incapable of sustaining itself over the long term. But one reason anti-liberals are substantively divided is because we've grown up in the Hive like everyone else, in our little pockets and remnants of fragments of Western Christendom, and even though we reject the Hive Mind we have nothing large and unified enough to challenged liberalism. (Well, almost nothing). Our differences matter - indeed it is in the nature of our rejection of liberalism that we believe that our differences actually matter.

That makes anti-liberal coalition-building in the current context into something of a puzzle, probably beyond anything anticipated by Madison or Jay or Hamilton.

It is difficult to build an inclusive coalition when the main philosophy is primarily about exclusion and glibertarian crankiness. Surprising, no?


In some ways it is even worse than that implies, at least for traddish reactionaries like myself.

The basic issue seems to me to be that liberalism is a religion. Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but as Mr. Kalb says:

We all have some sort of belief about what at bottom the world is really like. Since God by definition is the Most Real Being, that belief is our religion.
Liberalism is a certain understanding of how things really are. "Religion" is redefined by liberalism to be this sidecar of optional private preferences of no real consequence, and liberalism takes the traditional place of religion itself.

The problem isn't that right wing neo-paganism, materialist race-realism, evangelical neo-conservatism, Chronicles-style paleoconservatism, etc aren't religions, or religious views of politics. They are: which is to say, the folks who hold those views really do believe that their view is how political reality really is.

The problem is that they are all different and incommensurable religions. And a loose coalition of different and incommensurable religions can never stand up to something as utterly dominant and unified as liberalism.

The good news, in a dark "long defeat" sort of way, is that the world really isn't as liberalism perceives it to be, and liberalism is thus ultimately destined for the scrap heap of history. The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be any way to help that happen in a moderate, sensible, human way; so Heaven only knows what the price will be.

Is it just possible that Publius didn't envisage a world in which people disagree as radically as people now disagree about how reality really is? I know that may sound implausible, given even the history of, say, Catholic-Protestant wars of the 17th century which lay within the (historical) memory of Publius and co. They certainly knew about a world in which one side has members of the other side hung, drawn, and quartered while the other side reciprocates by burning at the stake. Still and all, it's arguable that the Holy Roman Emperor and Gustavus Adolphus had more in common than I have with, say, Richard Dawkins.

Still and all, it's arguable that the Holy Roman Emperor and Gustavus Adolphus had more in common than I have with, say, Richard Dawkins.
Yes, exactly. A very pithy way to say it.

Zippy --

The good news, in a dark "long defeat" sort of way, is that the world really isn't as liberalism perceives it to be, and liberalism is thus ultimately destined for the scrap heap of history. The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be any way to help that happen in a moderate, sensible, human way; so Heaven only knows what the price will be.

It seems to me that Publian (Publiuean?) teachings are still helpful even in such a condition of decline. It will definitely remain within the power of coalitions formed behind a negative to stop things, especially as the prestige and even authority of the managerial state continues to weaken. I hear of things on derivatives markets (where else?) suggesting that the reckoning for American liberalism may be nearer than many thought.

To me the age verily cries out for taking seriously this notion of "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." There is no reason it cannot be applied in a distributist or subsidiarist fashion.

Paul, I have nothing to say against coalitions per se. And there _was one_ and _is one_ against this recent healthcare bill. Quite a large one, in fact, composed, inter alia, of quite a lot of people who see more than just one narrow problem with what is being done. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. But even though I would definitely not have voted for Scott Brown, on the broad scale I range myself proudly with that mainstream conservative majority which opposed the bill stoutly and loudly. The coalition was there, and it was big. The people were against this bill for a variety of sound reasons. Bare-knuckled politics of the worst American sort defeated that coalition for the time being. But that doesn't mean I can't be glad for the Republican and conservative unity and energy that did, at least temporarily, emerge.

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