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What Madison Meant By Self-Governance

James Madison’s expectations of representation were surprisingly naive and that representation, in practice, is surprisingly unhelpful for the culture of self-government.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here.

James Madison’s lofty expectations for representation are implausible. I am not here concerned with the historical record of the U.S. Congress, but with the theory Madison articulated in its defense. Some of Madison’s arguments may have been more persuasive in the 18th century but have been overtaken by technology and globalization: Madison’s belief that a populous, geographically spacious republic would present a forbidding challenge to would-be conspirators may have made more sense before the steamboat, railroad, and telegraph; much less so in the era of the radio, airplane, and internet. By concentrating the government into a few hands, representation in an era of instantaneous global telecommunications may actually make conspiracy easier, not harder, a point to which I will return below. For the moment, let us note that other aspects of Madison’s argument betray an naive understanding of human psychology that should have been evident even in his own day, and that is at odds with the otherwise realist tone of The Federalist Papers.

Madison does not explain why he believes that a larger electorate would be harder to deceive or manipulate than a small one, but he is evidently wrong. A candidate in a large electorate must necessarily speak to large numbers of people at once; voters thus encounter the candidate as a crowd or, worse, as a television audience. In crowds, voters can succumb to mass psychology, peer pressure, emotional manipulation, and spontaneity. As Madison should have known, large numbers of people do not exhibit the wisdom of numbers, but the passions of a mob. Today, as a television audience, voters are passive, focused on images rather than ideas, and unable to respond to or engage with the candidate.

This makes campaigning in a large electorate more dependent on emotion, symbols, and monologue instead of reason, interpersonal interaction, and dialogue. A candidate seeking office in a small electorate, such as for a town council seat, runs a campaign by walking the neighborhood and having one or two hundred short, face-to-face conversations with each and every single prospective voter. A candidate seeking office in a large electorate, such as for a U.S. House seat, attends fundraisers, speaks to crowds of several hundred to several thousand people, and, most of all, broadcasts television commercials to a viewership of hundreds of thousands. The first sort of campaigning requires interpersonal interaction and the ability to engage in a two-way, back-and-forth conversation with voters. The second requires the manipulation of symbols and words in a one-way monologue by the candidate. The first kind of campaign is insured against demagoguery because it is slow, plodding, and very human; the second kind is almost tailor-made for manipulation. The candidate for the town council seat is held accountable for his words because he has to repeat them to different voters dozens of times and respond to their questions, clarify their confusions, and engage with their ideas. The candidate for the U.S. House seat perfects one pitch–or a handful, tailored to different constituencies–captures it in a recorded advertisement, and repeats it as often as he can afford. The upshot is that candidates in large constituencies face much less of the face-to-face accountability of retail electioneering.

This, in turn, calls into question Madison’s belief that representation will introduce meritocracy into self-government. He simply assumes that elections are a mechanisms for identifying the smartest and most virtuous citizens. His argument seems naive even in the 18th century context: elections do not reward intellectual merit or moral worth, but skill in campaigning. Those who have such skill gravitate to politics. In Madison’s day, it would have been rhetoricians. In ours, it is those most talented at the construction of emotionally manipulative imagery, what we might call visual rhetoricians, or YouTube sophists. It is precisely the skills required for large-scale campaigning–required for the geographically dispersed, populous districts that Madison championed–that undermine the meritocracy he hoped for.

Madison believed a large republic would encompass many different interests and factions which would keep each other in check; the very size of the republic would prevent any one of them from being able to take over.

The undermining of meritocracy is compounded by a cultural shift that Madison could not have foreseen. He assumed that there was a category of men who could be easily identified and recognized as “enlightened,” who exhibited “patriotism” and “love of justice.” But the collapse of public consensus over basic values and norms in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century means that no such category exists. Americans have no commonly-shared understanding of justice, no agreed-upon public philosophy aside from the very thinnest consensus on democratic procedure. Without a shared notion of justice, there is no shared criteria by which to judge a candidate as an enlightened lover of justice. One party’s enlightened statesman is the other party’s extremist. Even if the system was designed to reward merit–which it is not–Americans seem unable to agree on what constitutes merit.

Absent accountability, meritocracy, or enlightenment, should we expect elected representatives to exhibit moderation? Madison believed a large republic would encompass many different interests and factions which would keep each other in check; the very size of the republic would prevent any one of them from being able to take over. In our day, India, a successful democratic republic with scores of ethnicities and language groups, is probably the best example of what Madison may have had in mind: precisely because no single ethnic group constitutes a majority, all recognize the necessity of compromise to get along.

But Madison seems not to have considered another possibility: that the representatives, and the government they operated, might themselves become a faction separate and distinct from whatever factions held sway amongst the people. Recall Madison’s definition of a faction: a group of citizens “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens.” The common interest of the representatives lies in getting re-elected; the common interest of office-holders generally is in staying in power. This interest certainly might be adversed to the rights of other citizens and harmful to the republic if the representatives used their power to rig the system in their favor. This would be the very definition of a faction seizing control of the state at the expense of the public, quite the opposite of the moderation Madison hoped for.

Madison is aware of the danger to self-government from within; he acknowledges the possibility of a “cabal” or conspiracy amongst representatives, and warns that “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” Madison’s solution is largeness, which I argued above is inadequate. Another difficulty stands out: no matter the size of the republic, human nature remains consistently untrustworthy, but Madison seems oddly trusting of men who have passed the test of campaigning in a large republic. Madison earlier showed admirable wariness towards mankind by explaining the necessary connection that “subsists between [man’s] reason and his self-love,” such that “his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves”–in other words, our rationality is biased by our interests. But Madison assumes this psychology does not apply to a select group of enlightened men who will be recognized and elected by the rest of the population, and who will thus disinterestedly moderate the passions of the people. This is a surprising lapse from the same author who wrote that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” and seemed to have such a keen and realistic understanding of human nature. In fact, elected representatives can be counted on to follow their self-interest (re-election) even at the expense of the common interest–which is neither more nor less than what Madison expected of other citizens. Madison hoped for moderation, meritocracy, accountability, and enlightenment from his scheme of representation. Examined more carefully, it seems that representation incentivizes manipulation and sophistry in pursuit of perpetual incumbency. If the essence of self-government is a culture of public responsibility, representation appears to be surprisingly unhelpful.

But at this point we have to recognize the oddity of questioning the basic premises of the most successful form of government in history. If my criticism of Madison is valid, how does it account for apparent success of democracy in America for a century and a half? A political theory can hardly aspire to accomplish more than becoming the basis for a state’s claim to legitimacy that is widely accepted by a people for several generations of peace and stability, but that is what electoral representation has done in the United States since the Civil War. Is representation flawed only in theory, but not in practice?

Several historical developments have conjoined over the last century to make the weaknesses of representation gradually more apparent, eventually generating the contemporary crisis of confidence in the United States today. The voting population of the United States has grown exponentially since 1789 because of normal population growth plus the expansion of the franchise–but the number of representatives stopped growing in 1929, when Congress capped its membership at 435. The dramatic decrease in the ratio of representatives to voters–now at an all time low, and dropping–has fundamentally altered the relationship between the two, and thus between citizens and their government, rendering it less personal, more distant. The breakdown of party machines and rise of technologies of mass communication have increased the role of individual politicians during the same era in which they have grown more inaccessible. Finally, the dramatic increase in the size and scope of government, particularly since the early 20th century, has made government a more present reality in citizens’ daily lives. As a result, citizens encounter the rules, taxes, and bureaucratic coercion of the state in ever-increasing measure at the same time that they have by and large lost all personal ties to their representatives. (Note as well that during the same time period the western frontier closed and the unsettled areas filled up, shutting off what perhaps was a choice option for those seeking escape from government or a chance to live the libertarian dream.)

Some increasingly feel that their government is run by an unrepresentative, unaccountable, permanent governing faction–elites from both parties who rotate between Congress, K. Street, and Wall Street.

Sociologists have noted a general decline in trust in most social institutions in recent decades, but Americans’ distrust of government seems to have gone the furthest. My argument may explain why Americans have grown especially disillusioned with their Congress over the past generation or two. Some increasingly feel that their government is run by an unrepresentative, unaccountable, permanent governing faction–elites from both parties who rotate between Congress, K. Street, and Wall Street. It may also explain why so many Americans view with alarm the growth in the size and power of the federal government. Predisposed to put the worst interpretation on their government’s actions, some view the growth of government as the natural act of a self-interested faction in power: using their position to secure more power.

Earlier I suggested that a cabal amongst elites may be easier in the contemporary age because of technology and globalization. How might such a “conspiracy” play out? Rapid travel has enabled representatives, paradoxically, to spend more time in Washington, D.C. and thus to form a distinct subculture of political elites. Such a subculture would, over time, gradually evolve its own values, norms, and expectations tied to its own interests, separate from those of the people they are supposed to represent. Eventually, it becomes normal and accepted practice among political elites to use their positions for their own interests–re-election–rather than their constituents’. What might a cabal look like, if not incumbents on both sides of the isle allowing each other to gerrymander their districts to ensure perpetual re-election and to fill the ever-increasing government’s budget with earmarks to guarantee an ever-expanding stash of patronage with which to reward their supporters? “Conspiracy” is too strong a word–it implies a secret, premeditated, coordinated plan where there is, in actuality, simple inertia and the playing out of institutional incentives–but the effect may be the same. Such political maneuvers are perfectly legal–the representatives write the law, after all–but run directly counter to the spirit of self-government and would, one suspects, have horrified Madison.

In the next installment, I will discuss Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic insight regarding American democracy.

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