Misunderstanding Madison

Andrew Sullivan reprints a letter from NRO on Republican reservations about John McCain:

The big problem with McCain is that he repeatedly takes a high profile stand for the Democrats on important partisan issues. He does this on important policies like W's tax cuts and torture legislation, and of course campaign finance. Even on the war he has often given credibility to the left's rhetoric about Rumsfeld, torture, administration incompetence, etc., even though he's been solid on the core substance. Its not just that he occasionally votes with the Democrats, its that he's willing to become their chief spokesman when he does it. Sure he may hold conservative views on 80% of the issues, but the other 20% seems to be what he really cares about.

Sullivan rightly points out the worrisome partisanship. According to (at least some of) the Republican base, there is no attempt to analyze the rightness or wrongness of the positions in question. There's no attempt to question whether maybe, just maybe, McCain was right to offer criticisms of the Bush administration. No, the problem with McCain is that he refuses to toe the party line even when the party line is pretty clearly immoral (e.g., its torture policy), inept (e.g., anything having to do with Iraq), or simply incoherent (e.g., tax cuts combined with huge spending increases).

Where I disagree with Sullivan is in his (admittedly very quick) analysis of the underlying problem. Here's Andrew:

You see here the poisonous influence of faction, as the founders feared, inhibiting critical debates about strategy in wartime.

In my former academic life, I presented a paper about Madison and the role of factions (abstract), and I'm not really so convinced that it's factions that are the problem. Or at any rate, it's not factions per se that are the problem. I gather from Federalist 10 (and from the less famous but, I think, equally important Federalist 51) that Madison is not concerned about the mere existence of factions; those, he seems to think, are pretty much inevitable. Rather, Madison's concern is with large factions. The sorts of factions that grow until they encompass a majority of the citizens. It's the problem that Tocqueville would later dub the tyranny of the majority.

This is part of the reason that I am inclined, pace Tyler Cowen, to agree with Matt Yglesias that a parliamentary system may be an improvement over the American constitutional system. While Tyler raises a number of important worries, I think that he (and Matt) fail to consider one serious point: the American constitutional structure -- and particularly its first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all elections -- practically begs for a two-party system. But that same two-party system raises the very real possibility of the very sorts of majority tyranny that Madison hoped to avoid.

A parliamentary system, by contrast, opens up a real possibility for multiple parties. Obviously not all parliaments end up with multiple parties; the British, for example, effectively have only two parties. The Germans, on the other hand, have two major parties, with three others that, combined, control about 26% of the seats. In France, smaller parties control about 14% of the seats. And just across the northern border, smaller parties in Canada control about 25% of the seats.

There are plenty of other political-theory sorts of reasons to prefer parliaments: they are more compatible with the single transferable vote, a preference voting scheme that encourages minority parties; they are more representative since the political spectrum is better divided into four quadrants than two; and they encourage political participation since the chances of feeling enfranchised should increase.

Of course, all this really is just idle speculation anyway. The chances of rewriting the American Constitution are virtually nil and the two-party system will most likely stay with us right up until Constitutional Convention II. In the meantime, we're stuck with two big factions...and the very real threat of majority tyranny.

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