Factions and Western Civilization

William H. Young

James Madison opened The Federalist, Number 10, by declaring: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” He called the effects of factions “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Could our political system be nearing that point?

Western civilization offers a history of failures of republics because of factional conflict. In Part I of his essay, Domestic Faction in a Republic, George Seaver observes that the Sophists “amplified the factious nature of Athens.” “As Machiavelli would later frame it, their republican structure simply could not ‘…maintain the government against the insolence of the nobles and the license of the populace.’” “There was a better way to control faction, which gradually developed into the law and the spirit of the laws, beginning with the Roman republic,” but “the lack of constitutional structure led to instability.” That republic succeeded as long as its different interests “were prepared to resolve disputes through compromise,” notes Anthony Everitt in Cicero (2001). But oligarchy decayed into faction and corrupted the government. It was very difficult to change the system and effect reforms as they became necessary  Rome turned to despotic emperors.

In city-states during the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, governed by proportional representation of classes and guilds, the balance of power depended upon well-matched interest groups—factions—rather than constitutional structure. In Part II of his essay, Dr. Seaver emphasizes that “factions may be beneficial to a republic when properly checked, but they can become poisonous if given too much political license.” Ultimately, governance of city-states such as Florence failed because of factional conflict, often violent, and was replaced by the rule of despots as explained by Machiavelli.

Madison was aware of this history and had also read David Hume’s essay, Of Parties in General, which expressed the eighteenth-century belief in mankind’s “irrational compulsion toward factionalism.” Hume argued: “Factions are not mere interest groups. They can enlist behavior that is simultaneously selfless and unspeakably vicious towards others. People may suppress their personal interests and even cease to weigh the consequences of their actions because of a natural propensity, or universal human tendency, to fall into factions.” “Factions are deplorable because they make communitywide cooperation impossible.”

Madison reflected this outlook in Federalist 10: “By a faction, I understand 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.” Such factions can be separated into two broad categories, one based on reason and one on passion. “The former, in spite of its intentions, allows republican government to exist; the latter creates unpredictable but potentially fatal difficulties that the wise state builder must systematically temper and control since they cannot be eliminated.”

In a historic first, America was founded  as a commercial republic to provide—following Adam Smith—for private pursuit by individuals of ambition, self-interest, and prosperity through a market (reciprocal exchange) system utilizing private property and entrepreneurial capitalism. The Founders understood that unequal faculties and competitiveness are part of human nature and sought to transcend the failures of past republics by turning to multiple productive hierarchies within the private sector to satisfy human needs for dominance and esteem.

The Founders also recognized that the political power of groups or factions would become largely the basis for rewards from the state. Thus, the limited government they conceived deliberately offered few spoils or rewards to factions, the source of corruption that had bedeviled past republics and our state legislatures between the American Revolution and Constitution.

In the nineteenth century, Jacksonian democracy turned toward popular sovereignty or governance by “the people,” reflected through public opinion. Contrary to the intentions of the Founders—that government control the people and elected representatives control the government—popular opinions, passionate factions, and national political parties came to wield power over representatives and governance. The spoils and patronage system of party politics led to incompetent and venal governments at both the federal and state levels.

Progressivism began in the early-twentieth century with the goal of combating that widespread corruption—by turning even more decisions over to the people, to be administered by government.  Ironically, progressivism morphed into interest-group liberalism, generating still more interest groups and enlarging both government and its grants of benefits through the welfare state. This exacerbated the problem of containing factions and the corruption and other effects that they cause.

Unfortunately, “were Madison to return today, he probably would be most surprised—and chagrined—by the susceptibility of the American political system to paralysis at the hands of a multiplicity of factions,” notes George Will in Statecraft As Soulcraft (1983). Today’s ubiquitous media magnifies the power of factions. Rather than controlling factions, government is dominated by and intertwined with them, through lobbying influence and campaign contributions. Often, incoherent policies and legislation reflect a calculus of favored interests, to satisfy the expectations for benefits awarded to factions across the spectrum: plutocrats, crony capitalists, unions, trial lawyers, farmers, seniors, and greens through their and other lobbyists. Procedural ploys such as the Senate filibuster are too often used by parties or factions to prevent rather than advance solutions.

The efficacy of the economy is now hindered by politics and regulation, often driven by factions. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Mancur Olson shows that most factions seek to redistribute rather than create income and wealth and, over time, impose social and economic rigidities and costs which sap national vitality and impede economic growth. Factions interfere with an economy’s capacity to adapt to change and to generate new innovations. Olson warned that factions drive political life away from considerations of “widespread common interests” and spur “divisiveness” (such as on taxes and spending) that “can even make societies ungovernable.”

The Founders chose a republic in which enlightened elite representatives deliberate and collaborate to make hard decisions based on reason, balance, and prudence—to reach compromises. Madison emphasized the duty of those representatives to “refine and enlarge the public views” by applying wisdom to “best discern the true interest of their country.” Those decisions were to satisfy the common good of a moderate majority of our people, not the demands of factions.

In Democracy in America(1835), Alexis de Tocqueville observed:

On my arrival in the United States, I was struck with surprise to discover the extent to which merit was common among those who were governed and how little there was among those who governed….the race of American statesmen has shrunk singularly in a half century.

What might Tocqueville think today?

Madison also warned, in Federalist 55, that if our representatives were not capable of containing factions, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Colleges and universities should return to the lessons of Western civilization and American history, as NAS has recommended, especially the bases for the American founding order, the perils of powerful factions, and the need for better college-educated elites capable of leading and making prudent decisions in governance to serve the moderate majority rather than the appetites of factions.

Unfortunately, the ideology of postmodern multiculturalism and identity politics now routinely imparted by academia to our elites worsens rather than solves the problem of factions, which we will examine next week. 


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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