Identity Group Factions and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Last week’s article discussed the adverse effects of factions on republics over the history of Western civilization, James Madison’s emphasis on control of factions by our form of government, and the increasing roles and results of factions in America over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, driven largely by progressivism. The article closed with the thought that the ideology presently ascendant in academia would worsen rather than improve prospects for control of factions in American governance.

Heralding the election of President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton proclaimed in February 2009, “We have won the great culture war that has divided America for 40 years.” For governance, the great culture war pits the academy’s ideology—postmodern multiculturalism—against America’s founding order. Proportional representation and power-sharing by coalitions of identity groups would replace Constitutional democratic majority rule. Group preferences for certain categories of citizens and non-citizens—oppressed groups of victims—would replace equality of citizenship.

In Part I of his essay Domestic Faction in a Republic,  George Seaver notes that postmodern multicultural ideology, generated in higher education, “singles out selected racial groups, cultural groups, and women for preferences, groups that have a “common impulse of passion.” He calls such factions “poisonous.” In Part III, he points out that “differences (of ability, gender, race, sexual orientation, color, culture, etc.) are socially constructed, expressed as hierarchies, privilege, and oppression, with social justice requiring corrective action.” Social justice for identity groups is to be achieved by using the power of factions. 

Multiculturalism and American Democracy (1998), a report from the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University (eds. Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman) prepared by a Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy, explains the changed nature and beliefs of identity groups within postmodern multiculturalism relative to those of progressivism. The defining characteristic of human beings is not a Marxian need for material welfare, but for Nietzschean dignity and recognition. The concern “is no longer economics but esteem, not income but identity, and thus not Western capitalism but Western culture.” Oppression is viewed as “a relatively permanent feature of human life, stemming directly from a psychological drive for esteem and cultural hegemony, or something like Nietzsche’s will-to-power.”

Allan Bloom pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) that American social science has “done away with the very concept of majority rule in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.” “In twentieth-century social science,...the very idea of majority—now understood to be selfish interest—is done away with in order to protect the minorities. This breaks the delicate balance between majority and minority in Constitutional thought...and protection of them [minorities] emerges as the central function of government.”

One idea of postmodern multiculturalism is that identity groups should be granted proportional representation at all levels of public and private institutions. Galvanized by the 2000 presidential election outcome, Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School and President Clinton’s withdrawn nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, laid out a concept for governance in What We Must Overcome, in The American Prospect (March 2001). She argues that “our democracy racializes public policy and then disenfranchises the victims of those policies.” Her idea of fairer participatory democracy is to have federal congressional representation from each state be proportioned,  with votes cast according to racial, ethnic, gender, and similar groupings.

She foresees “a new era of issue-centered politics in which people exercise their political views through advocacy groups focused on issues of concern to them.” Note that, in this way, activist leaders of societal factions gain a legitimized way to exert power. Guinier sees that “local grassroots and issue-centered coalitions are more likely if we adopt proportional representation…Coalitions that start with narrowly focused issues and then engage multiple constituencies can create sustainable alliances…They can grow into institutions that use their aggregated power again and again.”

This is the very power of factions that our Constitution was designed to prevent. Ironically, James Madison displayed a better judgment about diversity than our present academic and college-educated elites. He pointed out in Federalist 51, that the system of government established by the Founders assumes—indeed depends on—pluralism and diversity as one of the foundations for a stable republic. Madison envisioned a society “broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens” that the rights of individuals would be in little danger and the power of factions could be controlled by government. Without that widespread diversity or multiplicity of interests or, conversely, with a much smaller number of group interests as the basis for government, the prospects for the clash of factions are substantially increased.

Dr. Seaver points out that the academy’s ideology is the first time since the failed Florentine republic that factions would actually be encouraged by government, amplifying their adverse impact. And Lee Harris observes in Civilization and its Enemies (2004), postmodern multiculturalism would return us to the “narrow sectarian, tribal, and racial particularism that has long divided and bloodied the human race.”

While our colleges and universities are accustomed to warring academic factions, they should become familiar with Western history, as NAS has recommended, including real-world effects of unrestrained factions on republics. Dr. Seaver points out that “the 2000-year history of republics tells us that unfettered faction has caused great internal mayhem and ultimately the collapse of the republican structure.” Perhaps that is the intent of some in academia in their embrace of social justice for identity groups through proportional representation. In any event, it is unrealistic to hope that current academic elites will modify their beliefs sufficiently to reverse the influence of factions needed by America.

President George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, warned that “it is indeed little else than a name, where the Government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction.” The most urgent need for Madisonian compromise facing the nation is a real path to reign in rewards to all kinds of factions from government, which the Founders counseled and looming insolvency makes even more imperative. The “Tea Party” movement began the drive to reduce government, becoming what Dr. Seaver calls “an aggressive counter-faction.” Our difficult economic times, culture of dependency on the state, growing underclass of the uneducated and unemployable, and emerging class warfare in politics will worsen the inevitable clash of factions in such an effort. And it is not clear that the Tea Party faction has the vision or will to make the specific reductions required in entitlement benefits to public recipients against the force of popular opinion.

Hopefully, our society can find the kinds of enlightened representatives envisioned by the Founders, who would collaborate to make sometimes unpopular decisions based on reason and prudence, reach the needed compromises to reduce the range and impact of factions, and serve the interests of the vast moderate majority of our people. The knowledge of Western civilization and the American Founders that NAS advocates provides guidance on the importance of such decisions and the path that can be successful.

Within academia, knowledge of and support for such a path must come primarily from the special programs established on campuses to recover the history of Western civilization and the principles of the American founding, the “oases of excellence” fostered by NAS over many years. Our Madisonian republic is still best suited to govern a more diverse future America—provided we can once again regain control of factions and factious behavior.


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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