Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

James Madison famously defines “faction” in The Federalist No. 10 as “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.”

James R. Rogers The American founders identified “party” with “faction.” But that doesn’t hold up, and not simply because the founders themselves started early forms of political parties. In Madison’s definition, factions are not simply groups of people who seek to advance a common goal. The critical element in the definition is that the group pursues a goal or interest that is adverse to the rights of another group or is adverse to the general welfare.

To be sure, partisans of modern political parties may act in factious ways. They do too often. But mere disagreement about policy does not mean that one (or both) parties behave factiously. Good-faith political disagreement can exist.

Take the goal of minimizing poverty. One could say that Republicans tend to favor the interests of affluent people at the expense of poor folk, and Democrats tend to favor the interests of poor people at the expense of affluent folk. Indeed, favoring the interests of the middle class”which both parties now focus on obsessively”is entirely consistent with factious politics, if those policies come at the expense of other groups or at the expense of the general welfare.

But both parties’ positions can be understood non-factiously as well. We could stipulate that members of both parties seek to reduce poverty. They disagree not over the goal in view but rather over the best means to attain that goal. Republicans tend to want to use markets and employment to reduce poverty; Democrats tend to want to use redistribution to reduce poverty.

Each position has its own strengths and its own weaknesses. Markets and employment focus poverty reduction on the able-bodied who are capable of employment. This will increase the overall size of the economic pie, but it does not guarantee that needed resources go to those who are unable to work, in particular to the disabled, the old, and the young. On the other hand, redistributive policies can create disincentives for work, which require costly bureaucratic monitoring systems to deter. Purely redistributive policies also do not increase the size of the resource pie.

Libertarians such as Richard Epstein argue that redistributive policies are inherently factious. But that’s not correct. Aside from the fact that all tax-supported government policies are redistributive in some sense”even Epstein’s minimalist state”properly constructed welfare policies are forms of social insurance open to everyone in society and therefore not adverse to the rights of the affluent (who could be poor next year) nor to the overall common good.

So political parties are not necessarily factious. Nonetheless, even if founded to pursue non-factious purposes, it is all too easy for party member to be caught up in a “party spirit””and I don’t mean something that happens on Friday night. Articulating the Augustinian anthropology (even if a moderate one) of The Federalist , Madison writes in The Federalist No. 10:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity . . . A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders, ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions, whose fortunate have been interesting to human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.

For Madison, religion, morality, and “enlightened statesmen” cannot remedy faction and its consequences. He then famously develops the argument that republicanism (which he idiosyncratically defines as representative democracy) can mitigate factious outcomes as a result of the influence of representation on policy outcomes. The institution of representation itself cools the impulse toward faction, and representation allows for a larger, national jurisdiction that in turn reduces the effects of faction. Majority coalitions composed of minority factions are less stable than a single majority faction. After all, members of a losing faction could cut a “side deal” with one of the minority members of the majority coalition, thus overturning the majority coalition and creating a new one. As a result, factious outcomes are less likely to result as the size of the jurisdiction increases.

Yet the spirit of faction infects Washington at least as much, if not more so, than it does state government. If anything, the high stakes of national-level politics seem to inspire more factiousness than state-level political disputes. After 200-plus years of experience, it is unclear that Madison’s”and the Constitution’s”institutional remedy for faction reduces the phenomenon at the national level any better than morality, religion, or enlightened statesmen.

The upshot is that none of the tools available to mitigate faction should be rejected, whether institutional or democratic. But “religion” can mitigate faction only to the extent that religious people accept the need to reject factious legislation. As an illustration, it is possible that both politically conservative and political liberal Christians could come together to oppose policies that deter the importation of cheaper foodstuffs from other countries. This would at one swoop lower food prices for impoverished Americans (and for everyone else as well) while promoting higher agricultural incomes abroad (and eliminating “dead-weight” loss that results from anticompetitive policies).

Christians and people of good will should highlight anti-factionalism as a major principle in their politics. Paul, after all, writes that the magistrate is a “minister of God to you for good.” The Scriptures teach repeatedly that, because God does not respect position, power, or riches, political authority must be applied without partiality, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”

To be sure, it is not always easy to discern the difference between a good-faith policy and a factious policy. Nonetheless, a fundamental beginning point for republican politics as well as for Christian politics is that political power be exercised for the common good rather than to benefit individuals or groups at the uncompensated expense of others. I think this is a principle that merits a lot more attention and commitment on the part of Christians in politics.

James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles