Note: My footnotes didn’t transfer over when I cut and pasted this from my wordprocessor so if you’re reading something wondering why I haven’t supported it with a citation, that’s why! Otherwise, all my claims are absolutely indisputable and representative of the TRUTH!!!111!!!!!11!!!!!!
Rousseauvian vs Madisonian Republicanism and Why Madison is Responsible for Trump
People are frustrated. And when you’re frustrated you go right or you go left. The widening political gap, the appeal of political outsiders, and the sense of disenfranchisement isn’t just another disruption from which America will recover. The current political state of affairs can be traced back to a philosophical decision regarding the fundamental purpose of the institutions of government taken at this country’s origins. Both Rousseau and Madison were philosophically republican: They agreed that a government is only legitimate in so far as sovereignty resides in its people.
They differed, however, in regards to the fundamental purpose according to which government ought to orient its institutions. For Rousseau, the institutions of government aim at identifying and manifesting in policy the public good represented by the will of the people. For Madison, government institutions ought to primarily function as instruments that prevent any one faction from wielding power over any other—particularly, majority factions over minority factions. I’ll argue that current American political divisiveness, feelings of disenfranchisement, and preferences for ‘outsider’ candidates are a product of having chosen the Madisonian side in the philosophical debate over the primary role of government.
This paper can be broadly divided into two parts: In the first part I lay out (a) the Rousseauvian and Madisonian visions of republicanism and (b) explain what drove Madison to his view. Second, I argue that the particular trade-offs Madison made lead to a politically divided population that feels disenfranchised by their own government and prefers candidates perceived as outsiders.
II. Rousseau and Classical Republicanism
In order to understand Madison and the Federalist position we have to first understand the intellectual framework in which they were writing. Perhaps most clearly expressed by Madison in Federalist #39, the Federalists viewed themselves as being firmly within the republican tradition:
The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican? It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America […]. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.
And so, I will take some time to lay out the general features of modern republicanism— Rousseau’s brand specifically—to be later contrasted against Madison’s. This section is somewhat lengthy as it lays important groundwork for my main arguments in Section IV.
A. Sovereignty, Legitimacy, and the General Will
Broadly construed, republicanism is founded on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people. More specifically, political power and legitimacy—regardless of the form of government—inheres in the will of the people. For Rousseau, a government is legitimate to the degree that its institutions identify and express the will of the people in regards to the public good.
The public good is represented by what Rousseau called the ‘general will’. We can understand the general will as each individual citizen’s will in regards to the public good. Rousseau’s believed that if each (adequately informed) citizen deliberates independently on the public good, the general will will “always result from the large number of small differences” (SC. II. 1. 2). The idea is that people will more or less converge on what constitutes the public good for a political community.
It’s important to contrast the general will with the popular will or the majority will. The popular will is the result of people voting according to their private interests (rather than the interests of the community). When people vote according to private interests, the general will (if there is one) is obscured. When individual private interests converge in a group, i.e., when factions form, the will of each faction becomes general in relation to its members and particular to the State (Ibid.). Thus, the will of a faction is no longer an expression of each individual’s conception of the public good, but the expression of one group’s private interests. From a Rousseauvian point of view, a policy or law enacted on such a will is illegitimate. Only laws or policies that express the general will are legitimate.
When factions are a majority or form alliances comprising a majority the will they express cannot be construed as the general will. It is merely the expression of a group’s private interest rather than the will of the community in regards to the public good (Ibid). That is, a policy representing the interests of a majority (rather than of the entire community) fails the test of legitimacy. It is important to emphasize also that the general will results from a large number of small differences over the public good, whereas differences in wills between factions (i.e., the popular will) can be large. Look no further than contemporary partisan politics to see just how far apart the wills of factions can be: e.g., gay marriage laws, climate change policy, gun rights.
B. Conditions for Stability and Forms of Government
The legitimate role of government is and can only be to interpret and enact the general will. As Rousseau put it, “it is solely in terms of this common interest [toward the common good] that society ought to be governed” (SC II. 1.1). Given the constraints on the limits of government, society must meet certain background conditions in order that it have a general will to begin with. As we saw above, when people will according to private or group interests, there is no general will. It follows that republican governments must meet certain conditions to avoid factions since factions are destructive to the general will. When laws and policy don’t emanate from the general will, laws will be illegitimate rendering unstable the entire political community.
The first conditions for there being a general will (and hence legitimacy and stability) are size and homogeneity. When a political community covers a wide territory it will likely include people of diverse values, interests, religions, and conceptions of the good life. As these variable proliferate within a political community so does the probability of incommensurability of interests, and in turn the likelihood of factions: “[T]he more a social bond stretches the looser it grows, and in general a small state is proportionally stronger than a large one” (SC II. 9.1) In short, a political community ought to be small and homogeneous to minimize the likelihood of factions and maximize the likelihood of convergence on ideas of the public good. The republican city-states of ancient Greece and Rome are examples of size and degree of homogeneity both Rousseau and Montesquieu had in mind as their models.
A second set of conditions for avoiding factions (and hence illegitimacy and instability) is relative equality of wealth and power. Equality, Rousseau writes,
must not be understood to mean that degrees of power and wealth should be absolutely the same, but that, as for power, that it stop short of all violence and never be exercised except by virtue of rank and laws, and that as for wealth, no citizen be so rich that he can buy an other, and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself […]. (SC II.11.2)
Power differences can only be the result political position and law rather than socio-economic or other attributes. Importantly, suppressing factions (and hence stability) also requires some degree of equality in wealth. As inequalities in wealth widen so do interests between economic groups along with conceptions of the public good. At some point, inequality of wealth opens a chasm between groups such that a general will ceases to exist. People become primarily politically concerned with promoting and shielding their individual interests instead of disinterestedly advocating those of the entire community.
Rousseau then makes a point that will be critical later in Section IV of my paper when I pit him against Madison: Because relative economic equality is necessary for the preservation of the State, it is consistent with the public good and thus legitimate for the institutions of government legislate to promote and maintain it: “It is precisely because the force of things always tends to destroy equality, that the force of legislation ought always to tend to maintain it” (Bk II. 11. 3). In short, legislation that preserves relative equality falls within the legitimate prevue of the State.
Having laid down the conditions for a successful, stable, and legitimate republic I’ll briefly remark on Rousseau’s thoughts regarding forms of government. On his view republican governments can be monarchies, aristocracies, democracies as well as various subspecies and hybrid’s of each ‘pure’ form.
I therefore call a republic any state ruled by laws, whatever the form of administration may be: for then alone does the public interest govern and does the commonwealth truly exist. Every legitimate government is republican. (Bk. II.6)
So long as a form of government represents the will of the people, it is legitimate. Forms of government must take into account that population’s climate, size of country, national temperament, and geopolitical position (Bk II, 8&9).
Contemporary readers might raise their eyebrows at the idea of republican aristocracies or monarchies. However, within the context of Rousseau’s time, it makes perfect sense. Identifying, interpreting, and realizing the general will requires wisdom, technical knowledge, and a good education. At the time, the requisite skills and talents typically resided in the aristocracy and so we should not find him endorsing an aristocratic republic so surprising. This observation will also be important in Section IV.
Having laid out the classical commitments of republicanism and the intellectual framework within which Madison was a operating, I’ll turn to Madison’s vision of a democratic republic.
III. Madison and the American Dilemma
A. The Federalist Problem and Solution: An Overview
Madisonian republicanism is best understood within the context of the main problem he was trying to solve. Madison (along with the other Federalists) believed that the colonies needed a strong central government in order to solve a number of coordination problems between the states. Like Rousseau, he believed sovereignty lay with the people (see footnote 1). The problem, however, was reconciling this desire for a strong central government with the Rousseauvian argument that legitimate and stable democratic republics must be relatively small and homogenous to avoid factions and instability. A government ruling over a vast territory populated with heterogeneous groups runs against everything Rousseauvian republicanism recommends.
James Conniff argues that this tension only emerges if we conceive of the proper role of government institutions within the Rousseauvian framework—i.e., to interpret and manifest the public good represented by the general will (p. 44, 56). Rather than solve the Federalist dilemma on Rousseauvian terms, Madison reconceives of the primary role of government institutions as mitigating the harmful effects of factions. This shift in republican theory opens the door for a Federalist solution to the American dilemma: A large political community comprised of many diverse factions ensures that no group is large enough to suppress the rights of any other or harm the public good. Newly conceived problem, solved!
B. The Madisonian Solution: The Details
Recall that on the traditional republican view, republics—especially democracies—must meet several background conditions for stability and legitimacy, e.g., relative equality in wealth and power, and common way of life and values. Thus, stability requires homogeneity along several axises and maintaining the background conditions for homogeneity along those axises. A political community that doesn’t meet the background conditions gives rise to factions which in turn obscure or annihilate the general will. With no identifiable representation of a shared conception of the public good, government institutions cannot perform their primary legitimate function and ultimately lose their legitimacy. Thus, a stable democracy must be small, to avoid factions and their harmful effects.
On Madison’s view, however, factions are a fact of human life:
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government [. . .] have, in turn divided mankind into parties [. . .] 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…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. (Federalist #10, p. 44; my italics).
In short, no political community, no matter how small can avoid factions.
The conjunction of the inevitability of factions and their harmfulness leads Madison to undertake a paradigm shift within republican theory: Since causes of factions can’t be removed (a) the primary focus of government (contra Rousseau) ought to be their regulation (b) by including them in the political process and expanding the size of the political community to neutralize their power:
The regulation of these various and interfering interests, forms the principle task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government (Federalist #10, p. 44).
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 (Federalist #10, p. 42).
Factions and self-interested behavior are part of the human condition and can’t be legislated away. The primary task of government ought to be to neutralize their power so that no single faction or aggregation of factions can suppress the rights of another or harm the public good. Managing factions vis a vis one another also maintains political stability.
Let’s take a closer look at how he supports his view beginning with his definition of factions: Factions are
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 interest of the community. (Federalist #10, p. 43)
A faction is any group whose interests run counter to the rights of other citizens or the public good. Although any group that meets the above definition is potentially harmful, Madison is particularly concerned with majority factions:
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle [. . .]. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest, both the public good and the rights of other citizens. (Ibid., p. 45)
In a democracy, where the majority rules, minority groups can easily have their rights violated by the institutions of government. Madison needs a way to prevent this outcome but at the same time acknowledge that factions are inevitable.
Here is the critical move in Madison’s argument for Federalism. To minimize the likelihood of a faction forming a majority, a political community must be large and heterogeneous rather than small and homogenous. That is, by enlarging (numerically and geographically) the political community factions are “rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression” (Ibid). In other words, it’s much more difficult to form a majority faction in a large heterogeneous population.
As population and heterogeneity and size increase, the likelihood of convergence of private interests decreases. Thus, since confederacy dilutes the effects of local factions, confederacy is the best means of hedging against ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Notice, however, that Madison’s move is only possible by reconceiving of the primary role of government institutions as mitigator and mediator of competing factions rather than as identifier and implementor of the general will.
Madison makes one more major move: In a representative democracy, expanding the territory and the ratio of constituents to representatives implies that the talent pool of possible representatives also expands. Thus, talented, wise, patriotic representatives will (more likely) be able to “best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations” (Ibid, p. 46). In other words, wise representatives will mitigate the short-sighted and impassioned desires of a majority (or minority) and pronounce the public voice in a way “more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves [. . .]” (Ibid.).
The Rousseauvian critic will argue that if a constituency is too large, representatives will be ill-acquainted with local needs. If too small, representative is ill acquainted with national needs. But a large republic allows for a division of state and national level representatives thereby solving this trade-off.
IV. Rousseauvian Vs. Madisonian Republican Institutions and Political Culture
With all the major machinery of the Rousseauvian and Madisonian views in place, I’ll make three interconnected arguments for my central claim that contemporary political divisiveness, the popularity of political ‘outsiders’ like Bernie Sanders and Trump, and a general feeling of political disenfranchisement can be traced back to Madison’s reconception of the primary role of government institutions. My three arguments are closely interrelated and thus rely on each other for support. For this reason, as I present the first, some premises won’t get full-blown support until the subsequent section, and the second and third arguments are presented together since they are deeply connected parts of a whole. I beg the reader’s patience on this matter.
Argument 1: Political DNA
Conniff praises Madison for solving the American dilemma: “he provides an intellectually consistent answer to the key concern of republican theorists of his day” (p. 57). However, Madison’s solution comes only after denying that any solution is forthcoming within traditional republicanism. He sets aside the problem of identifying and manifesting the public good in a large and diverse political community. In short, public good as a secondary concern is built into the American political system. Why does this matter? Because in so far as political institutions do not represent to the people their conception of the public good, the policies that emanate will appear foreign. Predictably this results in a feeling of disenfranchisement and resentment toward the institutions of government. Paradoxically, we end up with a people in whom sovereignty resides yet feel as though policy rarely represents their will—and only contingently so when it does.
Let me elaborate. On the Madisonian model, the fundamental role of government is to mitigate the harmful effects of factions. Several implications follow. First, when people vote they will not vote according to their disinterested conception of the public good. They will vote according to their private interests. This comes straight from Madison’s sociology; i.e., that factions are inevitable. This means that policy outcomes are the result of either one faction winning out or of political compromise between two or more factions. Policy represents aggregations or compromises of various private rather than a general will. When people vote according to private interest, any consideration for or alignment with the public good is merely contingent. Thus, policy inputs to Madisonian institutions will be private interests only contingently aligned with whatever may be the public good. If political inputs only contingently consider the public good, we should not expect the outputs to be much different. Thus, when the final policy or law is made many citizens are unlikely to recognize their own will or a general will represented in it which in turn leads to feelings of disenfranchisement.
One might respond that my claim is too strong: Certainly some groups will vote selfishly by why suppose most will? Although related, I have two responses. The first comes from basic game theory. The second is the sociological point that there is a reciprocal relationship between our institutions, practices, material conditions, and behavior and values. I’ll begin with the first reply. We can conceive of the Madisonian system as setting up a generalized prisoners’ dilemma. If I know that others are likely to vote according to their private interests, I’d be a sucker not to do the same myself. And so, a strong incentive to vote according to one’s private interest is built into the structure of the political system—lest one be a sucker.
Here a Madisonian might respond that, a large republic selects representatives from the best and brightest, and their wisdom will “best discern the true interest of their country” and render the public voice “more consonant to the public good” (Federalist #10, p. 46). However, there are two reasons to believe this won’t typically occur. The first, Madison supplies himself. In making his argument for shifting the republican paradigm away from the general will, Madison argues (contra his assertion above regarding the capacities of able statesmen) that
[i]t is vain to say, enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm: nor in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote consideration, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole. (Ibid, p. 45).
In short, we are asking too much of mere mortals to find (i) a just outcome between conflicting interests that (ii) avoids undermining the rights of others, (iii) isn’t contrary to the public good, and (iv) also manifests the public good.
Madisonian institutions primarily aim to achieve (i), (ii), (iii). If (iv) comes about, it’s a bonus but this isn’t the primary concern of government in forming policy. Avoiding harm to rights and to the public good isn’t the same thing as promoting or being commensurate or coextensive with the public good. For this reason, government will issue policy unrecognizable for many from either their own point of view and that of public good. Significant portions of the population will see policy as the outcome of competing private interests where ‘successful’ policy only avoids harm to the public good but needn’t promote it. Thus, policy will be unrecognizable and foreign from the point of view of the general will.
A Madisonian system of government encourages voting according to faction and private interest thus making any policy alignment with the public good merely contingent and accidental. I suggested above that some might find this claim too strong. My second reply concerns the feedback relationship between policy, material conditions, practices, values, and behavior. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to definitively establish the claim, however, I think the nature of these interrelations have been sufficiently accepted to various degrees since at least Marx such that the the burden of proof should fall on whoever denies them. Taking the interrelationships for granted then, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that a political system whose primary explicit purpose is to mediate between factions rather than seek and represent the public good encourages just those types of practices for which it was designed.
Again, one could counter that, surely, over the course of American history institutions have issued policy consonant with the public good. And they would be quite right. However, whenever policies have represented the public good it has only been because contingent background conditions allowed it rather than it having been the explicit aim of government. I’ll develop this argument in more detail in the next section but for now, I’ll make a few brief remarks.
The Rousseauvian framework provides a rich set of conditions under which a general will can exist and factions are minimized and neutralized. Relative equality in wealth and power figure prominently. We might speculate that the periods of American history where policy most closely tracked the general will were also the periods where these Rousseauvian background conditions were met. The upshot being, background conditions likely diminished the quantity of and relative differences between factions such that the politics of factions and compromise could give way to concern for the public good. That said, once those background conditions evaporated, the quantity of and distance between factions reemerged. The result being that when public policy has tended to track public good, it has a done so as a contingent fact about background conditions rather than as a fact about the priorities written into the DNA of Madisonian political institutions.
Before moving on, let me summarize what I have said so far since it will bear on my second and third main arguments in the upcoming section. I’m offering an explanation for why Americans feel disenfranchised and have embraced candidates at political extremes. I argue that the conditions can be traced back to a philosophical decision taken by Madison at the country’s origin. The primary purpose of Madisonian governmental institutions is to manage the harmful effects of factions rather than identify and represent the general will. Madison writes this institutional priority into the government’s DNA. To the degree that government issues policy that does not represent the general will or represents a will other than one’s own, policy will appear alien to its subjects. Although they many not be able to intellectualize or verbalize it they will feel as though the government doesn’t represent them. The natural response to this alienation is frustration. And when you’re frustrated with government you turn left or you turn right, and you seek a representative from outside the very institutions that alienate you.
Arguments 2&3: Concentrations of Power and the Inability to Prioritize Conditions for Stability
In a representative democracy committed to republicanism, two commitments are potentially in tension: First, people need to see themselves as being ruled only by laws that they would self-legislate or endorse. Second, some person or some body needs to interpret which laws everyone would assent to. The potential tension arises when representatives are disproportionately selected from one subgroup and/or disproportionately represent the will of a subgroup. Not all citizens will have the requisite qualifications to govern, however, the hope is that someone who understands their point of view can and will represent them. This points to a requirement that democratic government institutions concern themselves with ensuring and maintaining material and social conditions such that the skills and talents that qualify one to be a competent representative be well-distributed throughout different subgroups. In short, political stability requires relative equality of opportunity and, as Rousseau argued, its preconditions wealth and power. I’ll argue that Madisonian institutions can only achieve this end contingently, not as a matter of priority. Hence, Madisonian democracies run the risk of concentrations of power within the hands of a few. The natural effect is for citizens to feel disenfranchised since the policies often won’t represent their will or a general will but disproportionately that of a small faction.
When Rousseau was writing, it was perfectly natural to favor an aristocracy for a republic because education, literacy, numeracy, and other relevant skills tended to cluster in only that class. It would make no sense to have an illiterate and innumerate farmer administer the State. Recall also Rousseauvian relativism regarding forms of government: The correct form of government for a particular population will be one that takes into account the properties of their population, amongst other things.
On the matter of the correct form of government, Madison notes both the character of the American people and the peril of representatives being selected from only one class. In regards to the character of the American people he notes that no other form of government besides republican democracy will do. To avoid the latter problem, Madison argues that
it is essential to such a [republican] government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it: otherwise handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. (Federalist #39, p. 194)
Madison clearly recognizes the destabilizing effects to a democratic republic of representatives coming from only one (small) group. The challenge for a Madisonian is to show that government institutions not primarily concerned with the public good will ensure the necessary background conditions for diffusion of the requisite education to make citizens from diverse groups eligible and capable representative.
Let’s take for granted Madison’s claim that a stable democratic republic requires that its representatives be “derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or favored class of it.” This leaves him open to the observation that unless there are background conditions for class mobility there is a risk of policy disproportionately favoring one group’s interests—namely the group from which representatives are selected, which is the group in which we should expect to find the talents and resources for entering politics.
This returns us to the fundamental philosophical issue regarding the primary purpose of government and what its institutions ought to do. Political stability is, by any reasonable account, a pubic good and by extension so are the various social, educational, and welfare considerations that maintain it. As such, these conditions can be addressed directly by and are a primary object of concern for Rousseauvian institutions. Their maintenance and preservation are built into the purpose of government. This is not true of a Madisonian government.
It’s not that a Madisonian government can’t ever address the background conditions for stability, it’s that its not its primary purpose and so it can only do so contingently. (Although I’ve already made this point in the DNA argument, I want to approach here it within the context of background conditions for stability and concentrations of power in minority factions.) Various factors can confound establishing and maintaining background conditions for social mobility (hence, a subset of the conditions for stability). Once various groups are materially and socially excluded from the political process, the interests that inhabit the corridors of power narrow, and we can expect the public good to be crowded out in favor of those narrow interests.
There’s good reason to believe a minority faction does hold disproportionate sway in politics. For example Gilens and Page tested this hypothesis. They used a data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues and found that
economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” (p. 564).
In fact, if the top 10% and the bottom 90% diverge on an issue, policy will favor the bottom 90% only about 4% of the time! (p. 570). Even if these numbers are off by an order of magnitude, it’s still very strong evidence that a minority faction’s will is overrepresented in policy.
If Gilens and Page are right, how is it possible for a minority faction to consistently have their will trump that of the majority? Recall that policy making in the Madisonian system is primarily concerned with protection of (usually negative) rights and avoidance of harm to the public good. There’s no positive mandate regarding promoting the latter. A minority faction in power can adjust self-favoring policy that meets both conditions: no one’s negative rights are violated and the public good isn’t (overtly) directly harmed.
The first constraint is easily accomplished since negative rights usually relate to property, and we might expect that the minority faction is most concerned with preserving this right. The second constraint requires elaboration. Both Rousseau and Madison recognized that where interests diverge drastically, there is no general will. And so, under conditions of significant inequality of wealth and power, a recognizable general will, if there is one at all, will be difficult to identify. Such conditions make it even easier for a powerful minority faction to pass self-favoring policy: since there’s no obvious shared conception of the public good to harm, it need not even enter the policy calculus as a constraint.
Also, it’s much harder to defend the view that an omission causes harm and for this reason it’s easier to pass policy that fails to fund things like education (or other public welfare institutions). When pubic funding is removed one can reply: “hey, we aren’t taking away people’s right to education or even undermining education. They can pay for it out of their own pocket if they really want it. There are lots of private schools! Look at all the private schools they can choose from!”
Having cleared the two hurdles policy must clear, it’s possible to defund the institutions that maintain and generate background conditions such that individuals from most groups are capable and able to participate politically—perhaps as a representatives. Also, as Madison noted, when others are excluded (via background conditions) from the corridors of power, a narrow set of interests will be overrepresented to the determent of the public good.
If what I’ve said so far is correct, we can expect a negative feedback loop in regards to the conditions of inequality, concern for and promotion of the public good, and accumulation of power in the hands of a minority faction. As I’ve argued, the negative feedback loop can be traced back to the Madison’s move to shift the primary function of government. Although making a full empirical case would take me beyond the scope of this paper, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the negative feedback situation I’ve just described is one America finds itself in today. That fact that government policy is perceived to heavily favors a minority faction to the exclusion of what many reasonably consider the public good (and their own private interests) explains the contemporary American political landscape. People feels disenfranchised and that their government doesn’t represent them or their conception of the public good. Hence, a growing rejection of “establishment” candidates and a preference for perceived political outsiders.
In the first two sections of this paper I outlined the similarities and differences in Rousseauvian and Madisonian republicanism. For Rousseau the fundamental purpose of government is to identify and manifest the general will; i.e., the public’s shared conception of the public good. For a government to successfully do this a political community must be small and homogenous. From within Rousseau’s framework Madison cannot solve the American dilemma—i.e., how to justify a strong central government in a large pluralistic territory. His response is to modify republicanism: The primary purpose of government becomes mediating between factions and mitigating their harmful effects rather than manifesting the general will.
I’ve argued that contemporary American political culture and attitudes can be traced back to Madisonian’s decision to repurpose the fundamental purpose of the institutions of government. Why do political candidates who are perceived or self-described as outsiders or anti-establishment generate so much support? Because the general population too often doesn’t recognize their own will or the public good in government policy. They don’t recognize their own will or the public good in policy because they’re right, it isn’t there! Government policy need only avoid suppressing rights and abstain from (overtly) harming the public good, but need not promote it. Also, one minority group’s interests are seen to be disproportionately represented in policy.
Why is American politics hyper-partisan right now? Because of deteriorating background conditions which would have narrowed the gap between various interests and have made a general will more likely. Also, Madisonian institutions aren’t equipped to prioritize and maintain the Rousseauvian background conditions for stability and a common conception of the good. And finally, why are so many working class Republicans voting for Trump? (What would a paper on contemporary American politics be without mentioning Trump?) Because they have come to realize that the ‘establishment’ representatives for whom they’ve often voted have not promoted or protected their interests, or realized recognizable their conception of the public good in policy. They’ve learned by now what happens if they continue to vote the same way. To quote Rousseau:
One always wants one’s good, but one does not always see it: one can never corrupt the people, but one can often cause it to be mistaken, and only when it is, does it appear to want what is bad. (SC II. 3. 1).
Bibliography and Works Cited
Conniff, J. (1975). On the Obsolescence of the General Will: Rousseau, Madison, and the Evolution of Republican Political Thought. Political Research Quarterly, 28(1), 32-58. doi:10.1177/106591297502800103
Galston, W. A. (2010). Realism in political theory. European Journal of Political Theory, 9(4), 385-411. doi:10.1177/1474885110374001
Gaus, G. F. (2011). The order of public reason: A theory of freedom and morality in a diverse and bounded world. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspect. Polit. Perspectives on Politics, 12(03), 564-581. doi:10.1017/s1537592714001595
Hamilton, A., Jay, J., Madison, J., Carey, G. W., & McClellan, J. (2001). The Federalist. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Rousseau, J., & Gourevitch, V. (1997). The social contract and other later political writings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Scott, T. John (2016). Every Legitimate Government is Republican: Rousseau’s Debt to and Departure from Montesquieu on Republicanism. Unpublished (forthcoming).