James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today

By Kaleena Fraga

Long, long before the presidency linked itself with Twitter, James Madison gathered with his fellow Americans to retool the government, discarding the Articles of Confederation for what would become the United States Constitution. The men who came to the Constitutional Convention came armed with different ideas and doubts. Madison lay out what he believed were the greatest problems with democracy, and how he proposed to solve them.

Madison believed in two things: that a large country would allow for a variety of ideas and opinions to thrive, safe from a looming majority, and that friendship was possible even when the two parties disagreed politically. However, the Internet Age has threatened both Madisonian ideas. In the United States, not only do most Americans belong to one of two parties, and view citizens of the opposing party with distrust, they are increasingly likely to demand purity tests within their own parties, and to cast out anyone with a nuanced opinion on a controversial subject.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 1787, Madison laid out his view of democracy. “All civilized societies,” Madison told the assembled delegates, inevitably, “[divide] into different sects, factions and interest…in all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Madison’s response to this was his theory of expansion:

“The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or that of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

In other words, the size of the country would allow for so many different opinions and ideas that no one party could monopolize the national discussion. Madison wrote this at a time when many Americans were wary of changing the national makeup from a loose array of states into one country. Madison argued that doing so would multiply the number of interest groups, therefore protecting them from each other.

Future Madison-foe Alexander Hamilton jotted down his own notes on Madison’s proposal. He speculated that “paper money” would unite people no matter what their location. He also thought that even a large republic could be vulnerable to a demagogue, writing, “an influential demagogue will give an impulse to the whole.”

As the country became increasingly partisan, Madison eventually morphed this theory to fit his political aims. As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, opposing Hamilton and the Federalists, Madison relied on increasingly partisan language. He shifted his belief to say that while there could be disagreement among Republican ranks, anyone on the other side was an enemy to the notion of America itself (this in a time when leading Republicans believed that leaders of the opposing party, the Federalists, aimed to bring monarchy to America). In 1792 Madison wrote an article encapsulating this idea, entitled “The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends?” The answer: anyone who agreed with him and his fellow Republicans. Madison’s view of a large country, then, with many different views and opinions, had begun to wither on the vine.

Although he came to embrace partisanship, Madison believed strongly in maintaining friendships amid political disagreement. He believed in the difference of ideas, as long as he could trust that the other person shared his larger goals (i.e. the good of the nation, that is to say, that the nation would remain a republic instead of a monarchy). He and James Monroe are a good example. Although they ran against each other, Madison eventually made Monroe his Secretary of State. Similarly, although Madison’s friend Edmund Randolph didn’t support the Constitution, Madison later recommended him for a job in George Washington’s cabinet.

Although partisanship and distrust of those with opposing views may be a stance as old as the nation itself, the interconnectedness of the country in the Internet Age has not only deepened the divide between the two major parties–it has increased the demand for purity of its candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast The Axe Files, argued that Democrats need to support candidates across the political spectrum–not just those furthest to the left or who ascribe to a strict set of liberal principals.

The political action committee “We Will Replace You” has vowed to do just that–vote out any Congressional Democrats (largely representing red states) who cooperate with the Trump Administration. On the right, the G.O.P. has seen an exodus of its more moderate members–Jeff Flake and Bob Corker chose to not run for reelection, citing their belief that, as Republicans who sometimes opposed the president, they could not win in their districts.

James Madison began his political career with two strong beliefs: that the size of the country would allow for a variety of opinions to thrive, and that friendships were possible even in the face of political disagreement. He faltered on his first point early on as partisanship ran rampant; but Madison applied it to his second–that a big country could allow for a variety of views as long as, overall, the people wanted the best for the country. In this way, Madison found it easy to remain friends with fellow Republicans who disagreed with him.

But today, as Americans are becoming more likely to identify people in the opposite party as endangering the nation, they also are turning on members of their own party.

Madison’s theory of expansion, then fails spectacularly in the Internet age. Americans still live far apart, but are closer than ever in their shared experience of national and international events. The two biggest political parties are able to spread information across a wider platform than ever before, leaving little room for competing voices or third party candidates (although American history is dotted with attempts by third party candidates, they have never succeeded).

As a result, Madison’s belief in friendships beyond politics is also in jeopardy. As American voters and their representatives drift further and further toward extremes, it’s becoming easier for candidates on the fringes to demand political purity across the spectrum, and to cast out any candidates who do not fit their desired, purist mold. Political compromise, in the age of social media, seems increasingly out of reach.

2 thoughts on “James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today”

  1. Fascinating analysis! Funny how the founding fathers, to a man, seem to have left to us both their lofty ideals and the myriad ways they failed to live up to them. Social media offers unprecedented ways to organize for social change (e.g., the recent March for Our Lives), but it’s really interesting to think about it creating a sort of harmful closeness. I wonder what role it has played in the trend toward ideological purity among other factors like campaign finance and fewer competitive districts.

    I really need to get my hands on Sam Rosenfeld’s new book about the modern partisan era, The Polarizers (https://books.google.com/books?id=b-1DDwAAQBAJ). The excerpts I’ve seem suggest that the trend in increasing partisanship tracks with partisan identity aligning with many other lines of division in American society. The two major parties were diverse ideologically, regionally, and economically in the mid-20th century, but the modern versions are far more sorted. People like Amy Chua who write about this (https://books.google.com/books/about/Political_Tribes.html?id=Zgm1tAEACAAJ) do a nice job of identifying the problem, but are light on solutions. The perpetual prescriptions of “listen to each other” and “acknowledge differences” seem unlikely to cut through the Gordian knot of our current politics. I don’t have much faith we’ll escape dysfunction any time soon.

    Like

  2. Very insightful and, as per usual, extremely well-written; the 2018 Mid-terms are going to be fascinating and hopefully will restore some “sanity” to our country.

    Liked by 1 person

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