Political tribalism has been a very popular topic in 2018.  A great divide has been created in our society as a result of identity politics.  Many have retreated into groups with only like-minded individuals creating mini echo-chambers all over the country. These groups push their agenda without any regard of the effects on the rest of society.  Do these disparate groups undermine American society?  Is it inevitable these groups will continue to grow apart until the country becomes ungovernable?  Will Americans be able to find any middle ground on which they agree? While some argue drastic change in the structure of government is needed to address this problem, the correct course would be a return to the original design of the Republic.  James Madison provided much insight into the problems that arise from such “factions” in the Federalist Papers.


Madison defines factions in Federalist 10 as “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  People will align themselves with others who share their interests, and at times, support measures which are not beneficial to the public as a whole.  He goes on to say “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.”  As we see today, once people have grouped themselves with others of similar passions, it is easy for conflict to occur between groups even about trivial matters.

Madison explains, “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”  Madison first addresses the ways the causes of factions could be removed.  The first method of removal he prescribes is “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence.”  Obviously, Madison found this to be an unacceptable answer. The other method was “giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” — an impossible task.  Madison believed the formation of factions to be inevitable in a free society.  These factions “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.”  Since there is no appropriate measure to prevent factions from occurring, Madison turned his attention on how to mitigate their effects.

Democracy vs Republic

Madison further explained the significance of creating a system of government that would not be a democracy, but a republic.  Madison believed a democracy would have no ability to control the conflicts that arise between factions. The largest factions would dominate through a sort of mob rule.  Under a republic, though, Madison believed that the public would select as representatives individuals who were less likely to sacrifice the good of the whole of society for the interests of a faction.  Madison also predicted there would be some who choose representatives who are corrupt or betray the interests of their people, but in a large republic it would be more difficult for those individuals to gain power.  This is why Madison begins Federalist 10 by stating “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.”  Our Republic forces our leaders who represent different geographic regions and diverse people to come together in order for the government to function properly.  This prevents the tyranny that could arise from the strongest factions accumulating power.


One solution that both sides of the political spectrum can agree on is a de-escalation of the nationalization of all issues.  Allow California to live under the policies it chooses,and allow Oklahomans to live under their policies.  By allowing these policy battles to be waged locally there won’t be such division nationally.  As Madison described in Federalist 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”  The states, by design, would be the arena for the vast majority of policy decisions. This allows geographic neighbors with a more shared background to decide the laws and regulations they will be governed by.  Since individuals may have a very diverse history of life experiences depending on where they might live, they may be able to choose a very different type of governmental policy that best suits their unique community.  Not only does federalism allow for varied local solutions, it also allows for multiple remedies to be attempted for the same problem at the same time.  As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the 1932 New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann case, a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”  These laboratories of democracy will not only allow states to experiment with what policies are most effective for their state, but will also minimize the unrest that stems from polarizing national policy.  If most of our policymaking decisions were to be done at the local level, much of the fervor driving citizens across the country into their disparate factions would be subdued by limiting the effects of policy making decisions to smaller sections of the country.  If citizens are unhappy with a policy they can address the issue with their local official or vote them out of office, instead of resenting those across the country who advocate the policy who do not share their views.  This federalism system was designed to empower familiar local leaders who were attuned to the needs of their local districts, rather than distant congressmen in Washington

Uniting a broken people

Ultimately the answer will have to come from something beyond politics.  Madison stated in a speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 20th, 1788:

Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks-no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea, if there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

We must be a virtuous people to heal the wounds caused by tribalism.  We can disagree on domestic policy, but we must have some basic moral principle that calls us to respect our neighbor.  Federalism can help ease the tensions in our society, but ultimately, we are in desperate need of a spiritual revival.

Ryan Walters teaches history and government courses in McAlester, Oklahoma.  He can be reached by email at ryanwalters37@gmail.com or on Twitter.

This article was originally published at American Thinker. Read the original article here.


Leave a Reply