12/26/2013 07:27 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2014

Tyranny of the Minority

Watching interest group politics in America recalls what Gerald Ford said after Nixon resigned - that the time is one which "troubles our minds and hurts our hearts." Yet, more than two centuries ago, James Madison wrote about the danger of factions to republican government. In that sense, despite our worries, there is nothing new under the sun. In Federalist 10, he reminded us that:

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . 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 . . . 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."

Madison recognized that factions were inevitable if people were free and that to eliminate the former you would have to destroy the latter. The beauty of Madison's thinking (and he was not alone) was a way not to remove but to control factions. His - the Constitution's - mechanism did not worry about factions that were electoral minorities. They would just lose when the votes were counted.

In contrast, his worry was "tyranny of the majority." If a faction became a majority, "adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community," what then? In a republican government, how do you over-rule the majority? The solution was to minimize the possibility. Representative government over a wide geographic area was the preventive. In such a country, Madison argued, a faction might dominate in a state, but would "be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States."

If there is anything new under the sun, it is certainly not the human nature that leads to factions. But it may be the resources available to humans. It is worth revisiting Madison's thinking because of this. In his day, traveling across the states could take weeks. Today it takes hours. Sending communications could take days. Today it takes seconds. Mass fund raising and mass marketing were not yet invented and in any case would have been nearly impossible, due to distance and limited wealth. Today they are understood and practiced, aided by the Internet. Assembling an ideological, organized, and effective faction across great distances was very difficult in the eighteenth century. In the twenty-first, it is much easier.

It is also easier to make a faction insular. The power of electronic communications should enable contending views to more readily penetrate factional walls. The Founders assumed that knowledge would help rein in factional ideologies. As Jefferson put it, "we may tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it." Yet what if reason doesn't? Research suggests that people with a point of view who are given evidence both supporting and challenging that point of view tend to pick out the former, ignore the latter, and become even more fixed in their beliefs. Combined with the availability of huge volumes of information, today's factions have a much easier time culling arguments to support their ideologies, while ignoring contrary facts. In his book, Moral Tribes, psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene calls this biased perception. Greene also reports on a study in which self-described liberals were given a very conservative welfare reform proposal and were told it was proposed by Democrats. Conservatives were given a very liberal proposal and were told it was proposed by Republicans. Both groups liked the proposals they were given yet denied that the partisan origin of the proposal affected their judgment. Our biases are not only prevalent; they are hidden from our view.

Another source of insularity comes from the role that interest groups play in the policy making and legislative process. Because they are well-organized and funded, they have the power to take extreme and/or single-focus views (indeed, such views are often their best approach to gaining support and funds). Rather than needing to compromise, their survival often depends on refusing to do so.

Still further, those who align themselves with an extreme faction can cede to the leadership of that faction their own need to think: "I belong to _____. If they are for (against) it, so am I." Harvard professor Mark Moore, in Creating Public Value, argues that this problem gets magnified when the government allows these organized factions to represent those who belong to them. The government this colludes in relieving ordinary citizens of the need to interact with citizens who have contrasting views and enables the retreat into ideological enclaves.

Such factions, at least thus far and nationally, have not risen to become an electoral majority. In this sense, Madison's solution still works. Yet, contrary to his assumption, strong, well-financed factions are no longer just localized.

The result is that a faction can produce a brand of minority tyranny. One way it does so is to grid-lock government. A faction that is an electoral minority cannot take control, but it can block the majority and thus render the national government inept.. The current Congress has been unable to pass legislation dealing effectively with many important national issues (e.g. immigration, the debt, the deficit, infrastructure improvement, farm policy) even when it is clear that action is warranted and wanted.

Another way minority factions damage republican government is to skew the national dialogue by withholding support (or threatening to do so) so as to kill the discussion of policies and possibilities. When issues become "off the table" or "dead on arrival" because a minority faction demands such treatment, people can lose trust in the political system itself.

Still another "tyranny" of the minority is to force candidates and office holders into ever-more extreme positions, making the possibility of compromise remote and disenfranchising the great middle of the American political spectrum.

To the extent this happens, the national government becomes increasingly dysfunctional. A prolonged period of such dysfunction can be dangerous not just to legislation but to liberty. George Washington, after two terms as president, glimpsed the danger were this to happen. In his Farewell Address he warned that:

"The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."

The Founders rightly worried more about the dangers of majority tyranny. They faced the fury of factions but, being localized, they could contain the damage done. We are not so fortunate. It is up to us to worry about the danger of minority tyranny as well, because factions today are easily nationalized. It is an open question as to whether and how we can contain the damage they do.