When Faction and Solidarity Intersect

Two groups of business people. Isolated over white background

In The Federalist #10 James Madison famously observes that the “most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” But Madison discusses numerous other sources of faction as well:

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 fortunes have been interesting to the 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.

Just because these others are not the “most common and durable” causes of faction does not mean they, too, cannot be significant sources of faction in their own right.

First, to brush away a common, anachronistic reading of Madison’s argument. While modern political parties can be factions, they are not necessarily factions. In referring to parties, Madison does not have modern political parties in mind. “Parties” at the time were more or less a synonym for faction. Today’s political parties do not have to be factious. Madison writes, “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a 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.”

I emphasize the key word “adverse” in Madison’s definition. While a factious spirit may animate aspects of modern political parties, even deeply so, modern political parties are not necessarily devoted to objectives “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

For example, it is true that factious impulses on behalf of the wealthy might drive much of the Republican Party’s support for freer markets, tax cuts, and its general pro-business orientation. But to ascribe those positions entirely to a spirit of faction means ruling out the possibility of a bona fide belief that, say, the path to secure the most prosperity for the most Americans, including the poorest and most vulnerable among us, is to give wide birth to humanity’s productive impulses through free markets, low taxes, and a supportive environment for entrepreneurs.

So, too, it is true that factious impulses might motivate much of the Democratic Party’s support for taking from productive parts of society and redistributing it to underproductive parts. But to ascribe the party’s support for redistribution entirely to a factious spirit is to rule out the possibility of a bona fide belief that, say, markets and voluntary charity will not of themselves provide sufficiently for all Americans and that social insurance programs are necessary to so do.

That is not to suggest that we need be Pollyannaish about modern political parties. They can be, and are, mixtures of large amounts of both factious and non-factious motivations. The point is that modern political parties cannot be identified with Madison’s definition of faction.

But it is in considering this mixture of bona fide desire to advance the public good with factious impulse that Madison’s argument takes on added bite. While Madison doesn’t use the terminology, he essentially identifies faction as a depraved expression of the human need for solidarity. The desire for solidarity is a normal, natural human desire to identify with and group together with others. But it can also be twisted in its expression. “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.”

We would be foolish to think that the only “frivolous and fanciful distinctions” that kindle unfriendly passions and excite violent conflicts is the twisted form of solidarity that can be found at, say, some sports events where the color of a jersey in the wrong part of the stadium can provoke physical violence.

A greater, more subtle threat is when our team’s jersey, as it were, is not a color of our clothes, but the color of our political positions. That those beliefs can have a bona fide aim to advance the common good allows us all the more innocently to indulge proclivities for faction. Indeed, the causal arrow can reverse itself: we don’t identify with others as a group because we share the same political beliefs, we share the same political beliefs because we identify with the group. Once we identify with political teams, it is the spirit of togetherness, of solidarity, that can in turn provide us our political beliefs and positions. As Ohio State University professor emeritus Larry Baum explained recently:

People . . . have attitudes toward conservatives and liberals, attitudes strong enough to make these ideological groups part of many people’s social identities. Those attitudes are especially strong among political elites . . . As a result, even knowledgeable people may choose positions on an issue on the basis of their attitudes toward the ideological groups on the two sides.

A part of this is entirely natural for social and political creatures. But with the seeming increase in isolation and alienation in modern American society, there’s a risk in trends away from traditional, even natural expressions of solidarity – family, church, neighborhood, fraternal and service organization – and instead seeking solidarity in mass politics and in a vast, impersonal nationhood. While these, too, are not bad in themselves, the size and anonymity of these can glide ever so imperceptibly to indulge the propensity in the human heart to turn bona fide associations into avenues for “unfriendly passions . . . and violent conflict.”

James R. Rogers

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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  1. Linda Smith says

    “… instead seeking solidarity in mass politics and in a vast, impersonal nationhood …”.

    While these “too are not bad in themselves”, as the author writes, they do not seem very good in themselves either, to say the least.

    But perhaps I misunderstand Prof. Rogers meaning.

  2. nobody.really says

    Thought-provoking essay.

    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.

    I recall a TV special on Masada, the site of a great Roman/Jewish showdown. Part of the dialogue said, paraphrased, “Why do the Romans take such pains to stamp us Jews out? If they really wanted to achieve their ends, they should just leave us alone. We’d be at each other’s throats soon enough.”

    In short, adversity can prompt people to act with solidarity—and even to enjoy it; this is part of the thesis of books such as War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002). In contrast, in the absence of adversity, we lose some of the artificial stimulus for solidarity and, as Madison observed, are prone to fall into factions.

    In the song “Imagine,” John Lennon speculates that a world without distinctions based in religion, nationalism, or property would result in a world of unity. I rather expect it would result in a world of people looking for new grounds to consolidate into groups and express rivalry to other groups.

    As a consequence, I’ve begun to look benignly upon nationalism. Yeah, there’s some pointless jingoism, as exhibited at the Olympics. But at least if we must choose up teammates and enemies, why not make the people to whom you are physically proximate into your teammates, and make the people from whom you are physically distant into your enemies?

    However harmful this arrangement, it seems less harmful than the alternative: apartheid. Whatever harm the US did toward the Ruskies, it pales in comparison to the harm we did to domestic minorities –blacks, Jews, people with disabilities, etc.

    • Scott Amorian says

      “Whatever harm the US did toward the Ruskies, … ”

      What in the hell are you talking about!?

      Never mind. I don’t want to hear it. A lot of faction is the result of the fact that some people have an obtuse ingrained mentality. It’s just part of the human condition.

    • gabe says

      What is the line from Jerry McGuire:

      You had me at “Hello”

      A small edit, if you will:

      You had me until the last line.

      Can you not restrain yourself from this constant harping on our sins. My Gawd, you sound, at times, like some fundamentalist preaching providing us with the expected jeremiad, one which purports to remind us of our Original Sin.

      And oh, BTW: What did THIS country do to the Jews?, a people who have for millennia been subjected to some of the worst and most vile indignities. Funny, I don;t recall any of that happening in the USA,; nobody.really believes that it did.

      Oops, I forgot, that’s right a certain Democrat President, a *barely-in-the-closet* anti-Semite by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt prevented emigrating Jewish refugees from Europe, Germany specifically, from entering the USA. Aaahhh! that must be our sin with respect to the Jews.

      And then there was that racist Democrat President Woodrow Wilson – but we won’t go there. Or the aforementioned FDR who steadfastly refused to support anti-lynching laws in order to curry favor with Southern Democrats. Of course, I would be remiss to not highlight the role of the Democrat Party for over 100 years in suppressing the rights of Black Americans.

      The Republicans on the other hand were generally on the side of sweetness and angels.

      Oh, now I get it – that is the *apartheid of which you speak. On one side of the apartheid line – the execrable ministrations / manipulations of the Democrat Party.
      On the other side, a generally decent and liberty supporting Republican Party.

      You are right – look what apartheid yields!

      funny isn’t it, fellow readers how some folks will expend great effort in *crafting* a narrative that “seemingly is sympathetic to the readers sensibilities only to slip in the usual rubbish and accusations at the end.
      Reminds me of most Television shows / movies.

      Hey, I got it, boyos!

      Nobody really is a script writer. I’d bet on it as his scripts on this blog provide ample evidence of his *craftmanship.*

      Now back to working on my golf swing.

    • nobody.really says

      Apparently I failed to state my complicated thesis in a sufficiently understandable fashion. Let me try to simplifly.

      Premise: People inherently form groups, and those groups inherently establish rivalries with other groups. Efforts to establish a society based solely on the brotherhood of man will therefore fail. A second-best solution is to find the least harmful way to identify the people whom we will regard as rivals/enemies.

      Conclusion: When choosing people to designate as our enemies, we’d do better to designate people who live far away from us (archetypically for Americans of a certain age, Russians) than minority groups who live close to us (archetypically for Americans of a certain age, Blacks and Jews). This is because the harm we might wish to inflict on remote enemies is mostly hypothetical; the harm we might wish to inflect on proximate enemies is practical and consequential.

      • gabe says

        1) There was actually nothing *complicated* about the thesis.
        2) While understandable, it is nevertheless wrong and rests upon an “inherent” assumption that people within groups, or the group as a whole operating under standard (or so our academic betters would have us believe) group dynamics, will *inherently* seek out other groups to counterpose to themselves – all in an effort to foster internal group identity. This is, of course, one possibility more likely found in a dysfunctional polity than a healthy one. Can it not be also argued that while “enemies” are, and have been, fairly prevalent that those enemies may simply be the result of “societal” collisions for the healthy polity resulting from economic, geographic disputes, etc. This would appear to be the one most often repeated throughout “modern” history, Nazism / communism being the exception that proves the rule.
        3) Such a conception of “purposive” hate mongering on a societal level would appear to be something better confined to Literature and the Academy (1984 comes to mind) and would indicate a rather dark vision of human potential / nature.
        4) As for America vs Jews: Where are you getting this? Have there been pogroms in the USA? Death camps? denial of entry into the academy? the professions? etc. etc. Have you any evidence that the American polity was expressly (or implicitly) crafted / motivated / designed with a view toward establishing the Jewish people / faith as an *approved* enemy?

        5) a mere re=statement of some adverse effects / practices of a polity is not sufficient in and of itself to support certain allegations / imputations of purpose or motive.

        Now, I am going to have a knish and a slice of pizza for breakfast.
        seeya

      • nobody.really says

        When choosing people to designate as our enemies, we’d do better to designate people who live far away from us (archetypically for Americans of a certain age, Russians) than minority groups who live close to us (archetypically for Americans of a certain age, Blacks and Jews). This is because the harm we might wish to inflict on remote enemies is mostly hypothetical; the harm we might wish to inflect on proximate enemies is practical and consequential.

        [During WWII, an English civilian could] be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life — they are lay figures modelled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often [less than professed], and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They … loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.

        C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter VI (1941)

  3. says

    I appreciate Professor Rogers’ post and views.

    The world seems dysfunctional 232 years after James Madison’s perhaps boldest and most erroneous judgment: “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.” Therein was Madison’s pretension “for pre-eminence and power.”

    Michael Polanyi, in Personal Knowledge, 1958, spends 404 pages admonishing the-objective-truth and one paragraph deifying theism. Both Madison and Polanyi draw attention to a false premise: For “the public good,” human reason is more important than what a civic people may discover.

    Humans may hope for salvation from death, and a civic people may achieve broadly-defined-civic-safety-and-security, hereafter Security. For public-integrity, Security is more important than theism.

    Public-integrity allows each human to achieve a meaningful life. The human person is the most powerful being on earth. He or she is so psychologically powerful that neither another person nor a society may morally constrain his or her quest for unique perfection.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Divinity School Address, 1838, unlocked Jesus’s message to each human: You may perfect your unique person. Humanity’s perfection ineluctably marches, but society, civilization, and tradition strive to limit each person, oppressing his or her brief opportunity for private perfection.

    The “zeal for different opinions,” has no standing in a person’s quest for perfection. In other words, only the person may make the choices that construct his or her perfection.

    In a civic society, those with fidelity to Security may be protected from dissidents by civically-just statutory-law and law enforcement. Within Security, every (real-no-harm) personal association and art flourishes on the support of believers and adherents.

    Heretofore, the human quest for Security has been oppressed by both the hope to overcome death and the will to sacrifice life for dominant opinion. The idea of collaborating for Security so that each person may pursue private-liberty-with-civic-morality may emerge as the public good.

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