Philosophy and the elections

September 7th, 2012

With election season in full bloom, Harvard University’s Harvey Mansfield has a helpful essay at the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal exploring what political philosophy through the ages has to say about elections. Starting with Aristotle and continuing through Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, the American founders, and Alexis de Tocqueville, Mansfield introduces “half a dozen passages on elections in famous books on politics that every educated person, or serious citizen, would reasonably wish to be acquainted with.”

Here is Mansfield’s introduction to what The Federalist has to say about elections:

The Federalist, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, published under the name of Publius, was written to advocate the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in 1787–88. It is not a work of political philosophy, but it shows the influence of political philosophy in the thinking of the American founders.

As against Rousseau and the opposing party of the Anti-Federalists, it argues in favor of a large republic with a diverse population inspired by the spirit of individual liberty (though not indifferent to virtue). It endorses the Lockean principle of representative government, together with the institution of periodic elections to hold that government accountable to the people. But it differs from Locke by insisting that the government be “wholly popular” in that every branch of it be derived from the people, either by election (Congress and the Presidency) or through appointment by elected officials (the Judiciary).

Moreover, The Federalist, while assuming that Americans are republican in spirit, lays particular stress on the defects of republican government. Having chosen a form of government, one must be attentive to its problems rather than merely vaunt its advantages. The main problem in republican government does not arise from the attempts of the few to usurp popular government but misrule by the people themselves; this is the problem of “majority faction.”

The people may be carried by sudden bursts of passion away from sound government into the violation of the rights of minorities and actions against the interest of the whole. This problem cannot be cured entirely by making the government responsible to the people through elections, however, because it is just in elections that their passions make take hold of them. So what is needed in addition to elections are “auxiliary precautions,” as Madison calls them. These are to form the government so as to make it difficult to compose a majority and to ensure that a majority, once made, will be extensive rather than concentrated—and hence more likely to be moderate.

Two forms besides elections are used in the Constitution to counter majority faction: the separation of powers and the creation of a system of federalism where the state and federal governments share and, to some extent, compete in the government. If we return to the distinction between the few and the many, one sees that by these formal institutions, the few are divided into rival groups competing against one another for the people’s favor—the two systems of state and federal government and the three branches within each system.

“Let ambition counteract ambition” is Madison’s succinct statement of the principle at work in the Constitution. The bane of republican government throughout its history had been demagoguery, the incitement of the many against its own interest or against the few by a single clever speaker.

The Federalist, with its auxiliary precautions, offers a remedy against demagogues that uses the few—perhaps other demagogues—to curtail them. They thus act one against the ambition of the other and, as a whole, on behalf of the true interest of the many. This is also a remedy for the inadequacy of elections.

Federalist 10 and 51 are the most famous papers in the collection, but one should be aware that whole book is a treasury of wisdom for those who wish to understand American politics.

Read Mansfield’s entire primer here.

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