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The truth about special interest politics in America

The U.S. Capitol Building. Adobe Stock

It’s no secret that Americans are disgusted with 21st century politics.

Voters overwhelmingly believe that elected politicians and senior government bureaucrats pursue their own personal agendas rather than seeking to serve the common good. Political activists and other behind the scenes players are thought to wield extraordinary power over politicians at the expense of the American people.

It often seems as if politics is about nothing more than a fight between competing lobbyists and wealthy donors, none of whom really care about the nation or its people. Seen in this light, many seem to believe that politics would be much less offensive if we could just get the special interest groups out of the way.

As I noted a few weeks ago, Alexander Hamilton expressed the same desire concerning the debate over the Constitution itself. He dreamed of an “unbiased” debate focused only on our “true interests” and the “public good.” But, as a realist, he recognized that such a public dialogue is “more ardently to be wished for than seriously to be expected.”

In the 10th Federalist paper, Hamilton’s colleague James Madison expanded on that theme by discussing the problem of “factions.” He considered a faction to be any group of people who shared an interest “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent … interests of the community.” In other words, a special interest group.

Madison’s perspective on this matter remains relevant today because he was the person most responsible for drafting the U.S. Constitution. And, he clearly saw factions as a major problem. Like 21st century Americans, Madison blamed special interest groups for introducing “instability, injustice and confusion … into the public councils.” Not only that, such factions have “been the moral diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

Since factions could destroy the government and the nation, Madison addressed the problem head on.

He began by noting that there were two theoretical ways to eliminate such special interest groups. One was to eliminate liberty so that nobody could seek their own interests. That was obviously rejected as a remedy “worse than the disease.” The other approach was to give “every citizen the same opinion, the same passions and the same interests.” That is obviously unrealistic, sounding more like a script for the “Stepford Wives” than the foundation of a free society.

Since there is no practical way to eliminate factions, Madison argued that the real issue was how to control the effects of them. To some degree, that’s a disappointing approach. The idealist in all of us wishes it wasn’t true. But, every one of us is part of numerous organizations and communities that others see as a special interest group. What we see as the common good others see as self-dealing.

Madison’s solution is perhaps even more disappointing to those who dream of an idyllic state. He believed that a larger nation would be better able to deal with the problem than 13 individual states. Why? Because a larger nation would have even more special interest groups. Counterintuitively, Madison saw that as a good thing!

James Madison (1751-1836) on engraving from 1859.
James Madison
Adobe Stock

If the problem is how to control special interest groups, why on earth would having more factions be the answer? Broadly stated, the more factions that there are, the “less probable” it will be that any can unite as a permanent majority “to invade the rights of other citizens.”

One way to understand Madison’s thinking is to consider the upcoming Super Bowl. On Sunday afternoon a couple of hundred million Americans will gather to watch the game or enjoy a party. Polling indicates that most fans, myself included, will be rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs. But most of that support for the Chiefs is limited to this particular Super Bowl. Once the big game is over, the vast majority of fans will return to rooting for their own favorite team.

As Madison saw it, various factions will undoubtedly unite temporarily on specific issues. But the alliances will shift with the issues and the times.

In a small state, where there are fewer interests, it was easy for him to imagine a small number of factions dominating the political dialogue to the detriment of others. They would impose a tyranny of the majority on other citizens.

But in a large nation with countless special interest groups, the majorities that form will be fleeting (like the majority rooting for the Chiefs). The beauty of that dynamic is that just about every American will sometimes align with majority opinion and sometimes with the minority view. Recognizing this, wise citizens would naturally be mindful of respecting the rights of those in the minority.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the reality of how Madison’s vision is playing out in the 21st century. Down the road, I’ll also take a look at a concern ignored by advocates of the Constitution: that a powerful federal government could become a dominant special interest group unto itself.

For now, however, I’ll simply note a disquieting reality about the special interest competition in 21st century America. It is not proof that something has gone wrong, it’s the way the system was designed to work.