If there was one thing the Founders dreaded most, the thing they felt could bring down good government the most rapidly, it was the curse of faction. In Federalist No. 10 James Madison defined faction in this way:
“By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or 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 interest of the community.”
To counteract factionalism, Madison urged the participation of virtuous citizens. He would have wholeheartedly concurred with Blessed John Paul II who declared that: “Democracy needs virtue.” Madison, however, believed that faction could never be completely eliminated if democracy were to be preserved: “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires.” The cure was not to outlaw factionalism, which would be tantamount to declaring a dictatorship, but to protect the expression of many points of view through a republican form of government.
Instead of a direct democracy where a demagogue could incite a majority to run roughshod over the rights of a minority, Madison urged the representative form of government that would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
If Madison were to visit us today, what would he think? Would he consider the governmental structure he and his fellows patriots established in the 18th century equal to the challenges of the 21st century? No doubt he would take a close look at the influence of money in politics, the use of initiative petitions to bypass legislative deliberation and the powers of the judiciary.
One thing Madison would surely insist upon is that the structure of government matters. It can encourage either good or bad behavior in public officials. Structural questions may appear to be of only secondary concern, but, in fact, the mechanics of a government profoundly affect how well that government can promote the common good.