Contrary to much of the often-heated rhetoric we hear at times, the American Constitution was not adopted for the purpose of limiting the power of the federal government. We already had, under the Articles of Confederation, a federal government of limited powers. The Constitution was adopted for the purpose of increasing the power of the federal government, with the important caveat that there must be a way to ensure that the federal government could not abuse those increased powers enumerated in the text.
James Madison famously proposed two principal methods for preventing such abuse. The first method is a structural one, based upon institutional design, which encompasses both separation of powers and federalism. The second method, though, was not the Bill of Rights, but a sociological approach, with its focus on the theory of what Madison called the extended republic.
In this context, I argue that because television, talk radio, and social media appeal, by their very nature, to emotion and immediacy rather than to the reasoned reflection and deliberation emphasized by those who wrote and ratified the Constitution, they threaten to shrink the extended republic by turning it into a “virtual” small republic and thereby renew on a national scale the possibility of demagoguery. That is, the mass media threatens to create the factionalism that Madison’s sociological approach was intended to forestall.
In one of the most famous lines in American political thought, 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.
What is significant here is the idea of majority faction: while we typically think of a faction as a special interest and thus as a minority of the whole, Madison contends that a majority of the whole may act as a special interest with concerns “adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” It is after concluding “that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects,” that Madison introduces the sociological approach to the problem of majority faction, viz., the extended republic.
The central rationale for the extended republic is this:
Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.
What will convince members of a majority faction to cease and desist, according to this argument, is not the realization that they should not act on their factional passions and interests, but the realization that they cannot act on their factional passions and interests. The advantage offered by the extended republic, Madison suggests, makes it difficult for potential members of a factional majority to communicate and organize.
It is precisely the ease of communicating and organizing over a small, limited territory that renders a democracy unable to prevent the formation of factions. Madison speaks of “communication and concert” resulting from the form of government itself in a pure democracy, but his point is sociological as well as institutional. In the smaller, demographically homogeneous, face-to-face society traditionally considered necessary for a republican form of government, people are more likely to be among family, friends, and acquaintances, and thus more able to communicate and organize.
Now, because a pure democracy requires that citizens be able to gather together to discuss and decide matters of policy and common interest on a face-to-face basis, that form of government cannot exceed the limits of a relatively small territory. A scheme of representation, by contrast, allows for a “greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican, than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former, than in the latter.” Specifically, Madison’s classic argument is as follows:
Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.
The fundamental premise of this argument is that given the “greater variety of parties and interests” in an extended republic, there will be no natural national majority—i.e., any national majority can be only artificial, so to speak, a temporary coalition of minorities. The larger the number and greater variety of parties and interests in an extended republic, the less likely their lowest common denominator would be factional. What is more important, however, is that in contrast to the ease of communication and organization possible in a smaller society, the communication and organization necessary for the growth and activity of factions become more difficult in a larger society. Madison writes: “Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.”
The key, then, to controlling the effects of faction lies with the necessary conditions of faction, communication and organization. To prohibit communication and organization outright would involve “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence,” a remedy, Madison contends, that would be “worse than the disease.” The better course of action, consequently, is to make communication and organization as difficult and unlikely as possible, which would be the case in an extended republic. Faction amounts to potential social dynamite, and it is clear from The Federalist that for Madison and Alexander Hamilton, demagoguery is the fuse. The language employed by both Madison and Hamilton—“the artful misrepresentations of interested men,” men “who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests,” “the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate,” “the wiles of parasites and sycophants”—evinces their concern about the demagoguery that sparks faction.
The contemporary political problem regarding demagoguery pertains to the mass media and is twofold. First, most people obtain whatever news, information, and opinion they seek from the mass media, by which I mean primarily the broadcast media of network television, cable television, talk radio, and the Internet, and such media specialize in immediacy and emotion rather than the critical distance and sustained reflection and deliberation that enable us to keep the emotion and prejudice characteristic of demagoguery in their place. In particular, that immediacy shrinks the extended republic. Yes, Madison and Hamilton as noted above were intimately familiar with the dangers of demagoguery, but our contemporary mass-media environment, accelerated in particular by the internet and social media, is qualitatively different. As Zach Stanton writes in Politico, “Our reality now is one in which a radicalizing message can be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people in a matter of seconds.”
The second problem, however, is perhaps even more significant: the paradox of the mass media. On the one hand, the mass media give people the potential for coming into contact with a wider range of news, information, and opinion than they might have encountered or would have been able to access otherwise. On the other hand, the transition from broadcasting to the fragmentation captured by the term “narrowcasting” means that this widened range of possible news and information sources has in fact dramatically decreased the likelihood that people will hear alternative points of view. It is crucial to hear alternative points of view; if people hear only their own opinions echoed, the only way they have to explain why someone might think differently is to say that such a person is ignorant, stupid, or evil.
Because of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, no one radio or television station need give an opposing point of view. So, while there are more, different news and information sources, any particular source will itself likely be one-sided. The principal effect of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, along with the growth of the Internet, is that citizens must actively seek out alternative points of view on the issues from a variety of news, information, and opinion sources rather than having those alternative points of view appear on each and every source.
The central issue, then, is the extent to which people deliberately—rather than coincidentally or accidentally—watch, read, or listen to sources of news, information, and opinion that present alternative points of view. The danger is the possibility that people will seek simply a reinforcement of their views instead of being willing to accept a challenge to their views. Indeed, the shift to the Internet as a major source of news, information, and opinion means that people are looking for content, whereas by thumbing through a traditional newspaper we are likely to encounter news, information, and opinion for which we were not looking. As Arthur Sanders has written, “the wide variety of sites on the Web that are specific to the non-political interests of citizens may make it easier for people to avoid information about the political world that they might have ‘stumbled across’ on television news and information programs or on advertisements during television entertainment programming.”
The effect of our preference for reinforcement over challenge is to create what Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella call an echo chamber. The rise of these echo chambers has the effect, I argue, of creating virtual communities that shrink the extended republic back to the relatively small, homogeneous democracies that Madison contended are fertile ground for demagoguery and faction. Joseph Turow argues that the “creation of customized media materials… will allow, even encourage, individuals to live in their own personally constructed worlds, separated from people and issues that they don’t care about or don’t want to be bothered with.” The modern mass media foster the rise of these relatively self-contained virtual communities or echo chambers that undermine the ability of the sociological approach to the problem of faction—the extended republic—to make the communication and organization necessary to faction difficult.
To the extent that people remain within their own partisan and ideological communities, whether actual or virtual, surrounded by like-minded people that reinforce each other’s pre-existing partisan and ideological commitments, they become increasingly unable to explain how any reasonable person could possibly have alternative and even opposed partisan and ideological commitments. In our current political environment shaped by the modern mass media, 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp’s comment that the Democrats were his opponents and not his enemies rings archaic.
If the nature of our contemporary mass media is that they operate in such a way that they in effect—i.e., “virtually”—shrink the extended republic down to the turbulent, homogeneous democracies about which Madison cautioned us, the question is whether his approach still works. The sociological approach to the problem of demagoguery and faction was supposed to control the effects of faction. American constitutional design has been able to accommodate such modern technological innovations as railroads, automobiles, airplanes, and telephones, among others. I fear, however, that it cannot accommodate the modern mass media in general and the internet and social media in particular.
Dennis Goldford is Professor of Political Science at Drake University and is the author of The American Constitution and the Debate Over Originalism, and The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment.