The 2016 election, and its aftermath, has been filled with troubling information about online aspects of American politics. These problems include use of social media to disseminate misinformation and fake news (some linked to Russian propaganda activities), exploit the echo chamber phenomenon in online behavior, and prioritize incendiary speech. Controversy arose over the appointment to a White House position of someone who used online media to spout divisive rhetoric and provide digital succor to dangerous political views and groups.
Hand-wringing over the responsibilities of social media companies and users for the perceived deterioration of political discourse online continues, but, with Trump’s election, concerns are rising that the penetration of online communications into American politics opens space for political factions to metastasize, gain support, and undermine representative government and deliberative democracy.
In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison addressed the dangers that zealous factions present to the rights of citizens, the nation’s interests, and the government’s functioning. For Madison, factions are a byproduct of liberty, and, thus, present threats given the “vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” Madison did not believe individual leaders would “break and control the violence of faction” because “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
Instead, Madison argued that representative democracy within a federal system provided the means to control the harmful effects of political factions. Through republican and federal governance, “the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
Certainly, social media and other online activities now form part of the “vicious arts” of electoral politics. Internet-based communications give mainstream and fringe political groups the means to expand their numbers, harden their interests, and inflame their passions. But, Madison might observe, digital technologies are not the cause of a divided polity and the ugly nature of political discourse. For Madison, the “zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points” has long “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Madison reached this conclusion without despairing through a post-truth Twitter feed.
The Madisonian perspective appears in arguments that the challenges of governing in a representative and federal democracy will control factional forces energized by Trump’s campaign and election. These and other constraints factor into debates about whether, in the transition, Trump is tempering his rhetoric and positions and distancing himself from some alt-right groups.
Madison believed that the “most common and durable source of factions" arises from "the various and unequal distribution of property.” Populist anger, anchored in the economic travails of the white working class, carried Trump to victory. As in the past, economic policy will remain the enduring arena of political competition for the Trump administration and the Democratic Party, rather than many issues that generate much sound and fury online.
Madison’s great concern was a faction wielding majoritarian power in ways that “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” At present, cyberspace seems a place where factional interests proliferate rather than consolidate. In Madison’s terms, online activities extend the political sphere and “take in a greater variety of parties and interests,” making “it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”
The 2016 campaign saw both parties harnessing online channels to herd motley coalitions of voters to support their candidates. However, despite Trump’s social media prowess, the Republican Party’s victory leaves people struggling to identify coherency in Trump’s political positions, the party’s governing philosophy, or the new administration’s policy blueprints. The Republicans have majority power, but they are not clearly the kind of unified, majoritarian faction Madison feared. In some areas, such as national security, hostility between the Trump team and Republican officials and experts during the campaign continued after the election and is on full display in social media. The rocky nature of the transition reflects not only criticisms from Trump opponents but also schisms within the GOP.
Reading Madison today proves something of an antidote for anxieties about the impact of online media on U.S. politics. If, as Madison argued, "liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” then the internet and social media are not the causes of the political drivel, deceit, and delusion disseminated through digital devices and networks. Online political discourse does not permit “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs” to circumvent easily the protections representative democracy in a federal system provides for the enjoyment of liberty. This “republican remedy” for political factions does not always produce the best outcomes for the nation, but it sustains the republic.