Sufficient Virtue for Self-Government?

In these days of increasing acrimony and mutual mistrust, how does one apply a prudent realism to politics without succumbing to a poisonous cynicism?

Some have taken comfort in James Madison’s reassurance that, though “there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

Taken in context, Madison’s words are neither a promise nor an equivocation. Rather, they are an indication of what is at stake in the “experiment” of self-government.

“Republican government,” Madison continues, “presupposes the existence” of “sufficient virtue among men” to “a higher degree than any other form of government.” Sufficient, that is, to “restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Madison is far from believing that we can assume the existence of “sufficient virtue” for self-government in any given populace. To the contrary, he observes that every political community finds itself plagued by factions: combinations of citizens “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.”

Factions reflect the “degree of depravity in mankind” on account of which we are all-too apt to devour one another.

The root cause of any disease is the key to finding its cure. Factions arise from the fallibility of human reason, whereby the opinions of men are distorted by selfish (and short-sighted) passions. To overcome faction requires nothing more (or less) than rising above such passions and reasoning clearly about the “true interest of [our] country.”

Republican government works when a society’s institutions foster a public discourse able “to refine and enlarge the public views” in accordance with virtues such as “wisdom,” “patriotism,” and “love of justice.” When “men of factious tempers” and “of sinister designs” are able “by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means” to dominate the channels of public discourse, they may hope to “obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.”

To deny the reality of this danger today, given the profound degradation of our public discourse, is sentimentalism rather than patriotism. To despair, however, would be cowardice. If we are willing to learn from them, Madison and other “enlightened statesmen” can still teach us how to combat faction through the study and practice of civic virtues.

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