chapter  3
Federalism, Political Parties, and Interests
Pages 18

Politics energized the new U.S. government that convened in 1789, just as it had energized the states before the Constitution took effect. Over the next two centuries, those who sought to use the new government built alliances with others, organizing themselves into coalitions that could apply more pressure to the different parts of government. Sometimes great social movements consisting of a fervent mass of people arose almost spontaneously and swept across the national landscape. The strongest social movements, such as the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century or the civil rights movement of the twentieth, compelled government to respond. But such social movements are too rare, and often too unfocused and fleeting, to energize government action over the long term. In a republican government like the United States, political parties and interest groups have been much more durable forces that organize demands for government action. Even in its infancy, American government encouraged parties and pressure groups to emerge. But while its republican features fostered political parties and pressure

groups, federalism rewarded political organizations that were fragmented and decentralized. The federal system’s distribution of policy-making authority made it difficult for political parties and interest groups to centralize their power around a clear, broad national program. Parties and interest groups naturally had to focus on influencing the diverse state and local governments that governed everyday life. In response to federalism, political parties became nationally diverse, poorly disciplined, internally divided, united more by office-seeking than a clear agenda for using government power. While federalism encouraged parties that were too broad to pursue coherent national programs, it rewarded those pressure groups that focused on very limited policy goals. The American political system thus encouraged “pluralism,” an interest group system in which many relatively narrow interests compete to influence limited slices of government activity. Federalism, in short, contributed to the development of political parties that were too broad, and pressure groups that were too narrow, to stand for a clear, wide-ranging national

By building a republican national government for a people with many diverse and sometimes clashing interests, the Constitution’s framers deliberately installed politics as the engine of the government machine. In a republic, the people rule. If the people disagree among themselves about the things government should do, republican theory mandates that a majority of the people should determine what government does. But majorities do not form automatically. Political leaders must build coalitions of legislators to create a majority, and organize voters to support these legislators by electing them to office. Politics, then, brings American government alive, energizes it, and makes it work. Vibrant, dynamic republican politics already permeated American state legislatures in 1787.1 Individual legislators each represented different constituencies within each state, and each constituency had somewhat different interests from the others. Groups of these state legislators organized into thriving political factions. The Constitution’s framers fully expected the new government to work the same way. But these factions deeply troubled the Constitution’s framers, because

factions often abused power when they took control of government. During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison observed that any civilized society naturally divided itself “into different Sects, Factions, & interests, as they happened to consist of rich & poor, debtors & creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district, or that district, the followers of this political leader or that political leader, the disciples of this religious sect or that religious sect.” When these factions become a majority “united by a common interest or passion,” they would endanger the rights of others.2 Wicked schemes to gain majority power would be common in the new government, as they were common in the states. Alexander Hamilton warned that “When a great object of Government is pursued, which seizes the popular passions, they spread like wild fire, and become irresistible.”3