Friday, January 8, 2016

James Madison and Identity Politics

The term “identity politics” has become a dirty phrase in some quarters. At the same time, there are many people who embrace the concept. Though initially the connection may seem a little farfetched, I have of late been thinking about how this phenomenon, in part, stems from the thinking of America’s founders, particularly, James Madison.

First, I think it is important to clearly state what I mean by “identity politics” since the term has different meanings for different people. For the purposes of this post, I am defining the phrase “identity politics” to be the advocacy of political and social agendas that pertain to specific groups, such as African Americans, gays, transgender people, women, etc. In addition, regardless of how folks feel about their motives and intents, I would also include groups that now claim to be advocating for so-called privileged or dominant groups, such as white people or men.

There has always been, as there is now, a backlash against identity politics. While some of this backlash, particularly in today’s social media, is nothing but racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc., there are legitimate arguments against the existence of these movements based upon groups. The somewhat popular cry, “Egalitarianism, not feminism” is but one example that I am very familiar with. There are also folks who do not object to the existence of such advocacy groups in principle, but who are extremely critical of specific aspects of these movements. Furthermore, there are conflicts that have arisen between various movements.

The arguments against identity politics are numerous and popular. Critics point out that such movements divide, instead of unite, people. Often, an argument is presented that it is better to work on good policies and beneficial social change, regardless of the needs of specific groups. Others point out that identity politics has fostered some terrible ideas that are harmful to society or to competing groups.

What does all this have to do with James Madison? Surprisingly, the philosophy and actions of this American founder were intimately related to these issues. Furthermore, as the “father of the American Constitution,” Madison was one of the architects of modern societies that foster such movements.

An integral part of Madison’s social and political belief system revolved around the concept that many diverse belief systems could come together to form strong and meritorious ideological governmental and social systems. Madison argued that these conflicting systems would at times counterbalance and at other times complement one another, leading to a strong society and a strong republic. Ralph Ketcham, a biographer of Madison, wrote in regards to Madison’s view that special interest groups,

“would preserve freedom rather then threaten it, because no one interest would control government; each interest – economic, religious, sectional, or whatever – would be a natural check on the domineering tendencies of others. Madison made a virtue of human diversity and neutralized the selfishness of mankind.”

Madison laid out the details of this philosophy in Federalist Paper Number 51. To this day, this treatise serves as a compelling argument for a society where various factions contend and compete with one another. In it he wrote,

“society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

I would be remiss if I did not point out that Madison did not have in mind the diverse ethnic, gender-based and lifestyle-based groups that exist in the twenty-first century. He was instead confronted with a world where various economic and religious interests competed with one another. Thus, there are differences in regards to the nature of the “interests” that Madison was talking about and some of today’s advocacy. However, the same dynamics as to how these groups advocate for their interests and compete with one another apply now as they did then.

In contrast, many of America’s founders, such as George Washington, felt that the best way for a society to function was to stay away from partisanship. That virtuous people would advocate for what is right without banding into factions. In his farewell address, George Washington declared,

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.

Washington’s view of an America without strong factionalism did not prevail, and Madison’s idea that multiple interest groups competing for influence became a permanent fixture in American society as well as in the societies of democracies.

I would argue that history has shown that Madison was exactly right. All sorts of societal improvements, including those relating to human rights and justice, have thrived because individual interest groups have advocated for their interests while in competition with other interest groups. These groupings allow people to organize around very good ideas and effectively promote change. Often these interest groups are based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc.

There is, of course, a downside. Sometimes, these social justice movements push for ideas and policies that are not beneficial. These groups sometimes advocate for things that are detrimental to society as well as to other groups. Extremists and other forms of excess often drive the agenda of such groups. As someone who follows both social and political issues, I agree that many of these groups, such as feminists, antiracist groups, etc., at times foster some very ill-founded ideas that would be very bad for society. Frankly, some ideas that are coming out of movements that are based on such politics are downright awful and are in fact racist or sexist against other groups. This however, was certainly true of the factions that existed in Madison's time. This is why it is important that competing groups, as well as general conservative critics, exist to keep excesses in check.

Advocating for a vague notion of “equality” or “egalitarianism” rarely, if ever, has yielded results. The absence of interest groups means a lot less organization. Without such organization, change is nearly impossible. Furthermore, there are honest disagreements as to what is beneficial and just. If all that there was were millions of individuals expressing their views on equality and justice, with no coherent unifying themes, change would be nearly impossible, as would the coherent criticism of bad ideas.

American examples of the benefit of these groupings abound. The abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, equality for women and marriage equality are just some examples of social progress driven by these groups.  In my opinion, history has shown that, in the long run, the best ideas win out in free societies. I like the term ‘marketplace of Ideas”.The proliferation of interest groups, as well as groups organized to counter these groups, are what makes up the marketplace.

Madison is often called the Father of the American Constitution. Indeed, he had more influence in the composition of the final document than anyone else. In its balance of powers and elected representation, he helped create a government in which such a society that is characterized by competing groups will thrive.

Madison seemed to understand this formula so well. Though he would likely be baffled and astonished by today’s debates on social issues, he was, ironically, one of the architects of the system of discourse and debate that characterizes so much of our modern society. I would argue that the great social progress that Western Society has experienced over the past 150 years has been the result of this competition between interests that Madison both created and foresaw.


Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian!

This is such an interesting issue in light of today's sociology. I agree that advocacy groups will always be necessary, especially for people who do not have a voice. The helpless and the needy. As a Christian I include unborn children in this group as the most helpless group that has no voice to defend themselves.

I also am glad that we've come a long way towards protection and rights for many people groups such as minorities and the poor.

It does seem that anything can be abused and that the pendulum has swung the other way at times. I noticed you called white people "privileged". I'm not so sure that holds true in every situation or as it did fifty years ago. An example of that would be the white girl (can't think of her name) who sued the University of Texas when she found that black students with lower scores were accepted to fill racial quotas while she was rejected.
I've also read some interesting articles that Asians are also suffering from having their scores thrown out and others being accepted with lower scores for the same reason.

The paradigm has changed in many ways. But that is a discussion that could go on and on.

Have a good weekend!

Gently Mad said...

The girl's name was Abigail Fisher, just in case you were interested in looking up the article.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I did try to temper my words here and I agree that things have changed and I strongly disagree with a lot of what is coming out of identity politics. I had heard of Abigail Fisher and this is a good example as I believe that affirmative action in its current form at least has run its course. Hence my contention that we need Conservative and other groups pushing back a bit.

With that, I think that there will always be a need for groups to advocate in their interests even for non controversial things. For instance, there is a problem with rape kits in the United States. Apparently many are faulty and rapists are getting away with crimes because of it. Few, even feminist critics oppose fixing this problem.However it is taking a great deal of effort to get it done. Folks have organized under the banner of "Feminism" to do it.

It is so interesting that you picked up on the word "Privilege". I put the words "so - called" in front of it as a bit of a protest. I do not like the term and have argued against its misuse. The terms "White Privilege", "Male Privilege" , 'Strait Privilege" are being used in all kinds of untenable ways.

Suko said...

Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph! This sounds like a fascinating, thoughtful biography. I think James Madison was right. Diversity is the spice of life, and it also helps foster social progress, I think.

thecuecard said...

Hmm. I didn't realize Madison had such a hand in the notion of competing multiple interest groups -- though I realize he's considered the Father of the Constitution. I remember him mostly for being there during the burning of the White House in 1814 and how he made Brookeville, MD the nation's capital for a day. Only prez apparently to lead troops into battle. Thanks for reminding me of his beliefs, interesting. It's been awhile since I thought about Madison and Dolley!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed when it comes to ideas, variety is also the spice of life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Madison was indeed an interesting person. There is a lot more noteworthy about his life then just what I highlighted here.

Caroline said...

I can't say I was familiar with Madison, so I found this interesting.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I am trying to read more NF in 2016 and, honestly, new very little about James Madison. This does sound very well done and your review was fantastic.

R.T. (Tim) Davis said...

Brian, thank you for the fine posting/review/discussion. I will include the book in my reading plans, but I will read it with this concern (which influences my reading about "founding fathers"): 21st America is a culture/society that founders could never have imagined, and their philosophies about government and culture/society need to be considered carefully and critically; the privilege of their positions and their lingering connections with British attitudes and lifestyles affected their POVs to such an extent that "original intent" POVs in the 21st century need to be pondered and evaluated. Does my meandering confusion make any sense? In any case, thanks again for the posting/review/discussion. Best wishes from Beyond Eastrod.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline.

I guess outside of the United States Madison is not well know. Even within this country I think a lot of folks do not know a lot about him.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Diane.

I had read this book a while ago. I had just been thinking a lot about our culture of ideas and how Madison played such a big part in shaping it.

This was a great book but very long. My general commentary on it is here:

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - You make perfect sense. Indeed the world that the Founders lived in was profoundly different from our own.

With that, I think certain core concepts, in this case interests competing with one another leading to the betterment of society, are still very relevant today.

James said...

An excellent post that captures the essence of what is perhaps Madison's greatest achievements. As you note, the interests of different factions have thrived under the framework of the Constitution. This sounds like a good book.
It is more than a bit disappointing that the balance of powers among the three branches of government has begun to unravel in our era.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed the book that I referenced was really good and really long . I wrote about it here.:

Though I think that then roles of the three branches have been more or less changing over time, I agree that some of the changes over the last few decades have not been all good.

HKatz said...

"There are also folks who do not object to the existence of such advocacy groups in principle, but who are extremely critical of specific aspects of these movements."

This in particular resonates with me. Because yes, I understand why people advocate for specific groups and issues (and this can be very effective in a good way); I've done this.

But there are also strong tendencies towards needless divisiveness and really simplistic ideas about the nature of identity and of "so-called privilege," as you put it. These issues are complex, and how people interact with each other in different ways, and the history they share, is also complex, so I get frustrated with shortcuts people try to take when they quickly assign people to a broad category or assume that one historical situation is exactly like another because of some (often superficial) similarities.

Also it angers me when mobs form to punish people for using "incorrect" terminology to describe something. And monitoring people for purity in expression and thought. I've seen this repeatedly on the Internet. Another way of keeping some people in a group and pushing or keeping others out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I am with you on this. My opinion in a nutshell is that we need folks advocating for social justice. But there are really bad things also coming out of social justice movements. The things that you mentioned are just some examples.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I am with you on this. My opinion in a nutshell is that we need folks advocating for social justice. But there are really bad things also coming out of social justice movements. The things that you mentioned are just some examples.

Hence we need the balance that Madison believed in.

Maria Behar said...

This is the sort of brilliant, cogent analysis that makes your posts so interesting to read, Brian!

I totally agree that Madison had the right idea regarding how a vibrant democracy should function. Instead of creating chaos, identity politics ensures that groups promoting specific interests will be heard. Were it not for such groups, certain members of our pluralistic society would certainly not be heard. As the saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Of course, as you point out, some of the reforms advocated by these groups would be very bad for society. That’s an unfortunate but, I feel, necessary evil. I also feel that, as you say, the best ideas will win out in the end, so the metaphor, ‘the marketplace of ideas’, is an excellent one.

I really like what you say here: “Advocating for a vague notion of ‘equality’ or ‘egalitarianism’ rarely, if ever, has yielded results.” Exactly! In the case of feminism, for instance, those who support it have very definite ideas on what constitutes equality, such as the very basic ‘equal pay for equal work’. Were it not for feminists continuing to push for the implementation of this, which should be a very basic HUMAN right, I seriously doubt that any progress could be made.

I firmly believe that vague notions of what constitutes ‘equality’ open the door for abuses to take place. In fact, advocating nebulous ideas of ‘equality’ has even promoted harassment of those who uphold progressive values, especially on social media. I’m sure Madison would be aghast at the horrible situation on such sites as Twitter, for instance.

It’s obvious to me that those who push for ‘equality’, not feminism, are merely using their ‘position’ as a smokescreen to take attention off the legitimate concerns of feminists. They are also attempting to accuse feminists of an injustice that has instead been perpetrated against them (the feminists). Thus, they are attempting to turn the tables on those who fight for the rights of women by accusing them of not wanting rights for all. This is absurdly illogical, as history bears out the fact that men have enjoyed all the rights and privileges of civilization for centuries.

The above is just one example, though. There are many issues in which those who want to preserve the status quo – which benefits THEM – simply bandy terms and employ demagoguery in an attempt to support their own views, thereby twisting facts for their own convenience.

This post has piqued my interest in the topic of identity politics as it relates to Madison. I definitely need to learn more about the father of the American Constitution!

Thanks for your thoughts!! : )

Hibernators Library said...

What interesting comments about identity politics in reference to James Madison. I've not spent much time thinking about the subject as you have - you are much better read in history than I am. I'll have to tell my dad about your post, though. He'd probably have a lot to say on the subject. As always very thoughtful post. :)

Also, I see that you've posted 3 times since I took my commenting vacation. Wow. You've increased your frequency.

Maria Behar said...

I'd like to reply to Sharon (Gently Mad) in regards to the groups upholding the rights of the unborn. As a Christian, and pro-life feminist myself, I have a vital interest in seeing the rights of the unborn, as well as the rights of women, defended, and promoted.

I also agree with you, Sharon, and Brian, as well, regarding the implementation of affirmative action. The pendulum has indeed swung to the other extreme. Hopefully, things will eventually stabilize in the middle, as formulated by Hegel's dialectic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - The history of the American Revolutionary era has been a lifelong interest of mine. I have also been interested in social activism throughout my life, lately with an emphasis on women's issues. Here I managed to combine the two interests.

I have been able to post more blogs recently as I have been reading shorter works and I have had a little more time. For a while I was not posting anywhere near as frequently as I would have liked.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - Thanks for the good word Maria and thanks for the great comment.

I have the idea behind "Egalitarianism instead Feminism" to be complicated. As you and I have seen, it seems like some of the nastiness and abusive folks on social media have embraced that statement. Many others who just want to silence folks who talk women's issues have taken up that mantle.

With that I have met and communicated with a bunch of decent, reasoned and sincere folks have taken up that position. I find as a group they tend to be concerned with some of the excesses and untenable ideas coming from the feminist movement. They are also concerned with issues that affect men. These folks seem genuinely concerned with violence and discrimination aimed at women. With that, I find that as social movement, this form of egalitarian is not equipped to address issues that pertain to women such as the problem of faulty and untested rape kits, street harassment, social media harassment of women who talk about gender issues, as well as entire host of other issues.

As for Madison and the ugly situation on social media, there was a similar situation that existed in his time. The Federalists and the anti – Federalists were at each others throats. They set up rival newspapers that not only debated ideas, but that were full of acrimony, venom and personal attacks. Many of The Founders became involved in this in all sorts of unbecoming ways. An example of how out of control this became is the famous dual in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. The more things change the more things stay the same!

I agree that, although I disagree with the position, that Pro – Life is one of the interests that is part of today’s marketplace of interests and ideas.

Tracy Terry said...

Thanks for another thought provoking post.

Madison certainly sounds like one of those people who may well appear in those lists in which people cite who they would like to invite to a dinner party. Reading your post I know I'd love to discuss just how baffled (or not) he was by today's social issues.

Violet said...

Hmm, well, you know I don't agree with you on the question of white male privilege, and I'm inclined to think that all politics is 'identity politics', because we all have a political agenda based on our class, race, gender, etc. I'm still hoping the patriarchy will get smashed one days and women can have a turn at running the entire planet. I think history would look very different if women had written it and for sure, some of those members of the patriarchy would be very surprised by the social changes that have taken place. Still a long way to go, though. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Indeed Madison was a compelling character.

It would be so neat of we could pull these long gone people up from the dead to discuss today's issues.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet -

I miss our chats on Twitter :)

White males have undoubtedly been the dominant group through the West. I am not questioning that or the fact that folks are rightfully challenging that narrative. I was referring to a hard Left ideology that seems to have tuned the words White/Straight/Privilege into a strident ideology that advocates all sorts of untenable ideas, dismisses violence if not committed by white people, dismisses marginalized white people, etc.

I think that other groups will continue to assert themselves and we are heading towards a better future for everyone.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where women would have been the dominant group as opposed to men (Stories of matriarchal as opposed to matrilineal societies seem to be Universally false. I agree that such a society would be a lot more peaceful and perhaps better in many other ways.

R.T. (Tim) Davis said...

Because of your posting and the interesting comments/discussions, I have added this one to my library hold list. Thanks helping me expand my horizons. The old dog continues to learn new tricks! Aarf!

Brian Joseph said...

I am glad that you are going to give this a try R.T. This is a long one. I look forward to your commentary on it.

One is never too old for new interests!