Princeton professor Danielle Allen—see Peter Schramm’s post below--fears that the Founders’ achievement can more readily be overthrown today than at any time in our history: majority faction, Madison’s great enemy in Federalist 10, is more readily attainable now than before, with the Internet “enabling much more effective factional organization than the Founders could have imagined.” But the Internet makes possible the contrary possibility, a kind of best regime. We need to appreciate Allen’s point by noting her reliance on Madison that underlies her speculation about the Internet. Her bold proposal suggests restoring features of the ancient polis and thus give logos, reasoned speech, a greater force in politics than has ever existed.
Even before the Internet a factionalized Congress was behaving in the way Allen fears. Congress has rejected its primary Madisonian role as reconciler (and therefore destroyer) of factions and instead becomes the conduit for each faction getting its own way. If former Speaker Gingrich had been smarter, this is what he would have made his primary object of reform. But he and his predecessors merely attempted to game this system and use it to extend their own majority while using pro-Founding and anti-faction rhetoric. The scheme worked remarkably well for three elections but stalled in 2006 and crashed in 2008.
With Obama’s success in using the Internet (one she contributed to, it should be added), Allen would like “to remake the tools of factional organization as instruments of broad, cross-partisan and respectful public engagement.” However, “the Obama team’s digital network could well become nothing more than an outsized, 21st-century version of a ward machine. If it can be done, it could restore a richer experience of citizenship."
But “ward machine” and patriotic citizen politics are not incompatible (see Plunkitt of Tammany Hall). Whether “team” Obama acts to link both aims is an open question. Like the Republicans in Congress they may well decide to run up the score against hapless Republicans by using their expanded power, thus confirming Madison in his fears.
As many of us who have taught before the Internet age have noted, students today may read a lot of news, but it is news they choose, thus building their own caves around them rather than acquiring means of recognizing their caves for what they are. Human ingenuity turns out to be the basis of a profounder human bondage. Instead of the best of the polis we get a smothering soft despotism, which may be the prelude to a harsher one.