Why James Madison would say our real problem is not misinformation

A founding father concerned with faction

By Publius (pseudonym) [Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison]. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

by Danielle Allen and Justin Pottle

It was a time when elites were worried about a public manipulated into nationalist fervor by divisive populist figures. Students were not being taught how to tell propaganda from facts, was the concern. So in the 1930s, department store magnate Edward Filene and a small group of educational reformers founded the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) in hopes of teaching young people to identify and resist information manipulation.

The project was adopted widely and greeted with public applause, at first. But as World War II drew near the dry, even-handed approach of the Institute began to rankle. In June 1939, an IPA journal article cast a British royal visit and exhibit at the World’s Fair in New York as attempts to manipulate American into supporting the Allied Effort. The Institute criticized President Roosevelt as a propagandist. In critics’ eyes, these attempts at neutrality smacked of moral equivalency between the Allied powers and Nazism. Columnist Dorothy Thompson lambasted the Institute’s project as “a remarkable hoax… propaganda [that] presents itself as an anti-propaganda campaign.”

If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. In the current moment, many are calling for media literacy campaigns to thwart the current wave of misinformation. But misinformation isn’t new, and our problem is not, fundamentally, one of intermingling of fact and fiction, not a confusion of propaganda with hard-bitten, fact-based policy. Instead, it’s what we now call polarization, but what founding father James Madison referred to as “faction.”

Cover of an Institute for Propaganda Analysis book, published in 1940. Source: Hathitrust Digital Library, Public Domain, Google-digitized.

Our problem is the breakdown of institutions that facilitate valid social learning across diverse, disagreeing groups. Historically, the institutions that facilitate social learning, for example newspapers, schools, colleges and universities, have served also as anchors for shared norms of inquiry, including for the aforementioned commitment to honesty, for ideologically diverse populations.

Our media ecosystem has been transformed, with the disappearance of many local and regional newspapers. We’ve changed the way we live, and tend to be more densely concentrated in ideological groupings. Many colleges and universities have lost credibility from the perspective of conservatives. All these trends have undermined the institutions whose job it is to broker the debate within the citizenry about what different people see as credible or incredible.

These problems aren’t so different from those Madison faced in 1787. The asymmetric geographic distribution of information, interests, and worldviews weighed on him. Most enfranchised men’s experiences and knowledge were limited to the local context of what they immediately knew — their town, state, occupation, religious group, and so on. What concerned Madison wasn’t the existence of disagreement outright. Rather, Madison worried that the epistemic isolation of the vast majority of individuals would make reconciling their divergent perspectives impossible. How could one democratic union serve all these different people, who disagreed about so much?

For Madison, however, these factions of different people and experiences were relatively neatly defined by geography. It wasn’t just that people tended to live together in like-minded enclaves, but also that information did not flow freely between them. His solution was deceptively simple. Because such interests were distributed geographically, “the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties” could be achieved through “a large over a small republic.” More specifically, this meant a smaller legislature, in which each representative was elected by a wider variety of groups and individuals.

Epistemic diversity, ensured through geography, acted as a bulwark against “the vicious arts” of factional rhetoric, and incentivized the election of “diffusive and established characters” who could build majorities through moderating appeals across many groups. Their judicious “administration” of common interests would “touch the most sensible chords and put in motion the most active springs of the human heart” and generate legitimacy and republican attitudes through habituation.

With the rise of modern communications and the internet, however, we are in a different world. Geography may still divide us to some extent–after all there are red states and blue states–but it is no longer a hindrance to coordination. That is, a key premise undergirding the original design of our political institutions no longer holds. Our generation has the responsibility of finding a new solution.

Here are some ideas for a way forward.

First, we could re-institute something that looks like the draft. This might be a structure of national service that would connect citizens to communities of meaning rather than the narrow communities they know.

Second, we might establish geographic lotteries for admission to elite colleges. Elite colleges serve up leadership cohorts for our society, including the experts who learn how to operate the institutions of our representative government. Bringing young people together to learn helps expose them to other opinions.

Third, graduates of elite colleges now tend to migrate toward the coasts. Let’s restore urban-rural bridge building by creating a domestic Fulbright program. This might be a system of financial aid in which, exchange for their college tuition support, students are required to return home after college for at least two years.

Fourth, let’s revive journalism with philanthropic support, and try experiments, such as uniting left- and right-leaning organizations to support journalistic interns who cover their state capitols.

Fifth, we should look at new structures of representation. One intriguing proposal is to create multi-member districts coupled with rank order voting. The result in many instances would be districts represented by both a Republican and a Democrat. In order to their jobs, they would have to work together to collect, sort, and filter opinions–just as Madison originally expected a single representative would need to do.

Yes, we need to teach young people how to think and argue logically, to curate high quality evidence–the norms of medical literacy. But, we can’t stop there. Like Madison, we need to re-create an institutional architecture capable of dissolving, or at least mitigating, the force of faction.

This piece is adapted from “Democratic Knowledge and the Problem of Faction,” part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about how thinking about faction can help guide practical solutions to combat misinformation.