What the Federalist Says About Conspiracies

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Since President Trump’s lead in the voting of several key states began to dwindle last week, many on social media and elsewhere have suggested that a grand conspiracy was to blame. For that to be true, however, a number of other things would have to be true simultaneously, each of them unlikely. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an American and what is at stake in the election. As on so many other issues, Americans could do far worse than to turn for guidance to the author of the Federalist.

Near the end of Federalist 10, Publius writes, “Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.”

Publius is talking here about why an extended republic will not necessarily fall victim to the worst tendencies of the republics of history, namely, majority faction and the evils it brings. But I always think about this line when I hear anything about conspiracies.

In a popular government, the twin possibilities built into human nature are often magnified—both the best features and the worst. Publius’s thinking attempts to account for both of these. In this passage, he admits the likelihood, under the Constitution or any government, of attempts by those in office to “put one over” on the public, to mislead for personal advantage, or even to conspire against the country’s good. While he is no abject cynic, his general views would suggest that, if there is an advantage to lying, you can count on such lying to occur (“If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.”). But in his point about communication of conspirators he is also arguing that, to the extent that the conspirators are aware of their own dishonor, there is a natural, human check built in. The more people you have “in” on a conspiracy, the more likely it is to be discovered. Its discovery means its likely failure. Why is this?

There’s an unstated premise in this account that has to do with the basic decency or, dare I say, virtue of the American people. Publius is arguing in part that “daylight is the best disinfectant.” Whether or not that’s true scientifically, it’s certainly a view that animates some of the ways we have chosen to govern ourselves. The move toward an open primary system and public committee hearings in Congress—the general move away from “smoke-filled rooms”—is a manifestation of this. The ultimate wisdom of these moves is perhaps debatable. If they make sense, it is because to some degree you can rely upon the soundness of the judgment of the American people. If a cadre of politicians or fellow citizens are discovered to be setting themselves up for personal advantage and against the public good, then that would be objectionable to American citizens. It would, presumably, be both objectionable and enough people would act on those objections to stop the plot once it was brought to light. I take it that even those currently agitating for the withholding of judgment about the Trump-Biden election would not dispute this. For them, perhaps, there are higher-order considerations I haven’t yet named.

For conspiracies to succeed, you have to keep them secret—it is baked into the venture itself. If the nefarious task undertaken is of a grand scale, its success is more difficult to the extent it requires co-conspirators. To this extent, the conspiracy relies on, in the chests of each one of them, the discipline needed to maintain secrecy.

In those chests there is bound to be a battle between the desire to be powerful, on the one hand, and the desire to be viewed as powerful, on the other. The former comes from the libido dominandi. The latter comes from vanity. But if that is true, then Publius suggests that vanity might undercut the ability to dominate others. Remember, Publius is talking about plots involving “consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes,” which suggests we are already in the realm of characters who may be unable to resist the temptation to gloat and may not possess strong moral fiber. The desire to be perceived as powerful may lead to a temptation to spill the beans.

I don’t think Publius would think that a conspiracy elaborate enoughto succeed could succeed under these circumstances. He’s not naïve. He understands the darker side of human nature and the human capacity for vice and falsehood. Yet he is convinced that this is only part of the story:

As 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. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

Is there sufficient virtue in human nature—in general—for self-government? As Willmoore Kendall and George Carey observed 50 years ago, the American political order is premised on the self-government of a “virtuous people.” If true, then a degradation of the moral quality of society at large might be supposed to justify any number of drastic measures (like charging the cockpit). This seems to be the place from which disputes are now being justified. Under this conviction, working to reestablish a sound public order—to reestablish law—becomes the priority; merely procedural concerns (laws on the books) or prior norms and commitments (about decency and honest dealing with others) are waved away. Such a line of thinking seems, however, to decouple the necessary connection between means and ends. In the hands of one who is corruptible or already corrupt (presumably all of us mortals), this thinking is dangerous. Taken to an extreme, the argument might justify a move away from popular government itself.

It’s true that there are more figures these days advocating a move away from republicanism, though they would argue this is not necessarily synonymous with despotism. Whatever the premises, the implication is that Americans no longer have the capacity for self-government on which Publius relies and which might be more needed than ever. Add to all this the self-conscious minority status that contemporary conservatives tend to carry with them (whether justified or not), and you’ve got a recipe for conspiracy theories coming from the right.

Conspiratorial thinking animates a lot of public discourse right now around the election and it did in the closing days of the campaign, too. If we are to be guided by Publius, it ought to be rejected.

For it to be true, election workers in several states must themselves be “in on” the conspiracy to steal the election, or be its dupes. Counting and reporting votes is a process involving a lot of hands and eyes. That’s by design. It involves monitors and judges from across our political spectrum and across the world. Seeing a conspiracy in the outcome of the presidential election might be distasteful for any number of reasons, but one very salient one is what it necessarily suggests about all of the ordinary people involved in the process. They are either witless dupes or horrible criminals. I don’t know many people like that. And I don’t think there are enough of them for such a gargantuan task as “stealing” this election. Many among us are people of goodwill. And I still think there are enough of those to have confidence in the process even if the results, at any level, are different from what we ourselves would prefer.

Conservatives ought always to bring to the public discourse an awareness of the duality of human nature. I have no objection to pursuing leads, rooting out inconsistencies, or following up on red flags, and no one should. People are capable of both nobility and baseness and there is no reason to assume that either one is absent from the process.

But if there really is a conspiracy afoot, then those who work the polls every few years, or procure voting systems in the meantime, or administer updates to them, order supplies, or tabulate results, would have to be particularly terrible examples of vice. Unless their nefariousness was so deep, their cunning so well developed, their “unjust or dishonorable purposes” so deeply ingrained, and their skills to execute their purposes so impeccably honed that a widespread plot could succeed on a national and grand scale, then it simply wouldn’t work.

I don’t think Publius would buy it. And neither should you.

Justin Litke is Assistant Professor of Politics and Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. He is currently at work on a book about the Federalist and the statesmanship and leadership of Henry Clay. 

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