James Madison on Greek Life

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

It’s probably fair to say that James Madison never went to a frat party. But his famous argument against the “overbearing majority” in Federalist 10 cogently addresses Swarthmore’s current controversy over the Student Council referendum and the continuation of campus Greek life.

As many are aware, several students have approached StuCo with a petition for an eventual referendum on the presence of Greek life at Swarthmore. According to the StuCo constitution, “any student may initiate a referendum with the signatures of at least ten percent of the student body.” From there, StuCo is called upon to oversee a referendum, which will pass if it receives a simple majority of votes, and at least a third of the student body votes.

I don’t doubt the sincerity behind this latest petition. In fact, I find it noble that our classmates are working through institutional mechanisms–namely a referendum–to address their concerns. But the StuCO constitution is itself flawed if it allows for such a petition to go forward, potentially encouraging a simple majority of the student body to take Greek life away from the minority of students who participate. By this logic, disgruntled students could petition against any unpopular group on campus. I fear many of the groups I personally belong to wouldn’t meet the 51 percent threshold.

To be clear, I don’t have strong feelings for or against Greek life, though I do wish to shed light on a few Madisonian principles that should prompt a revision of the StuCo Constitution and the referendum process.

At Swarthmore, we regularly indulge in puffed-up rhetoric about our all-inclusive community, but Madison would rightly see us as a community of factions. When Madison describes factions as constituencies which  “are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion,” I naturally picture The Daily Gazette faction, The Phoenix faction, the Phi Psi faction, the DU faction, the newfound Theta faction, and, of course, the anti-Greek faction–along with any number of other competing niche groups. Factions in themselves are not bad, though they are prone to squabbling and annoying others with their presence, as people on various sides of the Greek drama now staged at Swarthmore can surely attest.

However, the only thing worse than factions is their absence. In the Federalist 10, Madison memorably writes, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” Substitute “liberty” with “Swarthmore,” contemporize the language, and you have a statement that undoubtedly rings true about this campus: Swarthmore is to student groups what air is to fire, an element without which it ceases to be a top-notch learning and civic environment.

Just because something is conducted democratically does not make it right or virtuous. Human nature being what it is at Swarthmore and elsewhere, we could “democratically” eliminate any number of unpopular political groups or religious societies on campus. But raw populism is no grounds for moral certainty. Picture the French Revolution, or better yet, The Daily Gazette‘s comment-thread wars. Clearly we need institutional checks and balances to guard against our own opinionated excess.

Some argue that Greek life is a fundamentally different issue because fraternities alter the campus “culture.” This may be true, but don’t all campus groups strive to have a cultural impact? Whether it be on behalf of politics, social life, entertainment, or just plain frivolity? If you believe Greek life is more pernicious, go out and found more factions (i.e. social clubs, dry spaces, club sports etcs) that alter Greek influence over the Swarthmore party scene.

I urge StuCo members to put on their Enlightened caps and revisit their constitution. First, I would recommend increasing the petition requirements so that at least 20 percent of campus must offer signatures. And those signatures must be publicly available. The present Greek life petition offers the option for signers to stay anonymous. I understand that not everyone wants to have his or her name aired across campus, yet this defeats the purpose of a petition–which is to take a public stand on an issue.

Second, simple majorities are dangerously populist and silencing of true diversity. Unfortunately, holding Greek life hostage to our Rousseauian “general will” in attempt to equalize campus life will only have the opposite effect. In the words of Madison, “[B]y reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.” To paraphrase, Swarthmore would suddenly be a repressive, boring place.

If a StuCo petition is successful, a referendum ought to require a two-thirds majority, with at least half of the campus voting. If the campus truly is of an overriding spirit on an issue, that will show itself in the referendum. Otherwise, we’re back to the tyranny of the majority, and we’re not tyrants; we’re Swatties.


  1. Do you really believe that anyone would be able to find 155 members of the student body to support a referendum against SASS, Hillel, or even Swarthmore Conservatives? Whoever thinks so is just moronic. Such a petition would get shut down before it even started. This petition? Quite the opposite. Just some food for thought.

    • Maybe not a moron, but you are an asshole.

      Try not to be so openly combative in your comments if you have nothing actually positive to say. Andrew’s comment on the other article, which makes a very similar point, got over 100 likes. So are we all morons?

    • At the moment, no, but it’s not out of the question to imagine a scenario in which a student group alienates a majority of the campus.

      I agree completely with Danielle’s point here, particularly the 2/3rds majority to get rid of an existing rule or institution. Of course, if a referendum got a majority but failed to clear 2/3rds, opponents of the institution would go crazy, but I agree with that institutional safeguard.

    • You would most certainly get at least 200 signatures trying to disband the Swarthmore Conservatives Club.

      As for the other ones, no way.

  2. Danielle, I’m always impressed with how articulate you are. Thanks for providing the first argument I’ve seen that addresses the question of how the use (and abuse) of a referendum, as a political tool, relates to the actual principles of democracy. While questioning the status quo is worthwhile, it’s important not to lose sight of the values that make this suggested political action possible, amidst the throes of frantic upheaval.

  3. “First, I would recommend increasing the petition requirements so that at least 20 percent of campus must offer signatures. And those signatures must be publicly available.”

    How would raising the requirements from 10 to 20 percent help? It’s still populist democracy, by your definition, just with more barriers to action and discussion.

    I do think making the petition signatures publicly available is a good idea, though.

  4. I haven’t been following all this drama too closely since I’m no longer at Swat, but this article seems to nail it. If people want to participate in Greek life then by all means let them. You don’t like it, stay off frat row on weekends. The American conception of democracy amounts to respecting others’ preferences and letting them lead their preferred lives, regardless of your own moral judgment (and as long as no one gets demonstrably hurt). I never wanted to join a frat, but I think it’s ludicrous to claim that they cause enough harm to justify taking away that option for people who do. And banning them on the tenuous grounds that they are detrimental to the campus “culture” is elitist and paternalistic in a way that I would hope most liberal Swatties recoil at. Sounds a lot like banning, I dunno, abortion and same-sex marriage for the good of our “moral culture”. Just my two cents, from a bored polisci major.

      • Exhibit A: “I haven’t been following all this drama too closely”

        Exhibit B: “(and as long as no one gets demonstrably hurt)”

        Wait… I’m not in law school so I don’t know how this works. …But in any case: If you had done some following of the drama more closely, there are plenty of people trying to tell you how fraternities have helped lead to many instances of “demonstrable hurt.”

    • JG, it’s not quite as easy as staying off frat row on the weekends.
      1) Some weekends, the only campus wide parties are held there
      2) The culture (both positive and negative) is not confined to frat row.

      Furthermore, one of the biggest oppositions to fraternities and sororities at Swarthmore is that people do get “demonstrably hurt.”

      • 1) Then organize another party, as Danielle suggests in the article. Eliminating the frats won’t make Swat’s party scene suddenly blossom. It will just mean that on those weekend instead of there being only one party that you don’t want to go to, there will instead be zero parties that anyone wants to go to.

        2) After spending four years at Swat I think this is just patently untrue. The Greek culture at Swarthmore is already more isolated than at any college campus I’ve ever experienced. It’s really quite easy to avoid if you prefer it that way.

  5. Okay, so I have a lot of issues with this article, but I’ve been finding this whole debacle so exhausting that I’m just going to address one tiny part right now: “If you believe Greek life is more pernicious, go out and found more factions (i.e. social clubs, dry spaces, club sports etcs) that alter Greek influence over the Swarthmore party scene.”

    Okay, no. This is not a premise that works. If an organization does more harm than good on our campus, should it be permitted nonetheless just because people can make counterpoint organizations (or events, or w/e)? What if I wanted to start a KKK club on campus? What that be completely acceptable to you because people can create anti-racism organizations? What if I wanted to designate a space on campus for people to come and talk about how much they hate queers? Would that be okay because SQU exists?

    The question of whether Greek life belongs here is a matter of keeping students on this campus safe. Student safety should be a trump card to literally everything else. Countless minority students–women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and combinations thereof–have now come forward and said that they have experienced discrimination, harassment, and/or assault under circumstances that were inextricably linked to the existence of the frats and frat/Greek culture on this campus. The response to discrimination and other forms of violence cannot be a pat on the head and the suggestion that the minorities who have experienced such things take it upon themselves to create spaces unwelcoming to the insidious attitudes and behaviors that a lot of people are convinced are endemic to Greek life.

    For the record–before any DG comment trolls go there–I am not suggesting that the frats are as dangerous a presence on campus as a KKK branch would be. I’m also not even convinced that frats do more harm than good on this campus, or that they necessarily must be removed to maintain the safety of our college. I just believe that this discussion needs to keep happening, and people need to open their ears, minds, and hearts to the stories people have been telling about their bad experiences with frats and they deep concerns with the expansion of Greek life at Swat. And most of all, it is horrifying to see the rampant victim blaming and privilege denial that keeps spilling from every corner out of the mouths and keyboards of so, so many pro-Greek Swatties.

    Bigotry shouldn’t be tolerated here, period. If you are of a privileged class and haven’t yourself experienced discrimination based on your gender, sexuality, race, etc., then don’t ever presume to know what is true about or best for those who aren’t and have.

  6. there is a difference between discussing the abolition of Greek life and discussing the banning of a religious or political group. Both aim to affect campus culture, yes, but the argument made here is that Greek life affects campus culture by facilitating racist, sexist, and homophobic elements. Those racist, sexist, and homophobic are so-called “factions” in their own right, and silencing them is equivalent to silencing a subset of the population. But the assumption here is that we have, as a community, decided to give license to ‘oppressing’ racism, sexism, and homophobia. While you make some valid and important points, and while I strongly dislike the ‘bro-culture’ fostered by the fraternities, and while I do not support the dismantling of Greek life as an intelligent solution to the problems recently brought to light, it is not at all fair or accurate to connect and compare this issue with a slippery slope into cultural homogeneity. This event should NOT be used as fuel for your own agenda concerning majority-driven, on-campus liberal domination. (I do agree that there is oftentimes too much bulldozing and dismissal of alternate points of view [conservative, republican, religious] that are not conducive to true dialogue, but your article is misrepresenting the situation for what I can only imagine to be your own intents and purposes– those have their own weight and deserve to be expressed in a different space.)

    • Those racist, sexist, and homophobic are so-called “factions” in their own right, and silencing them is equivalent to silencing a subset of the population. But the assumption here is that we have, as a community, decided to give license to ‘oppressing’ racism, sexism, and homophobia.

      I would just like everyone to re-read these sentences. They equate the practice of marginalizing and oppressing groups to calling out people for being bigoted. As if people fighting for their rights belong in the same category as people trying to take someone else’s rights away.

      At this time, I feel like I don’t have to refute any points. I just have to quote posts and everyone worthwhile will see how privileged and victim-blaming this debate has become.

      • You misunderstand me. When I wrote “the assumption here is that…”, I was making an argument more nuanced than what you think I meant. I think, on a purely theoretical level, they really are the same (both are opinions being voiced and/or censored). But I am personally totally on board with socially progressive ideas, and am therefore a big proponent of the “assumption” I stated. I just don’t think that this “assumption” holds when you push it to a sufficiently abstract depth of philosophy, hence the disclaimer and language. To re-affirm a point: I do not like frats at all, but I am not in support of their abolition– I think that is a bad solution to a very real problem. I am very much a liberal, but I am taking issue with this article because of its false premises and how it slides this Greek life issue into a broader agenda of the writer based on imagined similarities. I would also like to note your word choice, namely your condescending remark “worthwhile”– I do not think this really facilitates healthy discussion, which is, after all, the true and final goal of any honest dialogue. This point connects to the larger theme of both ‘sides’ of this debate getting far too personal and hot-headed to conduct any kind of conversation with a remote possibility of actually arriving at an understanding peace. I may come across as arrogant in this post, and I could not care less because of my anonymity, but I have ‘good’ intentions and all I’m trying to do is draw attention to how this initial article is NOT being intellectually honest with itself.

  7. Swarthmore College is a private organization, not a state, so I’m not sure if the Constitution is relevant here. Why should our college try to act as a liberal democracy? The idea of political liberty doesn’t even make sense in this context. We are living on somebody else’s private property, subject to the owners’ rules. We pay them to provide us a safe environment for education. The administration has no obligation to allow any student group the right to exist, unless banning that group would decrease the safety and quality of our education here.

  8. There is a reason for a petition to shut down greek life in general. The student body can feasibly abolish any group by a simple majority vote, but no one wants to unless it concerns greek life.

  9. “Swarthmore is to student groups what air is to fire, an element without which it ceases to be a top-notch learning and civic environment.”

    So I think what Madison meant to say was AIR is important to FIRE, not the other way around. Our groups couldn’t exist without Swarthmore (liberty). Swarthmore can exist without our groups.

  10. I think a discussion of the nature of rights is in order here. Based on your article, Danielle, I assume that you are basing the right of student groups to be protected against referendums about their existence on the philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s conception of rights.

    Dworkin believes that rights are assigned by the state to protect the morality and preferences of a minority from the moral norms of society. This conception of rights would imply that the frats should be protected from students who find them distasteful. Their right to their own morality trumps society’s right to comfort.

    However, applying this conception of rights assumes that this is just about the discomfort of our community, when proponents of the referendum observe that greek life is a concrete threat to the safety of the student body. Dworkin himself observes that rights of the minority no longer exist when providing the minority those rights does concrete harm to others. The frats have the right to be protected against the larger campus’ prejudices about the national frat system, frat brothers, and sorority girls. However, the frats right to exist should not be unassailable in the face of concrete harm, like providing an atmosphere conducive to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse of community members.

    Observing this does not imply that all fraternity members (or a majority) are rapists or drunkards. However, several comments on the Daily Gazette thread and the testimony by an openly gay student in the Gazette suggest that the frats have a negative atmosphere.

    I have observed that negative atmosphere firsthand. At a frat party, I saw frat brothers serve alcohol to a nearly-unconscious female being held up by a male. He held the cup for her to drink, and then carried her off. No one stopped him. This incident motivates me to press for reform (or failing that, elimination) of the frats.

    As to concerns for other groups, if I saw a student pouring more alcohol into a girl who could not stand on her own at a Swarthmore Conservatives meeting and heard of multiple sexual assaults occurring at your meetings, I would be first to sign a referendum against your organization. Until that point, I recognize your right to disagree with me.

    This is not about singling out a group that holds unpopular views. It is about bringing to light concerns for the safety of the student body. As such, the rights of the fraternity to unpopular opinions do not apply, unless you believe that a right to unpopular opinions includes a right to commit or condone unconscionable actions with impunity.

    • When I said “held the cup for her to drink”, I made a mistake. “Poured the alcohol into her mouth” is actually a more accurate description.

      • “No one stopped him” – including you, since you observed this firsthand. While I’m not defending the actions of anyone involved, I think a lot of people are being too quick to pass judgement on others for not doing the right thing and not standing up for others when they themselves do nothing as well. Fraternity brothers aren’t the only ones who allow these things to happen without speaking up, and I think one of the main issues here is that we as a campus need to take more responsibility for each other’s safety and stop hiding behind accusations against the fraternities and other select groups (jocks, bro culture, etc.). Ideally those in the fraternity should be responsible enough not to allow this to happen, but in reality anyone who sees something like this has just as much responsibility to do something about it.
        And I do not intend this as an attack on you, because while I’m not proud of it, I doubt I would’ve said or done anything had I been in that situation. However, I think this just goes to show that the ability to look the other way while shitty things are happening is not just a problem among fraternity members, its campus-wide. Numerous stories have come out on these comment threads of people watching fraternity members doing nothing to stop a bad situation, while they do nothing themselves, and I think its time we all take a little more responsibility to keep each other safe rather than expecting someone else to do it.

        • “No one” includes me. It is a fact that I am ashamed of three years later (but one that I left out of the previous post due to its ridiculous length). However, it is a point that is worth addressing.

          Yes, I did nothing. I can observe that I was a freshman who had been on campus for two weeks and that it was my first experience with an alcoholic party. I could also mention that at that time I was a survivor struggling with the aftermath of an assault in high school and that seeing the boy controlling the girl triggered memories in me that I could not handle. Ultimately, the reasons do not matter and it comes down to the fact that I ran instead of trying to help her. My inaction (and the inaction of the others in that room) could have resulted in her being raped. The idea that my silence could have condemned someone to my fate tortures me.

          I live with my guilt from this incident and another in which I should have acted but didn’t (not related to the frats). Since I could not change my past actions, I made that guilt bearable by looking to the future. I learned to read people’s emotions and respond, helping counsel students through crises and respond decisively in emergencies. As a result of learning how to deal with certain situations and changing my own behavior, I can look back at my time at Swarthmore proud of most of my actions in difficult times.

          After becoming an RA, I gained more power to intervene in situations than the average Swarthmore student, and also more responsibility to intervene. I think the same is true of the men who become DU brothers in their house. They control the space, so they have more decisive voices when determining what happens there. They create the rules and norms that are followed. The other students are only guests in their house.

          There are concerns that are specific to the frats. If you read Parker’s piece, it particularly brings to light concerns of group mentality. The pledging process of fraternities also creates a strong cohesion through tough events that makes humans less likely to question their fellow group members’ actions. Research in psychology about hazing suggests this. If you doubt that the frats at Swarthmore haze, ask brothers about eating entire jars of mayonnaise to get in.

          Yes, no one at the frat party intervened, but brothers gave the man more alcohol for the girl, fully aware of her condition, and watched him pour it down her throat. In so many posts, the brothers claim to try to make their party spaces a safe environment, but here they did worse than doing nothing-they actively made the situation less safe by adding more alcohol and thus condoning the boy’s behavior and worsening the girl’s condition.

          The frats are facing safety concerns from the student body, and they should address them whether or not there is a referendum. They have the chance to learn from the negative experiences of several posters, writers, and speakers, and create a space that is safer for all of us. They could publish the rules of their houses and enforce them, implement a zero-tolerance policy for brothers who use racial and homophobic slurs, kick out brothers accused of sexual assault, and create a policy around not serving alcohol to people who cannot stand on their own, for example. The frats can learn from the details brought to life for the referendum and change for the better. Hopefully, they can overcome the institutional problems mentioned by other commentators.

          The frats have an opportunity here to make the campus safer (not to eliminate all campus problems, but to reduce their contribution to campus-wide problems) by listening to feedback, learning, and changing in response. They also have the option of arguing that they have no responsibility to change because sexual assaults and intolerant language are not limited to the frats, or that those things don’t happen at the frats, or that the people challenging them have no experience with the frats and are biased, instead of growing from this experience. For all our sakes, I hope they choose the former rather than the latter.

    • This comment is spot-on. I guess I’m just inclined to think that these sort of incidents–which are utterly unacceptable–should be confronted head on with the individuals who commit them, rather than indirectly by abolishing an entire institution that serves many positive functions. I don’t doubt that instances of concrete harm occur at the frats, but I don’t think those behaviors are intrinsic to Greek life per se. Abolishing the frats just seems to me like a misguided response to a problem that is really grounded in the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of certain individuals. These individuals may or may not gather under the fraternities’ roofs, but they will remain misogynistic, racist, or homophobic regardless of whether or not the frats exist, barring some other sort of intervention.

      • I highly recommend you take a look at the book Guyland which researches the effects of all male spaces on the development of males in the critical years. Spaces like fraternities where males are together are perform rituals that reaffirm their masculinity actually works to create misogyny and change the psychological development of these men. I’m not doing the book justice right now but I would really recommend giving it a read.

  11. Maybe if the frats had better house rules for beer pong, they would be more liked and this wouldn’t be a referendum. I mean no bouncing….just dumb.

  12. I think your comparison is great and I agree with you politics. But two mistakes.

    As you used the first Madison quote, you’re saying that fire causes air. That is why you had to replace “aliment” with “element.”

    In the second quote, you discounted an important part of the sentence which precedes “[b]y”:

    Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

    In doing so, you changed the meaning of the sentence. He was saying it was an”erroneous” proposition; that is, perfect equality in political rights does not lead to perfect equality in possessions, etc.

  13. I’d like to address earlier comments regarding campus wide parties being held at “the frats”. Well Swat does assist in funding some parties at the fraternities, but the fraternities receive college funding for approx 3 parties a semester. The rest of the time, all the alcohol, food, and other refreshments are provided free of charge by the fraternity. And its a space we can go to, drink for free, and trash. They give us alcohol and clean up after us. So the argument that Swarthmore is paying for everything anyways and the fraternities should be spaces for public use is misguided and based on information that is not factual. Actually, a lot of the claims and information that people have based their arguments over are simply not true as well. Now I am in no way trying to say that people who have had bad experiences at the frats are making it up. I am simply saying that everything said in these articles and comment boards should not be simply taken for being valid and truthful. I think the referendum is a good place to clear things up. But to be crystal clear, I am simply saying that a lot of what has been said is being said by people with no knowledge of the fraternities but seem to have very strong opinions, so it would be smart to keep an open mind, hear both sides out, be skeptical, and ask questions so you can make decisions and formulate your opinions based on truths and facts, not elaborations, invented ideals or comments warped to fit someones hateful agenda

  14. I wish we could all get along like we did in middle school… I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.

  15. Relax, Swatties! If there are those among you who need a pre-selected group of friends, let them have a sorority. Making your own friends demands a personal effort that can be stressful and threatening. It can also be extremely rewarding.

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