Federalist Papers Scorecard: We’re Losing

Even those with limited expectations for the Congress would assume members to have mastery of junior high civics concepts. Such optimism was misplaced in the Tea Party which brought the country to the brink of crisis over the simple notion that a law passed by a previous Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court might go into effect.

Tea Party Patriots worship the Constitution of course. Since my students and I have been reading The Federalist Papers together this semester I’ve been struck with how our modern practices are matching up to The Federalist Papers. Not well, I’m afraid.

To stay with our Tea Party and Republican friends for a moment, let’s consider the odd notion of majority rule. I wrote about this in The Tea Party and the Violence of Faction. James Madison distrusted faction; the Founders disdained permanent political parties. A minority of House members in the Tea Party managed to close the government for two weeks and imperil the entire world economy. In Wednesday’s abject surrender Speaker John Boehner agreed to end this mess by taking the extraordinary step of allowing a vote in the House, where a majority has always existed to open the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Speaking of Boehner, as James Madison knew “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

The Founders also hoped that the Electoral College would elevate “continental characters” to the executive position. Don’t blame them for not foreseeing George W. Bush.

Madison’s plan in Federalist 57 was that “the House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.” It doesn’t take a junior high level of sophistication to understand that we’ve fallen short of that design. Rather than a habitual recollection of their dependence on the people, Democratic members of Congress face a habitual routine of four hours of dialing for dollars from campaign contributors each day.

I want to make special mention of our own Attorney General Martha Coakley. The Founders were concerned with demagoguery from politicians practicing the “little arts of popularity.” Among the arts feared was cheap flattery of the public. Consider this confection from Coakley’s video announcing her candidacy for governor: “But what we really have are the strongest, the toughest, and most resilient people in this nation . . . ordinary people with extraordinary courage, people who you’ll see in the grocery store or at your kid’s game or in the next cubicle over at work or at church or the beach.” (Thanks to Scot Lehigh for this so I didn’t have to listen to the video twice).

There is a scarcely a noble virtue not exemplified in every little hamlet of our fair commonwealth. The children are all above average, the little rascals. Our boy and girl scouts even pause to help aging political scientists across busy intersections. It makes one tingle to reflect upon our magnificence. By gosh, we deserve Martha Coakley.

Of course there have been a lot of changes since the days of Madison and Hamilton. We have direct election of U.S. senators. Constitutional protection for slavery is out and the vote for women is in.

But maybe a few of the Founders old ideas could be upheld; like the majority vote.




About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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