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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6 Responses to Federalist Papers Scorecard: We’re Losing

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Cunningham,

    I am very happy to see that students are reading this important work. You are correct that the thinking of those three men certainly isn’t reflected in the actions of the Tea Party. That’s a shame. Though I am a Republican outside their ranks, I have many friends in the movement, and I have spoken to them about the importance of learning about the founders themselves, and the debates they had, instead of just worshiping the Constitution without context.

    You will be happy to know that at least one prominent conservative opinion writer (Rubin of the Washington Post) did cite the Federalist Papers in her column during the shutdown. (Link here.)

    Finally, I found your use of the word “scorecard” inspiring! Yes, political interest groups have, unfortunately, scorecard-ed our legislators into gridlock, but it would probably be amusing to have a scorecard website that graded our legislators today based on how well their behavior was in line with the thinking of the founding fathers.

    (After all, Senator Cruz’s misuse of the words of James Madison in political speeches sure is jarring, is it not? Perhaps he deserves a negative rating from the men he trots out to support his folly.)

  2. Brad Lovoi says:

    Ed, as a fellow non-tea party Republican, I think that you and Mo’s assessment of this is dead on. I hear an amazing amount of factually incorrect rhetoric that gets repeated again and again (especially on talk radio). As someone who agrees that we need reasonable fiscal restraint, these folks are in fact sabotaging the effort by their actions. The GOP brand name is worse now than it was three weeks ago – how is that working out for ya Ted Cruz et all?

    Every year I have my students read and hopefully comprehend Federalist #10 as the context of the framers intentions are vital to understand. An educated public is vital so as not to be trapped by the rhetoric and half-truths of the extreme left or right.

  3. William Binder says:

    Prof. Cunningham,

    Hope all is well. Your Lincoln class is my reigning favorite class that I have taken in college.

    Would not the Founders’ have been sympathetic to those opposing the expansion/creation of a government bureaucracy–which the PPACA does–whose actions would so intimately touch the individual citizen?

    The concept of positive liberties would have no doubt been foreign to Madison, Hamilton etc. There is no doubt in my mind that the passage of Obamacare and subsequent decision by the Supreme Court fundamentally changes the relationship between the Federal government and individual citizen.

    Depending on your position, this may either be a good thing or a bad thing.

    I think that the debate is framed like this: Positive liberties: Progressives (FDR, Obama etc.) vs. Negative liberties: Conservatives (Framers). Why beat around the bush?

  4. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Ed, Brad, and William,

    Thank you for commenting and my apologies for the long delayed response. The Federalist Papers are always worthy of reading and debate. It is important for intellectuals of the left and right to struggle with the ideas of that period which can anchor us as well as refine and enlarge our own views. I know that Ed and Brad are especially involved in the project of maintaining an intellectual component of the conservative movement.

    It is hard to be definitive what the Founders might have had to say on ACA or other modern policies (a standing army, for instance). Jefferson might be the most skeptical about a stronger role for the central government of course — but it was also Jefferson who recognized that outlooks must change with experience and the progress of the human mind! I can only imagine what Hamilton might think about repudiating the national debt.

    Thanks to all for contributing your comments.


  5. William Binder says:

    The Founders’ greatest fear, in my opinion, was that of the power of a central government eroding the liberty of the individual. The Tea Party is opposed to bureaucratic despotism in the form of the ACA.

    Hopefully I won’t be targeted by the IRS come tax time for openly defending the Tea Party. The IRS are an extremely powerful agency in an extremely powerful bureaucracy, and have been shown to use that power to attack the liberty of political opponents.

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