Segment from Stuck

Blame it on the Federalists

Ed Ayers blames the Founders for the logjams we face on the Hill today. Channeling the federalist papers, Jack Rakove disagrees.

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**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

PETER: These days there seems to be a new reality in Washington that gridlock and impasse are the norm, that every act of obstruction has a sort of chain reaction causing more and more obstruction. And we’re finally starting to feel the real effects of it. Sequester, anyone?

ED: Well, today on BackStory, we’re going to figure out just how and when our political system got all locked up. We’ll look at struggles, not just between political parties, but within them. And we’ll consider the true value of compromise. Has it always provided the salvation that we seem to hope for today?

BRIAN: Now, there’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs in Washington. But is it possible that we shouldn’t be pointing the finger at either of the two political parties or, for that matter, at Byzantine Senate rules or special interests or anything else that people think as having distorted the system? Could it be that it’s the system itself that’s flawed? That by creating a government which encourages all kinds of opinions from all sorts of people and then allows a stubborn minority to hold up the majority, that creating such a system, the founders were the ones who actually doomed us from the outset?

ED: Now, Brian, you’re being polite because it’s one founder in particular that we might point the finger at. And that’s James Madison, wrote the Federalist Papers. It was all about, oh, it’s good to have all these different constituencies jostling. And so I called Jack Rakove at Stanford who specializes in the work of Madison. And I asked him whether he would be a surrogate for Madison and be willing to shoulder the blame for gridlock today.

JACK RAKOVE: Well, that’s very generous of you, Ed. But, no, I don’t think I am willing to shoulder that burden. I mean, I think our problems are of our own making.

ED: OK, well, that’s a funny thing for two historians to say to each other. But let’s see if we can untangle this web. So what I was thinking is that from the very beginning the founding fathers did kind of worry about making this system of government actually work, right? What did they see as the main challenges of this new constitution they were writing?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I think the main challenge they worried about was whether or not a national government could effectively govern a republic as large and diverse and as expansive as the United States would be.

ED: So their concern of gridlock was that they wouldn’t be able to have government at all?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, yeah. I think their big concern was they wanted a government that could act legally on the whole American population.

ED: Right. It seems like a worthy goal.

JACK RAKOVE: A worthy goal. And there was a kind of great novelty in the 18th Century because the standard wisdom said that you wanted to be a republican, lower case r. If you wanted to govern according to your republican principles, you should have a relatively small, relatively homogeneous, relatively confined polity.

ED: So what did they see as the major impediments to do that? Once you accept, OK, we are going to try to have a government that covers this great continental expanse then what did they have to figure out how to make that work?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, that government would have to act by law. That is to say, would have to be able to enact and force and adjudicate its own statutes. And for law to become law, to pass a bill, to turn it into a law, would require that people coming from very different communities, again, for their great expanse, would have to be able to sit down and reason together and be able to reach some form of common agreement.

Now, we might say they could just do a lot of horse trading, a lot of dealing and bargaining, and, you know, what we can sometimes call log rolling politics. But I think the idea that they had– James Madison illustrates this particularly well– is that they wanted to cultivate a kind of political culture of deliberation. They understood that most congressman would be strangers to each other.

They wanted them to be able to think intelligently about problems for which they had no immediate background. So the whole idea that Congress would be a deliberating assembly, that its members who kind of come and go, would have to learn not just about how to make decisions but to also have to gain information from disparate parts of the country. That was part of their understanding of the whole problem of congressional government, of national government.

ED: So let me ask you a question that came over our website. So this is a quote. “What about Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 10 that political gridlock is a good thing because it protects minority rights and individual liberty?”

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I don’t think that’s exactly what Madison says. Madison doesn’t use the term political gridlock. I think what Madison imagined, particularly in Federalist 10, is he wanted to say if we want to have a republic in a modern society, we can’t expect that its citizens, or for that matter their leaders, will always be possessed of a perfect republican virtue. We have to assume that interest, passion, opinion, et cetera, always shape and often distort our judgment. So we have to be realistic about human nature.

Now, I think what Madison imagined at that point was that he wanted to offer a couple of arguments for why a National Republic, again, extending across a vast array of space, might actually be a better form of government than a state level or a community level republic. And so he comes up with two arguments. One is he says the bigger the entity, the larger the society, the more diverse, the more complicated, the greater multiplicity there would be in terms of the number of interests it would contain. And that would be beneficial. If you have a diverse, complex, modern, dynamic society with people pursuing different interests and passions, that would actually make it more difficult for the wrong kinds of popular majorities to form.

ED: So what you’re saying, Jack, it seems to me is that the people today who talk about Madison as the great protector of minority rights, in some ways have it wrong, that what he’s really doing is saying, no, the goal is to create a national government that works. And what we need to guard against are the wrong kind of popular majorities. Is that a fair paraphrase?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, it’s fair up to point, Ed. I mean, Madison very much believed in protecting minority rights. And he worried a great deal about the danger of what he called a factious majority, a majority which should have the power rule but which might well use its authority, might well use its political influence, to create legislation that would have an unjust impact.

But, again, he felt that if you created this larger polity were it would be much more difficult for the wrong kinds of majorities to form, that would be a great step forward in terms of protecting minority rights. But, again, at the same time, he and his colleagues in Philadelphia, they weren’t trying to deadlock government. They were trying to make government more effective. They wanted to deliberate better, but they also wanted it to be able to act. And so the idea that the framers left us this complex system that’s primarily responsible for vulnerable to gridlock, I think that’s a great mistake. I think it ascribes to their concerns, really, institutions and practices that have evolved since for reasons that had nothing at all to do with what the framers thought they were up to.

ED: So when did we go wrong?

JACK RAKOVE: Well, you know, Ed, I’m just an 18th Century historian. So I can always say this is [INAUDIBLE].

ED: On BackStory we just go ahead and talk way out of our depth all the time. Go ahead.

JACK RAKOVE: Well, I would say, look, I think it’s been essentially developed over the last 40 years.

ED: Wow.

JACK RAKOVE: I mean, I think the rise of the filibuster for the explicit purpose of protecting the South against legislation designed to undo the damage of Jim Crow– I mean, I think far and away that was the single worst development in American politics. And then the transformation of the filibuster from a device used to protect a regional interest into a parliamentary maneuver that you could apply under almost any set of circumstances, it seems to me that’s been the great disaster.

ED: Jack Rakove is a historian at Stanford University. His latest book is Revolutionaries, A New History of the Invention of America.

PETER: Well, Brian, there it is. It’s the 20th century that messes things up, not my 18th Century.

BRIAN: Peter, you’ve got me up against the ropes. I got to admit it. But, fortunately, ding, saved by the bell. That’s because we got to take a short break. But when we get back, we’re going to take on that scourge of modern Washington, the filibuster. And we’ll hear why every time the Senate thought they had buried it, it’s dead hand came out of the grave to strangle the Senate into even more stalemate.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.