By Bill Bolling
Bolling served as Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 2006-2014. He is currently serving as a Senior Fellow in Residence for Public Service at James Madison University.
It has been 230 years since James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 articles and essays to promote ratification of the United States Constitution. In those writings Mr. Madison and his colleagues talked of the promise of the democratic form of government they had created, but they also warned us about the very deterioration in American democracy that we are experiencing today.
No one who objectively looks at government today, especially at the Federal level, can argue that it is working the way the Founding Fathers intended it to work. Hyper partisanship and rigid political ideologies have polarized and paralyzed our nation and rendered us seemingly incapable of finding meaningful solutions to the challenges we face.
The amazing thing is that James Madison warned us about this very thing more than 230 years ago. In the Federalist Papers Mr. Madison warned that “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” and argued in favor of a government that made decisions based on reason and avoided passion whenever possible. When one looks at the hyper-partisanship and rigid ideologies that grip political conduct these days one can’t help but wonder if this is the very sort of “passion” that Mr. Madison talked about.
Fortunately, in the Federalist Papers Mr. Madison also gave us the prescription for overcoming unbridled passion and restoring reason in public discourse. His writings should serve as a corrective roadmap for a nation that needs to be reminded that even though government is not working today the way the Founders intended, some sense of balance can be restored if we follow the wisdom of the ages.
First, Mr. Madison talked about the importance of civic engagement. That means having an educated, enlightened and engaged citizenry. Do we have that today?
In a recent survey, More in Common, an international initiative to build societies and communities that are stronger, more united and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarization and social division, determined that only 33 percent of the American people belong to political extremes, but it is these political extremes that seem to be dominating politics in American today.
On the other hand, the More in Common survey found that 67 percent of the American people fall into a category that they called The Exhausted Majority. The Exhausted Majority does not agree with hyper-partisan politics and rigid political ideologies. They simply want their leaders to work together to solve problems and get things done. The problem is that these more rational thinking Americans are not engaged in today’s political process and they need to reengage if we are to preserve American democracy as we know it.
Second, Mr. Madison talked about the importance of civil conversation. Mr. Madison realized that America, even in his time, was made up of people who had lots of different political ideologies, principles, opinions and beliefs. He argued that all of these differing viewpoints should be listened to, considered and respected. This was, to Mr. Madison, the very essence of Liberty.
But today it seems like everyone is riding their own political hobby horse, and they refuse to give credence to anyone that disagrees with them. Enlightened thinkers realize that no one has a monopoly on good ideas and that in a diverse society everyone is entitled to their viewpoint. It is only after considering all differing viewpoints that purposeful decisions can be made.
Finally, Mr. Madison stressed than in a diverse society with many differing points of view on almost every issue, progress can only be made when people are willing to focus on what unites them and not what divides them. That’s called compromise. And contrary to popular belief, compromise is not a four letter word or a sign of weakness. It is the essence of a working democracy.
Unfortunately, to the political extremes compromise, consensus building and common ground are to be disdained. They would rather make points and pick fights than solve problems and get things done. But given the big issues facing our country today, and given the polarization that clearly exists in our society, governing has to be about more than breaking the dishes. It has to be about bringing people together and finding where the concentric circles of opinion intersect on any given issue.
Civic engagement, civil conversation and compromise. These are the building blocks of a successful democracy as Mr. Madison saw it. His advice was sound in 1788, and it is still sound today.