The Politics of Passion: A Lesson from The Federalist Papers


In an era when Americans seek political leaders who display “authenticity” rather than prudence, a look back to the Federalist Papers makes clear the importance of a politics based on moderation rather than passion.

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Back in September, Jonathan Merritt wrote that “Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him. Yet somehow, the Manhattan billionaire has attracted their support.” Merrill doesn’t mention that Trump has said his sister—a federal judge who ruled in favor of partial-birth abortion—would be a “phenomenal” Supreme Court Justice, or that Trump has donated to Planned Parenthood, or that Trump fully supported TARP and the auto bailout, or that Trump has spoken in favor of a single-payer health system (i.e., socialized medicine), or that Trump once berated Romney for being too strict on illegal immigration. The list is endless.

There is no evidence that a Trump presidency would promote evangelical values; in fact, there is more evidence that he would oppose them. Yet Trump continues to be the favorite candidate of evangelical voters. They do not seem to be asking the most basic questions, like whether this candidate has the right principles; whether the candidate offers a realistic plan for realizing those principles within the constraints of our political system; and whether the candidate demonstrates the character, experience, and virtue to make that plan succeed. How do we account for this evident discrepancy between these voters’ principles and their expressed political preferences?

Many American citizens today are angry, frustrated, and not a little bit frightened—and with good reason. Every day, news from abroad is filled with stories of social, economic, and political breakdown, not to mention warfare, violence, oppression, and deprivation. Meanwhile at home we witness firsthand the unraveling of social and familial bonds, an anemic economy, an unsustainable welfare state, and a class of political and economic elites that seem either incapable of or unwilling to address our deepest problems. Perhaps worst of all, our hard-won political victories seem to have done nothing to slow the decline.

If Homer were to write an epic for our time, it might begin, “Sing, goddess, the anger of American conservatives / and its devastation, which put pains a thousandfold upon the nation.” The ruinous effects of blinding, self-destructive anger on individual persons and political communities is a recurring theme in the great literature of the West, from Homer’s Iliad (Greece) to Virgil’s Aeneid (Rome) to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (England) to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (America).

Wisdom in Times of Crisis

In the current political climate—where the stakes in the next presidential election are so high, yet the conditions for choosing well seem so dim—it may help to take a step back from the immediate spectacle that daily feeds our passions, in order to gain a clearer perspective on the challenges we face. America was born in a series of crises, and fortunately, at the time we had statesmen equal to them. We are largely indebted to these men for the liberty and prosperity we currently enjoy, and which seem increasingly threatened. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams were not saints, nor did they believe that the regime they were founding was perfect—but they left a legacy of practical wisdom that we would do well to heed. We should pay particular attention to those things we find most difficult to hear.

It is notable that the only moral virtue specifically mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is prudence, and that The Federalist Papers begin with a plea for moderation. Meanwhile today, these two virtues are commonly treated with suspicion, if not outright contempt: Prudence is equated with unprincipled pragmatism, and moderation with servility and cowardice. Then why did the Founders consider these two related virtues the very foundation of a free society and free government?

The answer is simple: Political liberty depends on citizens’ interior liberty, and interior liberty is only possible with prudence and moderation. Prudence is the intellectual virtue ordered to truth in action. It helps human beings deliberate well about what is truly good, and directs the will to these ends like an arrow to its target. Moderation is the moral virtue that prevents passion from blinding prudence—not just base passions like envy, lust, and greed, but even more noble passions like anger, which is related to a love of justice.

As Aristotle points out in The Nicomachean Ethics, moderation (sōphrosunē) is named for its power to “preserve prudence” (phronēsis) from passion. No matter how well one understands the proper ends of human action, one will have great difficulty achieving them without prudence. Meanwhile, without moderation, prudence is unable to see its way through the cloudy medium of passion. Prudence and moderation are the handmaids of reason; they stand, or fall, together.

True statesmen seek to harness passion for the sake of truth, whereas demagogues feed the passions for their own self-aggrandizement. The difficulties of statesmanship and dangers of demagoguery are compounded in an emotivist culture like our own, where every evaluative statement begins with “I feel.” Increasingly it is “passionate intensity” rather than reason that dominates our public discourse. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal quotes John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics: “[Young people] look for candidates who are focusing emotion, talking about the moment, being authentic.”

It was Allan Bloom who first warned Americans of the Heideggerian origins of the concern for “authenticity” rather than “truth,” and connected this to the breakdown of civility and rational discourse in the universities of the 1960s. Not only is that breakdown being repeated today on campuses across the United States, but also it can be seen on the Republican primary debate stage.

There is perhaps no better antidote to the politics of passion than the practical wisdom found in The Federalist Papers, a model of statesmanship and a primer on political liberty. What Publius writes in the opening paragraph of the first paper remains true today:

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. [Italics are mine.]

Note the contrast here of “reflection and choice” with “accident and force”—a contrast that is the central theme of Federalist No. 1. “Happy will it be if our choice,” Publius writes in the next paragraph, “should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, uninfluenced by considerations foreign to the common good.” It is the human capacity to “reflect,” that is, to consider reasons for action (and not merely subrational impulses or preferences) that is the foundation of human choice. The “accident and force” Publius has in mind are not external or physical coercion, but the internal coercion of “passion and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

Self-Knowledge and Compromise Lead to the Common Good

How does Publius propose to deal with this problem? First, he proposes to give citizens self-knowledge about the dangers of passion in politics. Indeed, the use of the impersonal pseudonym is itself an attempt to preserve reason against passion by placing the emphasis on the arguments rather than the persons. Publius warns his readers of the “torrent of angry and malignant passions” that will be let loose by public deliberation, and he urges them to beware the “numerous” and “powerful” causes in human nature that “serve to give a false bias to judgment.”

Above all, Publius warns of demagogues who will manipulate popular passions by presenting “a scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people” as “stale bait for popularity at the expense of the common good.” “The noble enthusiasm of liberty,” Publius warns his readers, “is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust.” “History will teach us” that “dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people.” He ends the paragraph with a warning: “of those men who have overturned the liberty of republics, the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people . . . commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Among other important lessons to learn from The Federalist Papers are the following: First, politics is by its nature always messy. Politics is not like sports, where the winner takes all and the loser takes nothing. Among a people of diverse interests, attachments, and creeds, unanimity is impossible, civility is indispensable, and compromise is inevitable. Moreover, people should not expect or even want government to be run with the efficiency of a business, because government has a monopoly on the use of coercion, and there is no market mechanism to correct the misuse and abuse of its power. Because the stakes are so high, the entire political apparatus, the forms of law, exist to make change slow and deliberate. Some “dysfunction” is intentionally built into the system.

Second, politics is an art. Like medicine, music, teaching, or any other art, politics has its own particular excellence that must be acquired through experience. The greatest statesmen of the Founding period viewed political service as a high and difficult vocation, and (fortunately for us) they dedicated their lives to political action. Of course, possessing the correct principles is a necessary part of this art, but correct principles alone are not enough. One must also know how to apply those principles to a material (in this case, human beings) that is often refractory, malleable, and imperfect—a process that often requires compromise (another word that is currently out of favor) to advance the good. The Constitution itself includes a “bundle of compromises,” without which America probably would not exist today. One wonders how much of the cynicism in the American electorate is the result of political Puritanism and a romanticized view of the past.

It should not be necessary to remind American voters of the high stakes in this next election. The recent death of Justice Scalia, one of the most distinguished jurists ever to serve on the Supreme Court, threatens to tip the balance of the Court in a liberal activist direction. And three other justices are over the age of 75.

It is fitting to conclude with a quote from Justice Scalia, who was an exemplar of judicial prudence and moderation, and who steadfastly and repeatedly warned American citizens not to let their passions, especially the passion for justice, undermine their attachment to the rule of law. When he was accused of “formalism,” Justice Scalia wrote the following:

The rule of law is about form. . . . A murderer has been caught with blood on his hands, bending over the body of his victim; a neighbor with a video camera has filmed the crime; and the murderer has confessed in writing and on videotape. We nonetheless insist that before the state can punish this miscreant, it must conduct a full-dress criminal trial that results in a verdict of guilty. Is that not formalism? Long live formalism. It is what makes a government a government of laws and not of men.

The spirit of Publius lived in Justice Scalia. May it also find a place in the souls of ordinary Americans.

Nathan Schlueter is associate professor of philosophy and religion at Hillsdale College.

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