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An Interview with Greg Weiner, Author of Madison’s Metronome

Madison's Metronome by Greg WeinerGreg Weiner, author of Madison’s Metronome, was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions about his fascinating study of the Madisonian system of government.   Dr. Weiner wasn’t always an academician, he has worked in the United States Senate as an aide to three senators before embarking on a new career as a scholar of political science.  He is now assistant professor of political science at Assumption College.

Section 1: Background on your book

Martin: How did you end up doing the project? I note that you are a political science professor rather than a historian.

Greg:  This grew out of a doctoral dissertation.  My specialty is American Political Thought.  I wanted to do something that explored the political thought of the American Founding.  There seemed to be a hole in the literature on Madison in the sense that  there is a dilemma about whether he supports majority rule or not.  I didn’t think this this had been dealt with in as direct a way as it needed to be.

Martin: Well, that makes sense.  But how did you go about putting this together?  It’s only about 150 pages, but it seems like there isn’t a wasted word.  How did you find the hole?  It’s obvious when someone points it out, but until someone does …, but what drew your attention to this hole in the literature?

Greg:  Well there is a tension in the literature in the sense that the great debate in Madison literature going back to the Progressive critics is about whether Madison believed in majority rule.  Where the tension arises is, if you read Madison carefully, he over and over says that empirically speaking there is no choice but majority rule.  Society won’t tolerate anything else.  How do you square that circle, because while he says majority rule is inevitable, he also wants majority rule to be reasonable.

Martin:  So you just noticed that there was an argument between those two things?  And your thesis was an attempt to rectify  the seeming contradiction between these.

Greg:  Yes, but I should also pay due homage to a famous, or what should be a famous article by George Carey and Willmoore Kendall on what’s called the intensity problem, that first stimulated my thinking on this.  This article really points the way toward this issue of deliberation.

Martin:  Have you always been interested in American History?  Or was this purely a vehicle for political science?

Greg:  Well, this is sort of a late career thing for me.  I was a political consultant in national politics for 15 years before I got into this.  I worked in the Senate for several years, and it always seemed to me that there was a mutual contempt, or at least lack of respect between the academy and practitioners of politics.   It always seemed to me that the Importance of ideas was being overlooked.   By the same token it seemed that in the academy there was not a full appreciation for how these ideas get applied.  So that is what led me to it.

Martin:  The cover art for the book is wonderful.  I’m a bibliophile, I look at books with some appreciation for quality.  When this book showed up from the University of Kansas Press, it just screamed to be read.  How did it come about?

Greg:  That came about by having absolutely nothing to do with me. Laughs.  Kansas does a wonderful job.  All their authors say this.   The first time I saw this it was in exactly in the form you see it today.

Martin:  So credit, where credit is due?

Greg: … and none of it is due to me!

Martin:  What did you learn in the course of publishing this book?  Not about the subject matter, but about the process of writing and getting it published.

Greg:   This was my first book.  I hope that I have learned that you have to pay careful attention what’s actually being said and not to an extraneous political agenda – particularly in the area of American political thought.  Because there is such a clear intersection between the theory and the practice, I think it tends to get distorted by political agendas a lot.

Kansas is a wonderful press to work with.  They were very supportive and there when you needed them, but they didn’t try to dictate the content in anyway.  From that standpoint the process was very smooth.  I hope it was meticulous.    I tried to make it meticulous. I went through literally every page of what was, at that point was 30 published volumes of his writings.  I certainly learned it’s a lot of work!

Part II The Book

Martin:  Looking at the bibliography (which is pretty extensive), it seems as though you spent a lot of time analyzing what others have said and often refuting their contentions.  How did you arrive at which to go after?

Greg:  Well it may not be as impressive as it looks in the sense that the literature on Madison and the American Founding is so vast … The typical process is to follow the footnotes, but on this particular topic there is just no end to that process!  But what I did know is that the major debates on majority rule had been framed by a few major thinkers.  Charles Beard and the Progressive critics were one group, but by the time Lance Banning came along they had been more or less refuted.  But it did seem to me that this influence was still lingering.

The main thing that I wanted to do was to track down the literature on majority rule, not just on Madison but on majority rule.

Martin:  How long did it take?

Greg: It was 2 years of work.

Martin:  You don’t come out and say it in so many words, but it seems as though you’re a Madison fan.  (I am – the more I learn, the more impressed I am with these guys, warts and all).  After all your study, what would you say was Madison’s biggest strength/weakness?

Greg:  I think his biggest strength is, he’s a very careful analytical thinker and a very historically oriented thinker.  He was someone who was capable of thinking in a very analytical way even in the midst of practical politics, which is a rare thing, particularly these days.   In terms of  weaknesses, one of the things I wanted to explore is the possibility that a lot of his political thought is uniquely influenced by the dynamics that occur around a time of founding rather than in a stable republic.  So, I think there are certain senses in which he did not see as far ahead as obviously we are able to see in retrospect today.  Faulted is probably not the right term.  Obviously he can’t be blamed for not seeing the internet coming or instant communication..  But I do think that there are certain strands in his thought that are tied to a time of founding which may not be as applicable in a stable republic.

Martin:  It seems like a there a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum who try to stuff the founders into a box of their own design.  I got tired of being ignorant and didn’t want to be guilty of undeserved reverence for the founders.  Neither did I want to lack the information to either refute or understand the vitriol about, for instance, the meme of white aristocratic bigots.  For your part, why did you find it important to look to Madison for his take on our government versus somebody else?

Greg:  Well, because we are living in his republic.   That is not to say… as I say in the book I think he is miscast as the father, but he’s maybe it’s uncle.

Martin:  Midwife, or attending physician, I think you said in the book.

Greg:  Yeah, attending physician, I think it was.  We are living under institutions, that if he didn’t design, he at least gave the major theoretical defenses for.  I think a lot of the frustration we feel in contemporary politics has to do with the fact that we are living under 225-year old institutions, but with modern expectations.  I think it is very important institutionally to understand where we came from.  But I think it’s also undeniably the case that these guys thought about permanent questions and those questions are very much still with us.

Martin:  Is Madison still relevant today?

Greg:  Absolutely.  Gosh, let me count the ways.  I think many of the debates we’re having around the issue of terrorism, certainly go back to issues like separation of powers.  He certainly thought about human nature, which is many ways the central question of politics.  Certainly the issue of faction is very much still with us.  I think in some ways he doesn’t quite foresee, but it’s still there.   He is the major theorist of the Constitution and we’re living under his Constitution.

I don’t know if you know Ben Kleinerman’s work.  But he and I just did a paper for a conference in which one of things we argued is that one of the major sources of contentions in contemporary politics is the fact that the Constitution hasn’t changed, but that our expectations of politics has.   The Constitution hasn’t kept pace with what we want it do in the way that Madison would have wanted it to.  Which is to say we haven’t amended it.  But we want to do something new rather than sort of do it in paperwork, which is what Madison would have expected.  We just proceed and then turn around and get disappointed when there seems to be this tension between the Constitution and what we want to do.

Martin:  So we just proceed rather than use the mechanisms that are in place to handle such things?

Greg: That’s right.  There is an incident right at the end of his presidency, on the second to last day of his presidency, where he vetoes this roads bill – The Bonus Bill. And what he says in fairly casual terms is that he supports the underlying power, he supports what Congress wants to do.  When was the last time we saw a president veto something that he actually wants to do on the grounds it’s unconstitutional?  But that’s another story.  He says, look I want to do this, and you want to do this, just pass an amendment.  It’s not quite as grave and dramatic of a thing as we make it out to be today.  And in fact, if we didn’t make it out to be quite so dramatic we might be in better shape with respect to the Constitution.

Martin:  I might argue with you on that one.  It seemed to me that that was part of the temporal republicanism that Madison put in place to make it not a light thing to change the founding document for the country.

Greg:  Well, no, no.  That I agree with.   So, I think the point is not that it is a light thing.   It’s supposed to be not an impossible thing, which is the standard we’ve set for it.  Let me give you example.  If you take the issue of health care reform, if the country wants to pass health care from, what Madison would have said, I’m sure he would have a lot of things to say, but I think the first thing he would have said, is pass a Constitutional amendment authorizing Congress to do this.  Instead what we’re trying to do is the last thing he would have expected, which is to settle big Constitutional questions through the an undemocratic or at least a-democratic institution, which is the court.

Martin:  Your exploration of Madison’s majoritarian views was really interesting and made me think – and I’m still cogitating on it, in fact.  In particular your take on Madison’s views on the potential for the tyranny of the Majority or conversely the tyranny of the minority made me look at Federalist 10 in a whole new light.   I tend to favor Bastiat’s view on the sanctity of property. In the book you don’t take sides, but I’d like to know what you think.  Was Madison right?

Greg:  That was a very interesting point in your review.  If I have forced you to think, you have forced me to do this same.   Let me put it in a couple different ways.  One is he is highly concerned about property.  In terms of Charles Beard’s thesis that the Founders were only concerned about property, in many ways Beard is right.  I call this the Seinfeld defense – “not that there is anything wrong with that”.  There is a very long tradition in Anglo Saxon thought about property being the key to decentralized power and so forth.  He clearly thinks it’s very important, but all rights have boundaries, and all rights get regulated.  What is unique about conscience is the empirical impossibility of regulating it.  That is not so much to say the conscience is important and property is not, it’s simply that you can’t regulate conscience in the way that you can regulate property.  So, the question becomes, in what institution of government do we want that regulation to happen?  Do we want it to be in one in which we have a voice, or do we want these things to be sorted out by the courts.  Madison clearly thinks that these are questions to be sorted out through political mechanism.   But I think in terms of Madison’s own preference.  There are some very intriguing passages in which he does suggest property can be heavily regulated.  I think his own personal preference was certainly that it be lightly regulated.  But I think he would say that that is a prudential question more than a Constitutional one.

Martin:  So, you’re putting your imprimatur on it.  In your opinion was he right?

Greg:  Well, I can’t weasel out of that question can I?  laughs  Do you mean was he right with respect to property being regulable? I think he was right.  I mean, very few would argue for no regulation, for instance you can’t just put a skyscraper next to somebody’s house.  The question, in this case for Madison isn’t is it regulable, but where does it get regulated?  And if you don’t want it regulated or you want it lightly regulated, where do you go to make that case? Madison’s answer is, you go to your neighbors.

Martin:  At several points in Madison’s Metronome, you point out that Madison felt it important to instill reverence for the Revolution and founding documents.  As a political scientist, do you see a concerted effort on the part of some, to denigrate the Founders and the Constitution today?  And do you think that is intentional or unintentional?

Greg:  I think to a certain extent there has been one ever since the Progressives in the late 19th century.  Ever since Woodrow Wilson said free men need no guardians.   To be honest with you, I actually prefer it when it’s intentional.  I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “I disagree with the Founders.”’ What I object to is trying to take the Founders and treat them as an ink-blot test where you project whatever you were already looking into what they said.  I think it’s important note that for Madison at least, reverence for the founding doesn’t mean you never change.  It means you change with a certain amount of reverence for what you’re changing from and you don’t do it lightly, and you don’t do it for, as Jefferson says in the Declaration, for transient causes.  The benefit of the way that the Progressives and the Woodrow Wilsons of the world criticize the Founding is that they actually come right out and do it.  You can tell where they are coming from.  I think the problem in contemporary politics – and this happens on both the right and the left – is that we treat the Founding as sacred and therefore we have to input whatever our beliefs are into the Founding.  And that, I think really cheapens their thought.

Martin:  You concluded the book in a cautionary way, saying that now we are more dependent than ever on virtue than on anything else.  You point out that Madison sought to avoid such reliance, instead seeking to put systems in place to ensure that time ameliorate passion.  What do you see in the future?

Greg:  That’s a good question.  I see time contracting more and more.  I think that is problematic for the Madisonian system.   I think there are so many issues on which we have to recalibrate our expectations and in an age of instant communication we seem very reluctant to do that.  I think that this is connected with this tendency to see whatever it is we want to see in the Founding.   So whatever our policy preferences are, if the Constitutional system doesn’t immediately produce that, then we try to assert corruption, etc.   I think this is going to be a real problem going forward and I think the Madisonian answer is the only way you can solve it, through the recalibration of public opinion.  I’m not sure that there are institutional answers to this.  I think that is why I ended the book on a cautionary note, because it is not immediately evident to me what the solution to this is.  Unless people will act like grownups and have adult expectations about what the Constitution is capable of producing.
Martin:  So you’ve just said what Madison said then.  You’re dependent on the virtue of the people.

Greg:  Yeah, although, here is the dilemma.  Madison didn’t want to depend on virtue.  He is very explicit in Federalist 51 that he doesn’t want to depend on virtue, but was in a position where, to a certain extent he has to.

Martin:  Well, he has to depend on patience at least.  That’s the virtue that you called out.

Greg:  Correct.  The difference is that in the late 18th century, early 19th century, patience was a fact of life and not necessarily a virtue.  This is in many ways the fix that we’re in. I don’t want to be entirely pessimistic either.   Madison was certainly not a pessimist about the country’s ability to adapt.

Martin: You made a comment about ⅔’s of the way through Madison’s Metronome which I found interesting.  You said that contemporary conversations about rights tend to leave out the greater mass of the population.  Please elaborate on that.

Greg: When we talk about rights today, we tend to think about them as reservations against the community.  That’s a compelling way to think about rights in a lot of ways, but it’s not the way that Madison thinks about rights.  But let me reiterate, the fact that Madison said something, even by Madison’s logic doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with it.  All rights have boundaries, with the exception of conscience, all rights have natural boundaries that nobody would disagree with.  The question is, do you engage the public in that conversation? Or do you pursue rights through the courts?   The empirical evidence is fairly overwhelming, that when you try to pursue rights through the courts you end up with backlashes that leave you worse off than you were before.

There is a case, Goldman v Weinberger.  in which a Jewish Air Force chaplain, who was a rabbi that wanted to wear a Yarmulke.  This violates the uniform regulation.  He sues.  The answer of the appellate court, is if you want to do that is that you have change the law,  You can’t extract yourself from the community and ask the court to do it for you.  Interestingly enough, the outcome of this case is that Congress does change the uniform code to permit this    Madison’s take is that if you can build something on the foundation of public opinion, it’s going to be much more secure and strong in structure than if you simply do through the courts.  Does that answer your question?

Martin:  Yeah.

Greg:  And by the way, this happens on both sides.  Have you seen Harvey Wilkinsons’ new book?  He was a Reagan appointee for the 4th Circuit Court in Virginia.  His book is called Cosmic Constitutional Theory in which he talks about how the right and the left try to transmute policy disputes into rights disputes and try to settle them through the courts.

Martin:  I think I saw a review of that recently, now that you talk about it.  I don’t think it was a favorable review!

Greg: That wouldn’t surprise me, because there is a lot riding on this because of the healthcare debate right now.  There is a lot riding on how active conservatives want the court to be.

Martin:  That’s somewhat ironic to hear.

Greg:  Yes, and I think Wilkinson would say inconsistent.  You might want to check out Wilkinson’s op ed in the New York Times a few weeks ago, which was quite good.

Martin:  I’ve discovered a number of different approaches to constitutional interpretation.  Hadley Arkes advocates a natural law perspective – and makes a persuasive argument citing the founding documents and things like the preamble to the bill of rights, etc.  The Tea Party is all about original intent.  In your book, you say that the Constitution is a living document, (which makes me shudder,) but one with a really slow metabolism.  Philosophically, what has more credence in your opinion?  After all, you took the time to research Madison’s intent.

Greg:  The problem with original intent jurisprudence, to which I am largely sympathetic, is that the clearest original intent is not to have policy questions decided by the court.

Martin:  So you think there is a little bit of a paradox there?

Greg:  Yes.  I think there is also a paradox generated by Madison’s position on the National Bank, which is once the people have consistently through all three branches of government, ratified a certain Constitutional view for a certain amount of time then it becomes law.  That’s what I mean by suggesting that for Madison the Constitution was a living Constitution with a slow metabolism.

Martin:  Let me stop you there for a second.   Because this was a point that really made me think.  I think that it is unfortunate that many times things are misinterpreted for such a long period of time that they become de facto law.  You say that this is part and parcel of the process.  I’m thinking of the 14th Amendment — being born here grants you citizenship.  I don’t think that it was originally intended that people come here from other countries and drop a kid here, but the fact is that it has been interpreted that way since the early 20th century.

Greg: There are different strands of original intent.  For original intent, what Madison would say is that the first place you look is to the words.  You only try to look at historical intent if the words are not clear.  The problem is, although I would certainly agree with you, that although it is not what they had in mind, it is what they said.  I think that to change that at this point would require an amendment. Now this is what I meant by saying that the amending process is not supposed to be quite so grave.  If the Constitution is being interpreted in a way that is not working for us, then amend it.   It wasn’t something that was supposed to be easy to do, but it wasn’t supposed to be impossible to do.

The problem that we end up with  … and I think this is a just criticism of what Madison does with the Bank … is that when we change the Constitution through practice rather than through amendment, we end up with what George Carey called a GARBLED.

Part III The fluffy questions at the end

Martin:  In the course of researching this book, what was the most surprising thing you found?

Greg:  The implications of what he does with the national bank were eye-opening.   The concept of a living Constitution is Madison’s position, and that wasn’t something I would have predicted before I did the research.

Martin:  That surprised me too.

Greg: At a certain point there is a question of whether there is a better option.  Short of amendment, there is nobody I’m aware of in mainstream politics, either on the right or the left who thinks that the Constitution, exactly as it was written in 1787, is compatible with what people on both sides of the aisle, seem to want government to do today. The question is not whether it changes, but how it changes.

Martin: You said something earlier … sure there are amendments which are no longer valid, time has marched on.  However, the genius behind the Constitution in my view is that it is a statement of human nature, an analysis of general principle.  Throughout, you can see that … necessary powers for example, Hamilton argues that you don’t give a power without all of the requisite authority to exercise that power, so be careful which power you give.  So here are the powers, and there is lot done by implication, and they did not specify down to the jot and tittle of every single thing that was possible, but they made a generic document that provided a framework for the arenas in which government can play.  So, I guess I would disagree a little bit. Everything in the Constitution is not exactly as it was written in 1787, but it has been amended many times.

Greg:  No, that’s correct.  I’m not sure we disagree.

Martin: So, perhaps we’re in violent agreement?

Greg:  There is no question in my mind that Madison’s preferred mode of Constitutional change is amendment.  For example, for the New Deal.  I would argue that the basic tenets of the New Deal have not been challenged by either Republicans or Democrats for at least two generations now.  But Madison’s preferred mode would have been that you amend the Constitution to provide the necessary authority.  The difficulty that Madison is in, is that if you take a look at how he says the Constitution is changed with respect to the National Bank, you have to say the same thing in steroids with regard to the New Deal.    I don’t think that you can conclude that the New Deal was based on Madisonian principles, but I don’t think Madison would view it is illegitimate.  I call this a sort of Madisonian paradox – that an un-Madisonian system acquires a sort of Madisonian legitimacy.

Martin:  What did you leave out?  I’m sure you had to excise things for various and sundry reasons – they didn’t fit, space, etc.  But, what did you leave out?  What killed you to leave it out?

Greg:  All sorts of diversions.  I am very interested in the political theory of rights and majority rule.    I would have liked to have gotten more deeply into the contours of that debate outside of Madison.  I am also very interested in the tensions between Madison and Jefferson.  They were political partners and lifelong political partners – there was some deep theoretical political tension. I didn’t get to delve into that as much as I would have liked to.

Martin:  One my colleagues here at WWTFT, James Best, has written about, and studied Madison a lot.  He likes to say that Madison was at his best when he wasn’t under Jefferson’s sway.

Greg:  Yeah, there is a sort of an older brother/little brother dynamic between the two of them.  I don’t mean to psychologize the dispute, but the purpose that Madison serves in that relationship is to reign Jefferson back in.  In many ways Jefferson is more than of a poet than a theorist.  If you look, for example at the exchange they have where Jefferson suggests that no law should last more than 19 years, the practical implications of that are nuts.  You just couldn’t do that.  This is a case where Madison has to be the more sober of the two.    But I think it is a fruitful tension between the two of them, and I think it is a very interesting one.

Martin:  What if anything did you discover that ran counter to your expectations?

Greg:  I found Madison to be much more strictly and straightforward of a majoritarian than I expected.  I went in with an open mind to deal with this puzzle of majority rule and found him to be much more consistently majoritarian than I would have guessed.  And also what I mentioned before about the living constitution with a slow metabolism.

Martin:  What didn’t I ask you that I should have?

Greg:  I thought you would ask about health care. I think you have been pretty comprehensive.

Martin:  What’s your next project?

Greg:  My next book is completely different.  It is a book on the political thought of Pat Moynihan.  I think he is  the Madison of his day.  The practitioner of politics who is very theoretically grounded and is able to keep up that dialog between theory and practice throughout his career.  So there is that commonality.   And I would like to add, that that’s one of the things I really appreciate about the University of Kansas Press, is that they understand that American political thought didn’t end with Calhoun.  I think it is also important to take more recent things into account, too.

1 comment

1 James D. Best { 05.16.12 at 11:11 am }

Great interview. I’m looking forward to his next book. When New York was in financial trouble, I believed no one could convince me to help them out. Moynihan argued that in Europe, the government center was also the financial, entertainment, and cultural center for the nation, and if NY went under, everything would gravitate toward D.C. Being a firm believer in decentralized power, he won me over. Moynihan is a great subject for Weiner’s next book.


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