Last November, for the 116th time since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, Americans across the country participated in congressional elections. It’s a remarkable tradition. Whatever the nation’s setbacks, challenges, emergencies, and shortcomings, biannually, for 230 years, we’ve had the chance to answer the question “who should lead?”
It’s a question that our founders emphasized. James Madison wrote that “The aim of every constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
Those lines are from number 57 of the 85 Federalist Papers, a series of essays published by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1788 under the pen name Publius.
The intent of the Federalist, as the collection of essays is commonly known, was to persuade state conventions to ratify the newly written Constitution. But those 85 essays also contain the most coherent theory of political leadership that exists in the American canon — and even then, we’re forced to read between the lines. If elections are our chance to answer the question “who should lead,” then the Federalist is the closest thing we have to a guide for “what should we expect of a leader?”
It’s not surprising that a nation founded on its opposition to a king would take a subtle approach to the idea of leadership.
Nowhere in the Federalist can you find a list of qualities or traits that add up to the ideal political leader. That’s because, as Madison and his coauthors knew, no such ideal exists in the real world.
Though imperfect, the best tool at hand to ensure that we have decent, accountable leaders is regular, competitive elections. Elections and leadership were, and remain, inextricably linked. Unfortunately, from the start, the ultimate goal of elections that the founders imagined — to select good leaders and deselect bad ones — was very hard to carry out in practice. To win an election, a candidate has to get attention. The individual leader is front and center, the constitutional system they’re a part of a mere afterthought.
With that in mind, we looked back at the Federalist to offer some simple advice for voters who in November 2020 will again ask the question “who should lead?”
1. Embrace the diversity of candidates running for office. Diversity increases the competitiveness of elections. The more people who run, the likelier we are to find our next great leader. Our founders couldn’t envision a time when women and Americans of color might be candidates for office, but reading the Federalist, one gets a sense that they would have been excited that opening the door to these groups would make it likelier to find America’s next great leader.
2. Vote for candidates who have changed their minds. Conviction is not a bad thing, but we’re in a historical moment when conviction is held in high esteem, and compromise is devalued. In Federalist 37, Madison writes of being astounded that our new nation was able to reform its original government — something that many other nations had tried and failed to do. The person you vote for can be radically supportive of some issues, but it’s also healthy for them to have compromised at some point, and more important, for them to be able to explain the rationale behind such a compromise.
3. Vote for someone who values the supremacy of the legislature. We live in a moment in which members of Congress forget, or knowingly abscond, their role within our system of checks and balances by placing party matters above the constitutional role of the legislative branch — allowing the executive to increasingly become the dominant branch. The founders expected legislative leaders to play a more substantive role than anyone else in governing our republic; voters should make sure they do.
4. Vote for someone who doesn’t think they can do it on their own. If a candidate promises big things that he or she alone can deliver, chances are that this candidate doesn’t have a great understanding of the system he or she is potentially about to be a part of. In our constitutional system, individual leaders aren’t supposed do too much on their own. Dangerous things can happen when we pin all of our hopes to leaders. When we want unrealistic things, it creates the space for outrageous leaders to emerge.
5. Understand why a candidate believes what they claim to believe. Most incumbents win their races. As a result, most senators and representatives are in office for about a decade. The founders didn’t intend this, nor did they anticipate the power of political parties and special interests. Whoever you vote into office is likely going to have to cope with challenges that are unforeseeable today. Issues are important, of course, but try to understand candidates’ worldviews as opposed to their stances on issues alone.
6. In a House race, test candidates’ knowledge of local issues. Madison, in Federalist 56, wrote that “It is a sound and important principle that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents,” at least as far as those interests applied to the authority of a member of the House. In today’s environment, candidates for the House tend to run on charged, resonant national issues. That’s not a bad thing — but voters should also try to understand if a candidate understands their everyday concerns.
7. In a Senate election, prioritize moral courage. In Federalist 63, Madison noted that the Senate would be required from time-to-time “to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind.” The Senate, more than any other constitutional institution, was meant to protect us from our worst impulses. Vote for a senator who might one day risk getting voted out of office for doing something that’s unpopular.
8. Try to wait until after November 2019 to care about the presidential election. While the presidency was always viewed as vitally important, the race for the nation’s highest office was never supposed to occupy most of our attention for the better part of two years.
The founders believed that human nature was flawed. As a result, they didn’t trust any single leader alone to maintain or advance our republic. History bears out their intuition. Most transformative American leaders surprised us, and many came from outside our political system: No one expected what Washington, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., or countless others did to bring us closer to our ideals.
When we’re voting, we shouldn’t look for someone to live up to these inimitable exceptions. Instead, we should just look for someone to play the role our founders intended.