Domestic Affairs

What would the Authors of the Federalist Papers have thought about the 2020 Presidential Debates?

The Founding Fathers have sustained an irreproachable status within the American political discourse. Revered as godlike figures responsible for the meteoric rise of the USA from humble origins to a global superpower, Americans have been asking what the Founders would have done since their deaths over two centuries ago. The generalization of “founding fathers” obscures that these men had many internal debates. For the purposes of this discussion, I will confine my focus to the authors of the Federalist Papers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — who published under the pseudonym “Publius.” Particularly around election time, invocations of these consecrated figures are used to appeal to nostalgia, patriotism, and a desire for some semblance of political stability, yet I, for one, am less than comforted by appeals to their beliefs. 

As a first-time voter, I found the presidential debate towards the end of September fascinating: students congregated in socially-distanced huddles around screens with popcorn and blankets in hand, drinking games spread around group chats, and a chorus of laughter and groans echoed from viewing parties on campus throughout the debate. This frenetic zeal would be re-ignited within the next week when it was revealed that the president had not only tested positive for COVID-19 but was in the most contagious stage of the virus’ life cycle around the time of this debate. The 90-minute showdown between President Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden elicited reactions similar to those of hopeful Longhorns watching the game against TCU (and later OU), shifting from excitement to chagrin to overwhelming hopelessness and disappointment. Further support for the appropriateness of the sports analogy was shown in the debut of the Fox Bet Super 6 Presidential Debate Game — a sports betting app re-imagined in the political sphere, including an enticing $25,000 prize pool on September 29th (the night before the first debate). 

Yet with critical issues such as climate change, police brutality against Black Americans, and healthcare in the midst of a pandemic lying on the table, the stakes could not be higher. A far cry from Americans’ initial excitement for the 2020 election, many sat with their heads in their hands, nauseated by the state of politics in 2020.

So, the question: what would the authors of the Federalist Papers have to say about the 2020 presidential debate? 

As the candidates walked on stage, many of the founders would release a collective groan that America had succumbed to the inevitable two-party system that both Washington and the Federalists had cautioned against in the Farewell Address and Federalist 10 respectively. Far from Madison’s plea in Federalist 10 for a form of multi-party democracy, the voters of America are now gridlocked by party-loyalty, triggering political fission up and down the country. 

It is hard to predict how distinguishable the Federalists would have found the stances of the two candidates. To most voters, there are worlds of difference between the two elderly white men in suits. Yet the authors of The Federalist Papers might be relieved to see the scope of potential changes limited rather than the candidates discussing massive systemic changes to the Constitution and political structure as a whole. Overall, it could be argued that the Federalist system of checks and balances has proved successful in providing relative stability. Hyper-partisanship and lively debate aside, our Overton window — the spectrum of acceptable opinion — is relatively limited and conceptions of radicalism are a far cry from historical examples: Donald Trump’s policies fall comfortably under the label “corporatist”; the “radical liberal” dialogue surrounding systems of oppression and institutionalized injustice is lukewarm next to the radicals of the 1930s or 1960s; and calls for a $15 minimum wage cannot be equated to Marxist-Leninism. Furthermore, in comparison with what would have been at stake in an election of 1789, in which foundational questions of representation and powers of authority over the lives and liberty of citizens were on the table, the issues of the debates of 2020 might be seen as relatively inert.

Some of the Federalists might have been alarmed at the promises of each candidate and the implied power of the executive, particularly over the judiciary. While Hamilton might have felt more comfortable than his associates with a strong executive branch, having advocated for a president for life, Jay and Madison might have thought this looked suspiciously like a demagoguery. Yet their fears may have been somewhat pacified in light of the relative durability of the checks and balances put in place over two centuries ago. Rehashings of grandiose promises in four-year cycles are haunted by semi-frequent examinations of the delivery on such campaign promises. More often than not, due to legislative and judiciary obstructions and generalized Kafkaesque blockages, promises (or threats) conveyed throughout the debate often prove to be more bark than bite. 

While not necessarily expecting presidential candidates to wholly reflect the eloquence of the Federalists, it is hard to imagine that the Federalists would have been particularly proud of the caliber of political discourse on stage the night of Sept. 29. For many disgruntled commentators, the qualities of statesmanship scattered throughout the Federalist Papers of patriotism, philanthropy, love of justice and a vague embodiment of virtue were somewhat lacking across the debate floor. Furthermore, attempts at humility undertaken by early presidents in order to avoid the perils of monarch-like egotism amongst leaders are a far cry from the borderline megalomaniacal tendencies of at least one of the candidates. While frustrated utterances (iconically “Will you shut up man?”) were amusing and made for catchy t-shirt slogans, rhetorical deftness and debate etiquette from both sides left something to be desired.

Finally, what of us, the beneficiaries of the debate? Would the Federalists have admired our political engagement or feared for the state of democracy? Would they have praised the alertness of the American people or reprimanded our polarization? I think the Federalists might have expressed all of these sentiments, but for better or for worse, the fate of democracy is in our hands; we cannot remain indifferent, nor can we expect consistency with the ideas of the Federalists to qualm fears about political instability. Exercising the vote while maintaining a critical eye towards the political stage may well be the most legitimate way we may fulfill the visions of the Federalists.

4 replies »

  1. Was a fascinating article! Eloquent in style, expansive in scope and entertaining to the last (I particularly liked the sports analogies!) Well worth a read.


  2. Was a fascinating article! Eloquent in style, expansive in scope and entertaining to the last (I especially liked the sports analogies!) Well worth a read.


  3. The founding fathers might well have been chagrined by the tone and level of discourse of the 2020 presidential election. Nonetheless, they would probably admit that, warts and all, the US democratic process is robust, passionate and thriving. In the US people can disagree vehemently, even rudely or crassly. As long as they are non-violent, they can expect not to be arrested, molested or killed for expressing dissenting views. That is quite an achievement when one considers the treatment of dissenters in China, Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Belrus and too many other countries around the world.


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