WHEN NOAH FELDMAN USED TO WORK AT THESupreme Court in the late 1990s, he would sneak over to the Capitol to watch the impeachment proceedings. So when people talk about historic partisanship in Washington, D.C., he knows the nation has been there before. In fact, after writing his new historic biography, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, he knows American democracy never thrived on going along to get along. But when the Gulf Coast Community Foundation invited Feldman to speak as the group launches a civility initiative, Feldman assured people that the Founding Fathers’ struggles also offer a strangely hopeful fable on how the national discourse continues even through its most rancorous moments. Feldman sat down with SRQ to dish on colonial conflict. 

Noah Feldman, by Wyatt Kostygan.


SRQ: When you look at the founders’ interactions, it reminds you not everyone got along then either. Is the partisanship and divisiveness in our country part of our DNA? Noah Feldman   It’s definitely in our DNA that sometimes we become deeply, profoundly partisan. At the convention when the Constitution was first designed, there was actually a brief period of relative nonpartisanship, and they reached near unanimity on the document—which Madison later called a miracle. So we are capable of transcending partisanship, and Americans have always aspired to cross party lines. Indeed one of the points of the Constitution was to make it less likely we would have political parties. But once real government got started, Alexander Hamilton proposed a new financial system that was so inamicable, so offensive to Madison’s and [Thomas] Jefferson’s ideas of what a republic should be, that they founded a political party in order to defeat Hamilton, and Hamilton simultaneously created a political party in order to defeat them. Hamilton and Madison had just collaborated incredibly closely on the Federalist Papers and to get the Constitution ratified. They were literally finishing one another’s sentences. Now suddenly they were deeply opposed, and Hamilton told someone to tell Madison, ‘We are now personal and political enemies.’ That’s how far it went. [George] Washington wanted to stand for being above party, but the Republicans, Madison and Jefferson, came to see him as a Federalist, that is to say on Hamilton’s side. Jefferson and Madison fell out with Washington over it. So the partisanship then was as intense as anything we see today.

If that can happen to Madison and Hamilton, what’s the hope for any of us? The hope is for all that we have in us to be deeply opposed, we also have it within our system and within ourselves to push back. Ultimately, after the election of 1800 where the Republicans came in to power, there was greater, although gradual, reconciliation between the parties. By the time Jefferson spent eight years as president and Madison spent eight years as president, they adopted a lot of the viewpoints that Federalists previously advocated as they saw value of some version of their opponents’ ideas. They began slowly but surely to repair the breaches that had been created. Jefferson and [John] Adams ran against each other for president and had been as profoundly opposed as they could have been in 1796 and 1800, and yet, after they were both out of the presidency, they repaired their friendship and ended up being close fiends, the same as they had been when both were in Europe serving as ambassadors. Madison ended up hiring John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, who went on to become president, and gave him his first job in politics as US ambassador to Russia. The same men who had been at war did manage to reconstruct relationships. We have this amazing mechanism, even a technology, in our constitution that says if you want to get anything done, you have to work with the other side. That forces us against sometimes our worst instincts. And as we are forced back to the middle, we historically have been able to rebuild more bipartisan relationships. We’ve got that in our DNA also. Historically speaking, we’re a little bit bipolar. Sometime we are able to work in the middle, and sometimes we swing to the deeply partisan side. Right now we are in one of those swings and it feels hopeless to people of good will on both sides, but history shows we’ll swing back the other way too.

How do you make that happen? At this moment we are debating gun control. How do you get a conversation happening when politically we’re rewarding extremism in elections yet longing for conversation? Begin by remembering the person on the other side of the issue is also a person of good will, and you probably share with that person some foundational commitments that are deeper than what’s dividing you on this issue, like a commitment to a safe and secure republic. We might disagree about how to get there, but we probably agree on the underlying goals. If you can begin by recognizing the person on the other side wants something in common with you, you can engage that person with the civility that comes from respecting their overarching goals, even if you deeply disagree with and even disrespect the particular policy they are adopting. If you can respect that, you can engage civilly. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree,
but at least you are having a conversation.

Are we in a period of increasing partisanship?  Luckily I’m not a pollster. All of the data suggests we are at a sort of high point of partisanship of the most recent period. At some point I’m confident that will turn and we’ll head back into a more bipartisan moment, but the exact moment of when that will happen is above my pay grade. I don’t anticipate it’s going to happen anytime in the next two years.

You talk in your book about people making their own moral logic, as happened with slavery around James Madison. How do you apply that to today?  Slavery is a unique phenomenon in American history. There is nothing as important to how we came to be a country and simultaneously as deeply inconsistent with our moral values. I’m always careful not to compare anything directly to slavery. It really has a unique status both for its historical importance and its moral wrongness. What I would say is sometimes political divisions are not just a product of people’s values but also of their cultural norms. Something that may seem normal on one side of the country may seem abnormal to someone on the other side of the country. That’s an important and neglected part of our national conversation over guns. It’s very easy for both sides to forget that guns are part of broader cultural way of living, and though we all live in the same country and have similar values of democracy, we don’t all have the same culture. In a place like Florida, it’s especially complicated because it has both cultures represented. 

How can this be applied at a local level?  It should be even more doable than at a national level, because if it’s actually your neighbors, you really do share things in common. You root for the same high school sports team. Your kids are probably doing stuff together. You share the same public spaces. You know everybody is looking to make the best Sarasota they can make it. You all live here. There is long-term commitment to the community. If you work well with somebody today you will work well with them tomorrow. And if you get into a brutal fight with them now you are not going to be able to compromise well with them on some later issue. Politics, like life, is a repeat-play game. We go back and do it again and again, and that gives us incentive to develop close relationships with the people we disagree with. You need a close relationship with people you disagree with almost more than with the people you agree with. You have to remember that even as you simultaneously disagree, that form of respect makes you say, let’s try to find some common ground and reach a compromise. The last point is, if you really want to try and get something done, you are going to have to compromise. Remember that from Day One.