About Our Guest
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, he holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a BA from Princeton University. While in law school at UVA, he founded the Coalition for Progress on Race and cofounded the Center for the Study of Race and Law. He is Managing Principal of Madison Law and Strategy Group which he founded in 2010 where he practices corporate and regulatory law. He also lectures at UVA where he teaches in both the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. Mr. Signer is a member of the Virginia and Washington, DC bars and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association. He has been a democratic voting rights attorney in Virginia for many years. He is also Chair of the Emergency Food Network. Mayor Signer is the author of two books. Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies from Powell Gregg McMillan in 2009 and Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father from Public Affairs in 2015. He has published essays and articles in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The New Republic, USA Today and The Daily Beast. He has also been interviewed by NPR, MSNBC, Fox News and the BBC. He has previously served on the Board of Directors of the Center for National Policy and the Truman Educational Institute and is a Principal of the Truman National Security Project. Michael Signer served previously as counsel to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond, Senior Strategist for Tom Perriello’s 2008 campaign for Congress, legislative aide to then delegate Creigh Deeds, National Security Director of the 2008 John Edwards for President Campaign and Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress. In 2009 Mike was appointed by Governor Tim Kaine to a four year term on Virginia’s Board of Medicine. He was a member of the Finance Committee for Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for governor and was Chair of the Governor Elect’s Transition Counsel on Homeland Security. In 2009 he was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. Michael Signer is married to Emily Blout who is a lecturer in the Politics and Media Studies Departments at UVA and has recently concluded a PhD at the University of St. Andrews. Mike and Emily share their home in Charlottesville with their twin boys William and Jacoby.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I would like to welcome you once again to our program Politics Matters. Today we are honored to welcome back to the program Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer to discuss the enlightened political thought contained in his remarkably timely book Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father. Welcome back, Mayor Signer.
Michael Signer: Thank you for having me.
Jan Paynter: How did Madison see the role of the Senate with respect to this issue of the demagogue?
Michael Signer: I think that the Senate…in all of Madison’s political philosophy, and even in the country right now the Senate is kind of the most natural home where…the most pure ideas that he wanted for how the country could escape the demagogue problem, it was in the Senate. I teach in my class at UVA Federalist 62 and 63 where he specifically describes the traits and the habits of the people who should go into the Senate and he talks about them calming the passions of the people, he says that they should become experts in the long term objectives of legislation, they should try and achieve a link…like a linked chain of legislation across the whole nation. They should really be thinking about, how do we connect the different pieces and that’s a very difficult enterprise in a Federalist country but he said that’s what people who go in the Senate should do. He talks about them becoming experts, actually knowing the material, reading the books themselves.
Jan Paynter: And he connects to the idea of the statesman, right, yeah.
Michael Signer: Right. So he…and he’s thought… I teach my students it’s not just the checks and balances, it’s not just the formal components of the way the United States is designed. It’s the culture, it’s the way that people are supposed to try and conduct themselves. What are they doing with their time? I’m not a check, you’re not a balance. We’re two people who are citizens in a country. Just like serving as mayor of Charlottesville, I’m not a mechanical lever that gets turned on or off. I’m a human being with good days and bad days and I can only choose how to conduct myself based on an ethos, based on my ideas, my cultures, my values, my norms. And I think not only was he not silent about the ethos, he was extremely vocal and had lots of strong opinions about the culture that the United States should have and it was mostly in the Senate where he was really clear about how we should be conducting ourselves.
Jan Paynter: Well, and when you think of the term ‘the entire body of citizens’, which is what in theory the nation is supposed to be, Madison understood that well and my gosh, he overcame his own body to better the body of body politics which is fascinating.
Michael Signer: He was very, very, very interested in faction and factionalism. He thought then, this is Federalist #10, he thought that—probably his most famous writing. He thought that faction was part of human history as part of human beings but he went to the answer which had been talked about again since Aristotle. Aristotle said there are two different kinds of regimes. There’s the pure and there’s the perverse. You can have the pure form of…if you’re going to have the rule of a few for instance, the pure form would be aristocracy. You’d want good people who are noble. We don’t believe in this now but aristocracy, the bad form, the perverse where you’re making decisions not based on the common good but based on self-interest or special interests, that’s an oligarchy. That’s when rich people just are benefiting themselves. So even then he…it was possible to have the common good drive your decisions. That’s what Madison was interested in all the time. How do we have a democracy where you’re letting mass…majority decision making can be a pretty fickle thing but he wanted to train it as much as possible toward the genuinely common good. So what is the common good in this particular question? Not what’s going to benefit you or your political party, your faction or your little group, whoever it is or yourself is the worst when you’re just feathering your nest but how do you have somebody who, despite the existence of factions and demagogues, they’re still in a democratic system making decisions based on the common good and that was how he especially talked about the Senate.
Jan Paynter: One of the things that I find so moving and fascinating about Madison is the way in which he allows. He’s very elastic and synthetic in his thinking and he…he evolved on the issue of embracing the passions, partly as a result of the experience we talked about in the program before this one, but also because of Jefferson’s influence on his thinking and he absorbed I think what Jefferson had to say on Shays’ Rebellion as we talked about it and he began to think, ‘Okay,’ as you bring out in the book, ‘let’s extend the sphere of government,’ as you’ve been talking about, ‘to make it more equitable and include more diverse opinions.’ So as I was reading the book I was thinking, he starts out as such a controller, as very rigid but he does evolve and grow again on a parallel track to the way our country was evolving and growing on these issues, which again is fascinating. I do find…talking about Henry and I wish we could talk more about him, it is somewhat ironic that Henry the revolutionary becomes the fervent guardian of the status quo with respect to the new constitution and is constantly harking back to this golden pastoral past that you talk about and he sees states as being harassed, sees this almost like the British Empire that we struggled to get past and again talks about the tyranny of the federal government. And there was one quote from him particular that made me think about things that play today when Henry says, ‘The middle and lower ranks of people lack the illuminant ideas of the well-born,’ and of course he’s being very sarcastic. But it does have resonance in terms of this race.
Michael Signer: Oh, absolutely.
Jan Paynter: It’s hard to miss.
Michael Signer: Oh, absolutely. The pivot…what it shows is that for hundreds of years the pivot and the ultimate attack against the people who would challenge the prejudices, challenge kind of the lowest common denominator is to say, they’re elitists, they’re unlike regular people, they’re unlike you and me and not only they’re unalike but they don’t’…they’re only about their own elitist visions and at one point in that same passage—this is in the ratifying convention in 1788 where he and Madison were hammer and tongs at each other for three weeks. And Madison had previously worked as his aide and had really worshipped him when America needed a revolution but when it needed a constitution, it needed to kind of move beyond this angry adolescent phase and become mature and sophisticated in how its country was going to be designed, he thought that we’d moved beyond Henry and Henry attacked…it’s a magnificent phase. He attacked the microscopic eyes of modern statesmen. So he just thought…you could see that they were kind of these…kind of a spectacle academics, no offense to any of us and they just were these elite bean counters kind of and that’s what…they weren’t robust men of the people like Patrick Henry were and that’s how he sought to paint Madison. It was kind of…it was nasty. The microscopic eyes that were just looking at small boar stuff. And what…that’s why it made it even more remarkable and kind of this great underdog story that Madison defeated all that invective and the underlying…the really toxic… We see this kind of toxic battle of frames right now where exactly as you said, in our politics today where there is…anybody who is trying to challenge the reign of violent invective or fear or loathing or anger in our politics is just an elitist.
Jan Paynter: Well, one of my favorite social commentators, Fran Leibowitz, had a very witty comment about elitism and she said, when people talk about elites, they don’t mean money. Americans love money. They mean smart. And it is interesting.
Michael Signer: But see, but that’s what I think is remarkable. But the story is that’s the fear and it’s certainly been the case many times but there’s a lot more evidence in American history to say that many times smart won. That’s the nature…that’s what happened with Madison. That’s why this is one of the most amazing underdog stories in our history and I think that not only is it the sort of one off political battle, he did actually shape and change the country. He built the country around smart wins, around that idea. That’s the country that was ratified, that came as a result of these battles against the forces of Patrick Henry. So we live in that country. We have to…there’s more cause for faith in a lot of these moments in our history and Kennedy did win over, defeat Nixon. You did have…smart has won against prejudice and nativism many more times than we think in the dark periods.
Jan Paynter: Well, and they’re not mutually exclusive. You can be a populist, if you will. You can be a man or woman of the people and still be intellectually acute. They’re not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, it tends to look that way sometimes when we see how people are responding to public servants.
Michael Signer: But that’s… One of the reasons I wrote the book maybe was to reassure myself and give some faith that’s well-grounded that there is a rich history that we have in this country where… This was a sequel to my book Demagogues so this is ways of dealing with—and I see both books as about pathologies of democracy. When does democracy become unhealthy or sick? The first book was about when democracy becomes unhealthy and sick through a demagogue…through demagogues. This book is about, as I say in the beginning when a democracy loses faith in leadership itself, that can be very dangerous because you require a culture of statesmanship so that’s one of the things that prompted the book, that I talk about in the book. But on the other hand there has been a culture of statesmanship at many, many, many junctures, most of our country’s history, that’s led to a lot of our most remarkable accomplishments and we can’t forget that when we’re worried about the present, we have to go to the past because there’s a lot more cause for inspiration in it.
Jan Paynter: There is and we do, as we talked about earlier in these programs, you can also see the struggles and the conflicts at our founding mirrored very definitely today. There has been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country that goes very far back and distrust. At the same time, people also have cause. So it is interesting. How, in your view, Michael, might we return the nation back to something approaching Madisonian faith in ourselves as a nation? Is it through education?
Michael Signer: I was talking… We were talking before…before we started filming about my…the way that I responded to the Democratic National Convention that just happened a few weeks ago and without saying this in a partisan way I think you could come to this judgment whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. I found it really remarkable how much they kind of leaned into and emphasized American history, American exceptionalism, the historic fight against demagogues, the need for statesmanship, the need for challenging the public not just playing to their prejudices and they put all this in a very patriotic context. You had generals and you had flags and you had a lot of classic American ideas that were put in this very swelling, exciting way and I think that… It’s funny, I’ve been spending some time with the Conns, with Kissar and Ghazala Conn, recently who live in this area who were at the convention. We just did a community event with them two days ago in Charlottesville which I helped…I was on the committee which came…which ran this idea and we did a proclamation in Charlottesville City Council a couple weeks before that thanking and welcoming them for having contributed so much to our ideas about the Constitution today. So for every kind of step backward we take a step forward in our deeper awareness of how important these ideas are. I think it’s an ongoing…as I write in the Demagogue book, when Joseph McCarthy did what he did, we had three years of very backwards scary behavior for the people of the…who were victims of this but he ended up in ignominy and then the country ended up much more aware I think of how easily constitutional values could be put at risk. So I’m fundamentally an optimist for how the threats to our constitutional integrity can end up creating a much greater surge of appreciation and demand for those same values. I think we’re in one of those periods. This is the biggest one of those periods we have had in our history. This is bigger than when FDR threatened to pack the court and it led to the greatest appreciation for judicial independence that we probably had ever had, in the 1930s. So you have that back and forth and I am an optimist about where these threats end up in terms of the ultimate health of the democracy.
Jan Paynter: I thought it was very interesting you recount in the book about there being a really violent thunderstorm during the convention which was the perfect metaphor for the roiling passions that were happening on the floor.
Michael Signer: And then what happened during that. Raking the hall and these flashes of lightning and thunderbolts that were so loud that they had to stop the proceedings. This is the ratifying convention and it was right at that same time that Patrick Henry had sort of hit the peak of his fearmongering and he was being steadily worn away by just the force of the reason of Madison’s arguments about how ultimately the Constitution was better than the status quo which Patrick Henry had been painting in these very sunny terms and it just didn’t pass the blush test ultimately and as time went on the fearmongering and the unrealism of Henry’s ideas just started really wearing thin and he got more and more desperate. So at the same time this colossal thunder and lightning storm happened, he sort of exhausted himself and that was the turning point when the sanity and the sort of illumination of the Federalists, the people with the Constitution, started to tip and started to win the day.
Jan Paynter: Well, it’s very cinematic the way you describe it. It would make a wonderful…
Michael Signer: Tell your friends in Hollywood.
Jan Paynter: …wonderful film. I know you’re interested. Something that I found very moving was the appearance of kind of a common man, if you will, at the convention, Zachariah Johnson. I wonder if you’d briefly talk about him.
Michael Signer: Well, thank you for bringing that up. It was one of the…there’s a lot…when you research a book like this intensively there are certain points when you feel very connection and I was very connected to the character John Witherspoon for instance. So there’s this very…we never hear from this guy again really. If you look through the encyclopedias of figures from the founding period, he’s not heard from, he was a military man but he point…he was at the ratifying convention in Richmond to ratify the Constitution 1788. He was there the whole time, the whole three weeks. And he gets up the very last day when the men are voting on the Constitution and there were a number of undecided voters. There were camps but then there were undecided voters, just like today. And he stands up and he says, ‘I’m a humble man. I’m not good at public speaking. I haven’t sought to speak much before this but I feel the need to talk now.’ I’m paraphrasing. And then he says, ‘I just cannot stand the strained construction,’ which is…that’s the word that he used, ‘put on the Constitution and on the fears by the anti-Federalists, by Patrick Henry.’ And then he explains why he’s going to vote for the Constitution and there’s something very moving and courageous and also simple and heartfelt and sincere in the way that he chose to stand up and talk about himself. He was not a public speaker, he wasn’t an important man, he wasn’t…in a famous sense. But he became very important at that moment and he was exactly the person… See, this is the thing, when I think about whether there’s optimism or pessimism for where there’s smart wins and whether the statesman can defeat the demagogue, he was the person who shows how that victory is essential to America’s…not just our history but our politics because little Madison ended up winning in a very political battle over the much more mighty Patrick Henry and he…Zachariah Johnson testified to it.
Jan Paynter: It is a rather David and Goliath story.
Michael Signer: I think so.
Jan Paynter: Just even, as you point out, the physical, the mass of Henry versus Madison. Coming full circle today, in your introduction to the book you note powerfully that, as you say, ‘Issues become emotions and slip from our grasp.’ I love the way you write this. ‘Reason falls prey to rhetoric. The attractive and charismatic dance among the colorless and shy.’ You note that the Madisonian crossbar of governments, which we talked about, sustains the architecture of the state and always rests on self-discipline and self-control. And self-control I think in a positive way. How might we apply the lesson of Madison’s thinking as we contemplate our votes in this pending November election?
Michael Signer: The problem of the passions has…is the problem of human history. It goes back to the very beginning when we started thinking about human beings and I begin the book with a passage from Plato talking about the…he uses the metaphor of a charioteer and this light steed and a dark steed who are struggling to drive the chariot one way or the other. It’s a violent…and he talks about breaking the dark steed which is the passions and controlling them and this is something we all struggle with. Any parent has struggled with how do you keep it together when a whole bunch of chaos is happening around you and how do you be a good parent, how do you self…how do you have self-control when you’re exhausted and kids are crying and just similarly everybody in a bad work situation or a bad political situation has struggled to achieve self-governance, self-mastery. The passions come up. They come up for… So I think in a way it’s a very accessible daily…day to day problem but that has massive ramifications when it’s applied to affairs of state in a very powerful country with a nuclear arsenal and 300 million people. So the story to me says that the answer to all of this is very personal, it’s an individual burden that we all carry as members of a constitutional republic. This is not… Citizenship in this country is not burden free. You don’t just a get a free pass, I don’t think, to go with your gut at any turn or to give your freedoms over to a demagogue who’s preying obviously on your passions and your prejudices. I think there’s a greater standard and that standard…there’s a lot of evidence for that standard. This is a cultural idea but culture is everything when it comes to political history and when it comes to how states are actually run. So I think the lesson of this and what I truly care about and what all of us grapple with this, certainly being mayor of a city, I deal with this with myself, I work out with my colleagues, with stakeholders, with citizens. We’re all trying to figure out…we all have passions about everything. They’re not irrelevant, it’s just they’re very important, they’re important information, they’re important inspirations but they shouldn’t ultimately decide where we head and we should be mastering ourselves, mastering the passions as we try and chart a course and build and achieve things with reason and logic and analysis and facts, playing the charioteer’s role as we kind of build the…build public policy. And that is where we came from as a country. That’s what our earlier history shows. That’s what Madison’s victory was about. So I think we just must be not just mindful about it, I think it is our struggle.
Jan Paynter: And being fact based or in a sense the reins that guide the chariot, you have to have somebody who’s in charge of those reins. I want to urge everyone to get a copy of Michael’s book. It is an essential guidebook in understanding what is best and most precious about our American republic. Michael, Thank you so much for being here today and coming back for our program on your wonderful book Becoming Madison. It’s very apropos on the eve of the election and we’re very grateful for your thoughts about democracy.
Michael Signer: Thank you for doing the interview, thank you for doing this show. It’s a public service and it’s done right. Thanks for having me.
Jan Paynter: This 2016 election in November is, as by now we all understand, a deeply consequential one with far ranging implications for us as a nation both at home and around the world. Respect for citizens’ views and perspectives on both sides of the aisle is critical if we are to understand ourselves better as a nation and as individuals living in our diverse communities. James Madison strove and succeeded in crafting a document whose resilience and elasticity can and will shepherd us through every manner of political challenge which we may face in the days ahead. He always sought to vanquish unworthy ideas that demean and dishonor. Among his many powerful lessons for us is the thought that we may disavow another’s political views while still maintaining respect for the essential dignity of the person. In short, Madison learned the art of listening to his fellow countrymen. He understood the awesome power of language to either enlighten or degrade us. The words that our politicians choose to employ matters. They provide vital clues to what lies behind the curtain which as we all know can be a daunting task with any politician presenting themselves for office today. James Madison understood the meaning of principled public service and always stood up for the power of enlightened discourse in the service of truth. Let’s honor him and the Constitution that he fathered by thoughtfully and carefully considering the gravity of our vote this November. Michael, thank you so much for completing our second program, our wonderful program on Becoming Madison and discussing your book. It was a terrific learning experience for us all.
Michael Signer: Thank you for having me. Thank you for doing this show. I really appreciate it.
Jan Paynter: Thank you at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on many of the issues under discussion there for you. You will also find a complete archive of prior Politics Matters programs which you may watch in their entirety anytime. We will be posting extended versions of the interviews online on our site as well and will continue to add more content. As always, we’re very interested in hearing from you with ideas, questions and concerns for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on PBS WVPT on the second and last Sunday of every month at 11:30 AM. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.