Madison Vision Series

Mastering the passions, leading for the common good

Michael Signer

The country James Madison built was one based on mastering the “passions,” Michael Signer told a Madison Vision Series audience in the Madison Union Ballroom on Feb. 19. It was one rooted in reason, temperance, listening and, above all, achieving the common good.

“When you see extremism destroying debate in our country today…you’re seeing the passions running amuck,” Signer said, “And when you see leaders pandering to those extreme ideas and letting themselves be dragged and tossed around by them, you’re [also] witnessing the passions.”

Signer’s lecture, “Statesmanship for Troubled Times: Leadership Lessons from James Madison,” drew from his book, “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father,” an extension of Signer’s interest in democracy and an exploration of leadership.

Due to cultural issues within our parties and political systems—all-time low approval rates of Congress, the 24-hour news cycle, the cost of political campaigns—the “corrosive” power of cynicism can lead citizens away from civic engagement. But despite all this, Signer encouraged, we have individuals who are eager for more substance and who believe in civic duty. 

Only the collective effort of individuals can save the republic from the crisis of leadership and make democracy what it should be, Signer emphasized. And, excited by President Jonathan Alger’s leadership, Signer discussed how JMU’s mission of engagement would have made James Madison proud.

“These pillars of engagement that are here are incredibly exciting…I think this is cause for celebration. For what does our country need the most right now? It needs people connected to civic affairs, to government, to collective enterprises, who are engaged with the deepest questions and who are using them to shape outcomes,” Signer said. “We’re definitely not going to solve these things with cynicism.”

During the Virginia Federal Convention, Signer shared that Madison physically collapsed twice. And Signer’s theory is that Madison collapsed in that room in Richmond not because he felt too little, but because he felt too much. While Madison has been known for his quietness and relentless rationality, Signer believes that he was more like lava underneath a rock that was ready to erupt and he understood intensely the stakes of what it is he was involved in.

“Madison’s method” of debate, as Signer called it, was maddening and frustrating. He anticipated opponents’ moves. He dragged audiences through limited choices. It involved precision, preparation, discipline and control. And most importantly, his method poked holes in credibility for those with selfish motives. Madison would burn with intensity, and this was why he’d collapsed.

Signer explained that there tend to be two frames in our politics today: politics as entertainment, due to our media landscape being fragmented into a less united national discussion, and politics as war, where the goal of the political process is to destroy the opponent. “I would suggest to you a vital third model,” Signer said, explaining politics as an athletic contest, a frame that mirrors the one used in Madison’s day. “It is a contest, where we are trying to win, definitely. We are competing, but there are rules to the game, and after the game is over, we are all neighbors and citizens together.”

In this athletic contest, Madison was a quiet victor. He sided with reason and fought against exaggerated extremes and the passions. And, he convinced masses of people to do so as well. 

“We need to hurl ourselves over these obstacles, just as Madison did,” Signer said, encouraged by JMU’s commitment to civic engagement, community engagement, and engaged learning. “And this is a vital, bold, important mission that has been laid out here at James Madison University.”


By Rosemary Girard ('15)

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Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Last Updated: Friday, September 1, 2017

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