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brittle efficiency and shallow triumphalism
April 17, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Fareed Zakaria: Are America's Best Days Behind Us? - "We have an Electoral College that no one understands and a Senate that doesn't work, with rules and traditions that allow a single Senator to obstruct democracy without even explaining why. We have a crazy-quilt patchwork of towns, municipalities and states with overlapping authority, bureaucracies and resulting waste. We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever. America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship." [for/against]
posted by kliuless (93 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever. America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship.
I was also looking forward to this opportunity to dispel some of the mythology surrounding myself and my fellow Founders -- particularly the myth of our infallibility. You moderns have a tendency to worship at the altar of the Fathers. "The First Amendment is sacrosanct!" "We will die to protect the Second Amendment!" So dramatic. Do you know why we called them amendments? Because they amend! They fix mistakes or correct omissions and they themselves can be changed. If we had meant for the Constitution to be written in stone we would have written it in stone. Most things were written in stone back then, you know. I'm not trying to be difficult but it's bothersome when you blame your own inflexibility and extremism on us.

Not that we weren't awesome. We wrote the Constitution in the time it takes you nimrods to figure out which is the aye butting and which is the nay button. But we weren't gods. We were men, We had flaws. Adams was an unbearable prick and squealed girlishly whenever he saw a bug. And Ben Franklin? If crack existed in our day, that boozed-up snuff machine would weigh 80 pounds and live outside the Port Authority. And I had slaves. Damn, I can't believe I had slaves!

Yes, we were very accomplished. We discovered electricity, invented stoves, bifocals, the lazy susan, efficient printing presses, and the swivel chair. But in the 18th century it was nearly impossible not to invent something. "What if we put this refuse in a receptacle?" "Oh my God you just invented a sanitation system!" We lived in primitive times. Hell, I shit in a bucket and I was the president.

But I digress. My point is composing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was hard work. God didn't dictate it for us to transcribe from some sort of dictation-transcribing machine. Hey, did I just invent something? Do you have anything like that? You do? Hmm. Well, our purpose was to create a living document based on principles that transcended the times we lived in, and I think we did that. We created a blueprint for a system that would endure, which means your lazy asses shouldn't be coasting on our accomplishments. We were imperfect. It was imperfect. And we expect our descendants to work as hard as we did on keeping what we think is a profoundly excellent form of government supple, evolving and relevant. After reading this book, you should be better prepared to do just that.
--Thomas "T.J." Jefferson's foreward to America: The Book
posted by Rhaomi at 1:34 PM on April 17, 2011 [44 favorites]


We're not going to get any sort of election reform unless it's guaranteed to maintain the two party system.

This is kinda something we can't really fix, short of all hell breaking loose and a change being necessary. Democratic and Republican politicians won't vote against the system that's treated them so nicely.

That said, I'd probably prefer instant runoff voting if we were to have to rebuild our electoral system.

I think a lot of people do realize something is wrong, and really don't like having just two parties that sort of represent their views. The problem is we've been raised to think that the failure of third parties to emerge and succeed isn't systematic, but just because third parties aren't able to win over enough voters. Which is silly, because political movements build up fairly slowly, and anything below a winning vote for the third party is a failure, as they then act as a spoiler.

I'm just glad we have primaries, so that choosing the frontrunners for the final election isn't left solely up to the political parties.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:38 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


We have a crazy-quilt patchwork of towns, municipalities and states with overlapping authority...

This is a feature, not a bug.

Also, while things like the Senate "hold" tradition is a big problem, by far the worst problem the US has is the "ruling" that corporations have free speech. It's this that allows them to buy politicians outright and right in front of everyone with not only no repercussion but actual support of many of the citizens. (The second biggest problem stems from the first but is still worth mentioning: centralized corporate control of almost all media outlets.)
posted by DU at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2011 [24 favorites]


I think a lot of political discourse uses proxy arguments: arguments which are more socially acceptable to say than one's primary reasons, and which appear to be tactically advantageous in debate.

The appeal to founding founders, I believe, is such a tactic.

It is very difficult to hold a productive conversation with people who use proxy arguments. Address the proxy argument, and you fail to convince (because it's not the real reason). Address what you believe to be a person's underlying reasons, and that person may well hold indignantly to the high ground of the proxy argument.

Sincere, detailed questions and empathy are the only approach which I have found useful in such cases.
posted by honest knave at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2011 [19 favorites]


Just factually wrong.

Everyone understands the Electoral College (it is hardly complicated). Disagreement with the Electoral College is commonplace, openly expressed, and manifest in, among other things, the National Popular Vote statute movement, which is closer than you may think to rendering the Electoral College strictly ceremonial.

The ability of a single Senator to obstruct policy is hugely overstated, and, of course, was not the product of the Founders, but of the evolution of Senate rules and traditions over literally centuries. (The overstatement is due to the fact that individual Senator blocking power is typically limited to minor and provincial matters; Senator can block a small bill, but never the budget; he can put a hold on the nomination of a junior official or District Court judge, but never a Cabinet officer or Supreme Court justice). The filibuster (i.e., supermajority requirement for certain legislation) has a similar set of justifications and evolutionary, bipartisan, history.

Municipal governments are inefficiently structured in some parts of the country; hardly in all, and rationalization movements are open and vociferous in most of the places, and also opposed in those same places for numerous principled (along with occasional) unprincipled reasons.

The government is not at all bad at long term planning or investing. Capital programs are robust at every level of government, and typically are well thought out and provided for financially. The government is a bit more sketchy when it comes to funding those investments, but that's a much smaller case.

What the government is bad at is calling for, and demanding, sacrifice, but that's about us, not about the government.
posted by MattD at 1:43 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just want to throw this out: national borders don't matter as much as they used to, and patriotism is bunk. If Americans feel angry about an aspect of America and want to improve it, it should be to improve America unilaterally, as a portion of humanity, which is the noun that matters. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket if Sweden or Singapore becomes a superior earthly paradise: it is to be encouraged.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:44 PM on April 17, 2011 [20 favorites]


This is a feature, not a bug.

I think it's a bug more often these days than it was a couple hundred years ago. It's not very efficient, and it makes it too hard to comprehensively plan for the long-term. Everything from land-use law to healthcare is spoiled to some extent by our system designed around a country where Washington, DC could be weeks away.
posted by floam at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


If Americans feel angry about an aspect of America and want to improve it, it should be to improve America unilaterally, as a portion of humanity, which is the noun that matters.

I'm going to give this a resounding "hell yeah!" just as soon as I can figure out what it means.
posted by DU at 2:13 PM on April 17, 2011


Dan Carlin's most recent podcast, Tweaking the Beast, may be somewhat pertinent.
posted by floam at 2:16 PM on April 17, 2011


I agree with East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94. Efficiency took a tumble because of a loss of manufacturing base. Every innovation seems to be in germs, guns and steel these days and the level of expertise has risen with the salaries and payoffs. The crisis in our culture is self-entitlement and this overwhelming sense of blame for highly individual issues.

The reality is that the political upheaval now is necessary if it does create more grassroots effort to start political parties outside the Republicans and the Democrats as blocs. There don't seem to be a lot of real blocs in America now are there?
posted by parmanparman at 2:22 PM on April 17, 2011


The overstatement is due to the fact that individual Senator blocking power is typically limited to minor and provincial matters; Senator can block a small bill, but never the budget; he can put a hold on the nomination of a junior official or District Court judge, but never a Cabinet officer or Supreme Court justice.

MattD, that's very interesting. Cite pls.
posted by found missing at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2011


Imagine the first block in italics, if you will.
posted by found missing at 2:23 PM on April 17, 2011


Just factually wrong.

Everyone understands...


Everyone? Who's "just factually wrong"?
posted by The Hamms Bear at 2:26 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


It may or may not be true that America's status as the world's unchallenged superpower is in danger. But Zakaria's article is full of distortions and self-serving pseudo-moderation. Niall Ferguson is only an authority for people who are already committed to his disturbing politics, especially now that they've become openly tinged with yellow-peril racism. Likewise, the fact that America has the largest national debt in absolute terms is meaningless--what matters is debt as a percentage of GDP, and here the United States is doing better than many other developed nations, especially since US Treasury bonds are still the world's go-to low-risk investment.

Blabbering about America's decline has been a favorite pastime of talking heads and their equivalents for three hundred years, and many people will take any opportunity to jump on that hobbyhorse. Zakaria's piece is full of so much empty right-wing rhetoric that doing so in this case is dangerous.
posted by nasreddin at 2:27 PM on April 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


While it is easy to blame all the inequalities and societies woes on Governments, I wonder is this can be related to Australia. We are seeing the same things here.... poorly run local councils, State and Federal Governments bickering with each other, a two party political system more focus on blaming each other all the problems that they caused themselves, Unions and Corporations throwing their demands in... all under the guise of democracy and freedom..... Oversimplification, but you get my drift...

My question is... Is Australia going to end up the same as America? With someone some day asking if our best days are behind us....

Yes, we didn't have to fight for our freedom (we just handed the English a piece of paper and said 'sign this!). Also... we didn't exactly treat the original inhabitants very nicely.

On another note; MattD, what sacrifice are you demanding that the masses make? Seems like they have given their all... what is left to give?
posted by Prunedish at 2:33 PM on April 17, 2011


Blabbering about America's decline has been a favorite pastime of talking heads and their equivalents for three hundred years, and many people will take any opportunity to jump on that hobbyhorse. Zakaria's piece is full of so much empty right-wing rhetoric that doing so in this case is dangerous.

What's the right-wing bit?
posted by Sebmojo at 2:33 PM on April 17, 2011


Another (minor) wrong is that the UK didn't fail because of internal or external conditions after 1945. The UK economy had lost its preeminence during the second industrial revolution when it failed to capitalize on the technological developments and other countries began to catch up. Decline of old industries was already a concern in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s the rot was visible to all.

A better analysis - and important to the United States - is that from 1914 to 1945 the UK spent the inheritance of the first industrial revolution which had kept to country afloat despite its decline. The post-1945 political and economic settlement in the UK probably kept things going for several more decades than could have been expected, rather than being an immediate contribution to the decline.
posted by Jehan at 2:37 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blabbering about America's decline has been a favorite pastime of talking heads and their equivalents for three hundred years,

Cites, please?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:40 PM on April 17, 2011


Money money money money money money money money. Money money, money money; money money money money? Money

1)money
2)money
3)money

Money money money money! Money money, money money... money money money money. Money money money money money money money money. Money (money money) money money money -money money. Money money money money money money money money.

Dr. Buck Dollar
Mellon/Gates/Buffet/Branson/Koch Chair of Anglo-American Thought
posted by larry_darrell at 2:41 PM on April 17, 2011 [15 favorites]


Senator can block a small bill, but never the budget; he can put a hold on the nomination of a junior official or District Court judge, but never a Cabinet officer or Supreme Court justice.

MattD, that's very interesting. Cite pls.


You can't place holds on Cabinet or SCOTUS nominees like you can legislation or district/federal positions. They can still be filibustered, however, so the original statement is slightly disingenuous. A minority of Senators can still prevent appointment.

The ability of a single Senator to obstruct policy is hugely overstated

This, however, is just nonsense.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:42 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he makes some good points. This in particular:

America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship.

Unfortunately it seems to be embedded in American DNA that the Constitution itself is to be worshipped, not the iconoclastic spirit of the people who wrote it.
posted by Segundus at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


On another note; MattD, what sacrifice are you demanding that the masses make? Seems like they have given their all... what is left to give?

Ridiculous. Americans are utterly unwilling to even consider giving anything up, and to suggest they do so gets you called a socialist (except when you suggest the social security age probably needs adjustment...). Americans expect explosive growth in all sectors, they want their white picket fence single family dwellings, and they want them large and miles away from a whiff of poor people, they want big families, big cars, big freeways, cheap gas, cheap food, cheap plastic shit.
posted by floam at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's the right-wing bit?

For one thing, "cutting entitlement spending."

Cites, please?

Here's one--230 years, not 300, but it'll do. It's a common trope in old pamphlets.
posted by nasreddin at 2:47 PM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


This will be a pleasant discussion.
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:49 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


This article isn't even wrong. I'd have thought a political system which has lasted 235 years, making it one of the oldest in the world, and been the bedrock underlying the creation of the strongest, most successful country on earth would be seen as something of an enduring success. The whole system was designed to avoid elective monarchs and to distribute and share power and it takes little more than a glance at countries which have suffered absolute power in the hands of presidents for life to see what a wise move that was. There's always a lot of "henny penny" blather about the collapse of America/Capitalism/The West, not least on Metafilter, but systems which have been highly successful tend to last a lot longer than dysfunction systems which don't work at all. Just as the Soviets.
posted by joannemullen at 2:56 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ask the Soviets, dammit.
posted by joannemullen at 2:58 PM on April 17, 2011


Did anyone else stop reading when he called the Simpson-Bowles commission (aka "The Catfood Commission") "highly intelligent solutions"? I sure as hell did.

Honestly, Time needs to die. I looked forward to reading this, and was kind of enjoying it, and then it dawns on me "Oh yeah, he's an insulated villager, fuck him". Yeah, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main drivers of the deficit, certainly not tax cuts on rich fuckers like you Mr. Z or our endless Middle Eastern wars.
posted by MattMangels at 2:58 PM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

Best days so far? Sure. Just like they were in the '00s, and the '90s, and the '80s, and the '70s, and the '60s, and the '50s...

You have good days, and you have bad days. Booms, busts. Ebbs, flows.

The general trend, however, is for the better. Bet your bottom dollar.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:59 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, I disagree with you about Ferguson being a racist (based on his article); as to his only being an authority to people who agree with his politics, I really don't see how that follows from quoting him. Your profile quotes a song that goes (forgive my shitty translation) "If you want to be happy – Jesus Christ! – Kill your landlord." And you must know better than I do that it wasn't intended figuratively. If 19th century anarchists with terroristic leanings are a legitimate source of ideas, then so is Niall bloody Ferguson.

Agree with you on decline being a very old favourite topic of blowhards.
posted by topynate at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The general trend, however, is for the better. Bet your bottom dollar.

When you're stuck with a day that's grey and lonely, do you just stick out your chin and grin and say......
posted by hippybear at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hits a lot of the same notes early on as this book he wrote but is so pessimistic in comparison. The book echoed the same optimistic sentiments expressed by Sys Rq and joannemullen.

Just factually wrong.

He's also wrong to say the US has the most crime, unless by 'richest countries' he means the absolute richest of the rich.
posted by K.P. at 3:04 PM on April 17, 2011


Unfortunately it seems to be embedded in American DNA that the Constitution itself is to be worshipped, not the iconoclastic spirit of the people who wrote it.

What's worse is that it's not even the Constitution that is being worshipped. The Constitution itself exists in some ethereal realm above most political discourse; what people worship instead is their individual own personal or cultural view, with the Constitution itself held out as a shield from argument. All too many people metonymically substitute "constitutional" or "unconstitutional" for "right" or "wrong," accordioning together the Constitution itself, how it has been interpreted by the courts, their own personal read of the Constitution, their own personal read of how it has been interpreted by the courts, and their own ideas of right and wrong.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:08 PM on April 17, 2011 [12 favorites]


I disagree with you about Ferguson being a racist (based on his article)

The man ends his article with the phrase "Lock up your daughters." Even if we assume that this is some kind of joke, it's not an expression you use lightly in this kind of context, especially if you're aware (which Ferguson clearly is) of the history of anti-Asian racism.

If 19th century anarchists with terroristic leanings are a legitimate source of ideas, then so is Niall bloody Ferguson.

The quote in my profile isn't intended as support for any kind of claim, much less a claim about the meaning of America's contribution to Western civilization. I don't see how anyone who doesn't endorse Ferguson's politics can consider him a credible source in this kind of argument.
posted by nasreddin at 3:08 PM on April 17, 2011


(At the very least, historians who don't subscribe to his politics--including those in his own department--typically consider his ideas about Western civilization to be warmed-over nineteenth-century Eurocentrist bullshit. The fact that he happens to be widely-publicized doesn't make him any more credible.)
posted by nasreddin at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there a site that tracks the predictions and affiliations of every major pundit. I'd like to know-how useful their comments really were.
posted by humanfont at 3:29 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


The outcome of standing there with your dick in your hand and pissing depends on which way the wind is blowing (or something).
posted by panaceanot at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2011


US Senators should be elected from a half-state district, and not represent the state at large. This prevents partisan clones and costs less. Also, there is no way to gerrymander two districts if the populations are equalized. The political result would be that Senators are more representative of their constituents, exposed to half as much favoritism and corruption with the same job to do.

I also think we should be allowed to vote for up to two candidates in every election, to reflect the reality that three or more candidates should be in a runoff scenario, and if not, then two votes per voter effectively achieves this.
posted by Brian B. at 3:42 PM on April 17, 2011


US Senators should be elected from a half-state district, and not represent the state at large. This prevents partisan clones and costs less. Also, there is no way to gerrymander two districts if the populations are equalized.

It's an interesting idea, but even just thinking parochially on my own end, this would do really hilarious things to New York State politics.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:44 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's worse is that it's not even the Constitution that is being worshipped. The Constitution itself exists in some ethereal realm above most political discourse; what people worship instead is their individual own personal or cultural view, with the Constitution itself held out as a shield from argument.

Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be
posted by Rhaomi at 3:57 PM on April 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


Our government is simply a form of organized crime. Congress is bought and paid for by the wealthy interests its members serve. The voters get to choose the candidates they want from the selection the owners offer. The owners cannot loose, no matter which candidate is chosen, since they own them all.

Party as a distinguishing feature means nearly nothing. It is merely a symbol, a professed credo that only dictates the type of message they package and market to voters through the mass media channels controlled by the owners of our representatives.
posted by crispynubbins at 4:09 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are America's best days behind us? It depends on what we do going forward. It's not looking good though, specially for the bottom 3 quartiles.
posted by Daddy-O at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2011


America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship..

So we should stop giving such deference to what the founders would have done because the founders wouldn't like that?
posted by layceepee at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am in this really weird place of cognitive dissonance where I'm fed up with the people in charge and wanting to shake things up, kick out the jokers, and empower the little guy, while simultaneously becoming fed up with "democracy" and thinking things would be better if our senators were just chosen by state legislatures again. Anyways, my point is I have no idea what I'm talking about and what I probably really want is my own successful coup d'état where I can be a benevolent dictator and get shit done for humanity and great justice. (Also, I get a harem.)
posted by floam at 4:31 PM on April 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


The problem with the American Government is not the electoral college or the filibuster. It's the way the government is structured itself. Sure, they're problems, but removing them would just make the problems lessened, not eliminated. Take the filibuster- yes, it's undemocratic, but is the Senate that democratic itself? The top ten most populated states hold about half the nation's population, but only 20% of the Senate. The Senate is fundamentally undemocratic, and I don't think we need it.

In fact, I would go one step further- I don't think we need a presidency. Most governments don't have a President, and if they do, their power is significantly weakened. Imagine if Speaker Pelosi didn't need to send bills through the Senate and to the President, like in a parliamentary system. Do you think the economy would be in such bad shape? Perhaps if that were the case, we wouldn't have a Speaker Boehner.

The way the founders envisioned this system was that the President would represent the nation, the senate the states, and the house the people. This system wasn't necessarily democratic, but in the past 300 years or so we've tried to mold it into a Democracy through direct voting. The real issue is, if what you want is democracy then representatives for the states and nation are unnecessary. The only way to "fix" the American government would be to restructure it. Anything else would be addressing the symptoms of a much greater disease.
posted by catwash at 4:32 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The top ten most populated states hold about half the nation's population, but only 20% of the Senate.

This is a feature, not a bug.
posted by Cyrano at 4:45 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not knowing anything about Ferguson, I picked up one of his books (on the history of money) and got about 75 pages into it before I was ready to throw it across the room in sheer frustration and annoyance. Every historian's personal biases creep into their work in some way or other, even if only in their choices of which subjects to work with, but jesus h. christ on a pogo stick, most professionals try to maintain some objectivity. It wasn't quite as bad as reading a Victor Davis Hanson column, but it was very obvious what Ferguson's (current) politics were before the end of the first chapter, and that part of his purpose in writing was to prove that history supports his politics. That's bad news, even in a popular history.

Like the Catfood Commission cite, favorably citing Ferguson is a sign that Zakaria's solutions are coming from a place I radically disagree with.
posted by immlass at 4:50 PM on April 17, 2011


there is a way to fix it. every politician should be audited every year. any upward changes in his/her wealth must be accountable to thrift. any change that cannot be should result in dismissal and prosecution.
posted by kitchenrat at 4:53 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a feature, not a bug.


Not if your goal is democracy.
posted by catwash at 4:56 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a feature, not a bug.

no, it's a bug - we already ended up fighting a civil war because of it
posted by pyramid termite at 4:58 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a feature, not a bug.
posted by Cyrano at 4:45 PM on 4/17
[+] [!]


Well, it's a terrible feature because it allows a group of heavily rural, depopulated and deeply conservative states to dominate the government and the national discourse far out of proportion to their actual importance.
posted by Avenger at 5:18 PM on April 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


nasreddin, firstly that last line of the article you linked is not in good taste, and had I read it more attentively I don't think I'd have so baldly disagreed about the article being 'tinged' with racism. I was responding to the propositions set forth in the article, not the coda. That is, I was looking for Ferguson to connect the 'peril' to race, and instead I read an argument of the form 'these conditions have occurred elsewhere and led to the same bad outcomes'.

Zakaria isn't a historian, so quoting Ferguson does not mark him out as being on his team. To a Harvard professor of history, Ferguson may have the credibility of a neo-con (or whatever historians consider him to be), but to a non-academic he has the credibility of a Harvard professor. Academics who get over that lower bar tend to get into the popular press not based on whether their ideas are fashionable within their discipline, but on how interesting they are. Judging by Ferguson's use of the 'killer app' metaphor, he understands this quite well. And that's as it should be – the alternative requires that journalists pick a political orientation and then select the academics they quote accordingly. Of course they may well do this anyway, but at least populism gives them a less sterile option.
posted by topynate at 5:22 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Avenger: "Well, it's a terrible feature because it allows a group of heavily rural, depopulated and deeply conservative states to dominate the government and the national discourse far out of proportion to their actual importance."

It also helps keep the haughty urbanites from dominating the entire political discourse like they do in the House. You fucks already get the House and (usually) the Presidency.

(In actuality, I'm usually in agreement with the haughty urbanites and surburbanites from the populated states, but there are some issues on which there is no one national solution, and the Senate can, in those cases, prevent the imposition of laws that make no sense for a large segment of society)
posted by wierdo at 5:26 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow I actually agree with DU on something. I've been saying to anyone who will listen for years (so I'm usually talking to myself) is that we to go back to having 50 states, ideally with lots of localities. Most people in Mississippi don't share the the values with those of us in Massachusetts (my home state), let them have their laws and we can have our laws. Protect things BROADLY at the Federal level and let the voters in the states decide.

This state has problems but it's a lot easier to move to a town with good schools when almost every municipality has its own school system. Try that in greater LA, with 2,000,000 kids in the district. Do you think the superintendent goes to every school play like they do here? (generally speaking of course)

Local, local, local. A lot of big, annoying issues that have been hobbling this country for years go away if issues go local. You can move away from your city or state, but it's a lot harder to leave your country.

I also think we need to go back to Senators being decided by State legislators because that gives the states a voice in Washington but I'm weird that way.

Up thread someone mentioned the National Popular Vote statue. Now I don't agree with that idea at all but it appears to be constitutional so let it be if that is what the states want. I'm just waiting for the inevitable "faithless state", when someone cuts a deal and gets a state to switch back if its popular vote is the opposite of the rest of the country. That mess would make Tilden v. Hayes or Bush v. Gore look pretty minor. And it will probably be completely constitutional too.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Weirdo, I have a great deal of difficulty understanding why say, a Wyoming resident should have propotionally greater power than me both in the Senate, relatively speaking, and in Presidential contests.
posted by lackutrol at 5:43 PM on April 17, 2011


Conversely, lackutrol, why should you get a say in what gun control regulations are enforced in Wyoming?
posted by wierdo at 5:50 PM on April 17, 2011


lackutrol, wierdo, there's obviously a distinction between whether a given issue is regulated at the state vs. local level, and whether less populous states should carry disproportional weight in (a) legislation and/or (b) the Presidential election.

Regarding the latter point, obviously the bicameral legislature was plausibly defensible when the U. S. was established. To me it makes less sense now that agriculture is so heavily industrialized (and thereby centralized), and I don't think that the electoral college, in any of its versions, has ever really been defensible.

That said, there is obviously deep resistance (in the flyover red states) to any kind of reform to either of these institutions. In fact, the last time I stated lackutrol's point to somebody ("why should a Wyomingite's voice be louder than an Illinoisan's"*), my interlocutor was from Nebraska - figure THAT out.

*Of course, nobody states it in these terms; it's always Wyoming and Utah versus Chicago and L. A.)
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:03 PM on April 17, 2011


Humanfont Is there a site that tracks the predictions and affiliations of every major pundit. I'd like to know-how useful their comments really were.


The book you are looking for is called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

posted by TwelveTwo at 6:05 PM on April 17, 2011


wierdo, isn't that apples and oranges? Seems the only way you fix that would be the right to bear arms being a state thing, not just giving people in fly-over states more say. (Why should they get a say in what the gun control regulations are in San Francisco?)
posted by floam at 6:05 PM on April 17, 2011


If the system is broke, how far back to we go to find it when it worked? Slavery during the days of the Founding Fathers? No vote for women? Child labor? Civil War...and on and on. When was it just fine and suddenly change?
posted by Postroad at 6:07 PM on April 17, 2011


It also helps keep the haughty urbanites from dominating the entire political discourse like they do in the House.

Except for you know, the year 2011, where the House is mostly Republican and if you look at a map that red is mostly from the rural areas?
posted by floam at 6:10 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


The American Constitutional Order has never worked particularly well as a system of governance, certainly very poorly indeed if you're interested in equity. American Capitalism, on the other hand, has succeeded at everything it's attempted. People talk about the first like it includes the second - not so.
posted by facetious at 6:13 PM on April 17, 2011


The biggest problem with the Senate (from a progressive point of view) is that it's very hard to build a left-leaning majority when you're dealing with two seats from each state.

Assume the the Pacific coast states (minus Alaska) and the entire Northeast north of DC get two Democratic seats each. That's thirty senators. Let's throw in the Great Lakes too, from Minnesota to Ohio. Forty-two seats. Still short of a majority.

There are still some states left that Obama won in 2008, so let's add them to the pile: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Fifty-six seats! But that's still vulnerable to a filibuster.

To get to a supermajority, things get dicier. What's left? Missouri? The Dakotas? Montana? The Deep South? That's slim pickings if you're looking for a liberal chamber. And remember, the two extra states you need -- plus all the ones garnered so far -- need two Dems each. Every Republican victory in Florida or Indiana or (sigh) Massachusetts requires a Democratic win in one of these other states to balance it out.

The practical effect is a significant number of conservative Democrats from the South and the Great Plains and the Mountain West. And when incessant Republican filibusters make sixty votes required for everything, any one of these senators can hold up the process or extract concessions, as we saw during the healthcare debates last year. It was Montana's Max Baucus who blockaded merely debating single-payer, and even Connecticut gave us Lieberman, who refused to allow a public option.

Short of a demographic shift moving progressive voters from concentrated cities on the coasts to interior states, the only realistic way to get anything liberal through the Senate is by reforming the filibuster. But the opportunity for that passed in early 2009. With the supermajority gone and Republicans poised to evenly divide or outright capture the Senate in 2012 (owing to the fact that 20-something Democratic seats are up for grabs vs. only 10 or so Republican ones), nixing the filibuster now would do more harm than good.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:37 PM on April 17, 2011


"It's a feature, not a bug" does not address the possibility that it's a design flaw.
posted by Flunkie at 6:38 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Presidency is something of a joke. It fulfills the primate need to have a strongman "in charge" somewhere and, were we more honest about it, we would sacrifice Presidents out of hand when the economy went south (okay, I'm ignoring the whole bit where the Kennedy assassination was part of a grand alchemical working). Voting for the Presidency is also a joke. Oh, look, I did something once every four years, at least I participated. In a country where corporations are more likely to have a representative's ear than a human, voting someone into office is more often than not an empty ritual gesture which makes people feel as if they have some sort of control and, having filled out a ballot, can now take it easy.

Revolution is too inconvenient. Just think of all of those laws we would have to rewrite. We can't even get rid of the plurality voting which seems to devolve into the trap of two party politics, thanks to Duverger's Law.
posted by adipocere at 6:49 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a feature, not a bug.


Not if your goal is democracy.


The goal isn't democracy but good governance. The United States system is designed so that several aspects (democracy, aristocracy, monarchy) unify Aristotle-like to form a good government that works. That's the goal, anyway, a goal that it falls short of. Even to this day, there's many aspects which we wouldn't believe a pure democracy would lead to better outcomes (juries, appointed positions, scientific views).

I still believe in democracy, but it alone cannot guarantee good governance.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Catwash, I take it that you believe that parliamentary systems are flat-out better than presidential systems? That's an opinion, but there are many functional presidential republics and many dysfunctional parliamentary ones.

By the way, can we stop with the whole "Flyover State" thing? It seems rather dismissive to all the people that live there, that only the people on the coasts matter, and that the only knowledge they have of the rest of the United States is that it's between here and there.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:05 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


um fwiw, while hardly a ferguson apologist, i wouldn't dismiss zakaria just because he cites him, cf. ian morris' Why the West Rules - For Now
posted by kliuless at 7:14 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


adipocere! - I was wondering if you could describe a system of government which is less of a joke.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:20 PM on April 17, 2011


Switzerland. Next question please, EMRJKC '94.
posted by Talez at 7:40 PM on April 17, 2011


singapore for that matter, not to say that it scales! more is different :P
posted by kliuless at 8:00 PM on April 17, 2011


The composition of the Senate was not a reasoned effort to create a better form of government. It was the price which the smaller states -- whose legal existence preceded that of the United States by more than century -- demanded to surrender to the central government a substantial a substantial share of their individual sovereign powers. There is a reason it is called the "Great Compromise" and not the "Great Principle of Governance."

State bicameral systems were often set up to emulate this in a rural vs urban power balance sense. However in Baker vs Carr and its progeny the courts have held it unconstitutional for any governing body other than the US Senate to have substantial population disparities in its members' district. Then Great Compromise can never be undone because it requires any state to consent to having fewer Senators than any other state.
posted by MattD at 8:00 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:
It is my duty to recommend to your serious consideration those objects which by the Constitution are placed particularly within your sphere - the national debts and taxes.

Since the decay of the feudal system, by which the public defense was provided for chiefly at the expense of individuals, the system of loans has been introduced, and as no nation can raise within the year by taxes sufficient sums for its defense and military operations in time of war the sums loaned and debts contracted have necessarily become the subjects of what have been called funding systems. The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own. The national defense must be provided for as well as the support of Government; but both should be accomplished as much as possible by immediate taxes, and as little as possible by loans."

-John Adams, 'First Annual Message to Congress, November 22, 1797'
posted by clavdivs at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


EMRJKC94, I'd start with ditching plurality voting. For elections, for everything. If I could have just one concrete change, that would be it.

Getting money out of politics is far more difficult. I only see a few ways out of that: 1) eliminating elections, instead, citizens are randomly selected from a pool of eligibles, basically sortition, OR 2) all campaign donations going into a pool to be equally divided amongst candidates, which does not eliminate PACs, OR 3) total destruction of corporate personhood.

And, if I were going to get completely radical, I would go for quiz-based voting. Let's say you have an issue you're voting for and you have strong opinions on it. Awesome. Good for you. Now, you also have to answer some very basic questions about the facts of the matter along with your vote. If you don't get those correct, your vote counts for less (or is possibly void). Determining the facts would suddenly be a huge deal, of course, and fraught with contention. Beats the hell out of uninformed people casting votes based on emotion, though.

I do not see any of the above happening, or major changes, at all. We're locked in.
posted by adipocere at 8:11 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


And, if I were going to get completely radical, I would go for quiz-based voting. Let's say you have an issue you're voting for and you have strong opinions on it. Awesome. Good for you. Now, you also have to answer some very basic questions about the facts of the matter along with your vote. If you don't get those correct, your vote counts for less (or is possibly void). Determining the facts would suddenly be a huge deal, of course, and fraught with contention. Beats the hell out of uninformed people casting votes based on emotion, though.

Ah yes. Perhaps we could introduce a literacy requirement as well, and even a poll tax to make sure the people who vote have a real stake in the outcome. And then, in order not to rock the boat too much, we'd make it so that people whose grandfather had passed one of those qualifications would be exempt. Oh, and let's also organize some sort of informal citizens' association to make sure ignorant and uneducated people aren't slipping by the safeguards we've introduced--perhaps they could wear an identifiable uniform of some distinct color. I suggest white, since white stands for purity and cleanliness, and who doesn't want clean elections?
posted by nasreddin at 8:19 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


adipocere: The quiz thing smacks a little too much of 'literacy tests' that were used to disenfranchise minority voters. I'd imagine just on that basis it'd be a political non starter.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:21 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's cute, nasreddin.

I'm suggesting an alternative to our current RAGE-BASED VOTING SYSTEM.
posted by adipocere at 8:21 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


And you know how angry those plebes get!
posted by nasreddin at 8:23 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


But can those of us already voting at least get a grandfather clause?
posted by chortly at 8:24 PM on April 17, 2011


I'll freely admit, it's a non-starter. It would beat the politics of emotions we have going on, though. Anger. Fear. False hope. Greed. Voting that doesn't require any kind of knowledge but what the talking heads on the little box tell you to check and opinions based on lies and distortions.

But, hey, someone used a vaguely similar idea some time back and hung it about with any number of ways to twist it into something discriminatory, so we can never use the idea again.
posted by adipocere at 8:28 PM on April 17, 2011


Require a PayPal account and $5 to register.
posted by floam at 8:33 PM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


(One place to start would just to somehow stop this "get out the vote" crap. Who wants people who care that little going in and screwing it up?)
posted by floam at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2011


The Icelandic Commonwealth seems like it was a pretty good system. Not perfect, of course.
posted by topynate at 8:37 PM on April 17, 2011


I don't get the whole "America isn't number 1, therefore we suck" meme. Maybe we're just not meant to be the Best Country In The World. Is it so horrible if other countries have caught up to us?
posted by madcaptenor at 9:00 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lord Chancellor- Well, what I am saying is that there are problems that the United States government has that a parliamentary government does not. Because we now vote for the Senate, it's quasi-democratic, but if we now see the legislature as a democratic institution then that makes the Senate a parasite on the House. If I vote vote for my Senators every six years, then I expect them to vote and represent me, but they don't then I don't know what they represent. I've been thinking a lot about what's wrong with the American government, and the Senate just seems unnecessary.
posted by catwash at 9:14 PM on April 17, 2011


adipocere: Here's my rule of thumb for proposed state powers. I like to imagine that power in the hands of the most bigoted, corrupt, irresponsible fuckwad I can. I call it the "Sherrif Joe" test. Because sooner or later someone corrupt is going to wind up with that power.

It might be possible to make these literacy tests immune from racial bias (something we haven't managed with the SATs) and it might be possible to prevent them from being used to disenfranchise people. Again though, I keep imagining the test Kathleen Harrris would have come up with for Florida in 2000, or what Jan Brewer et all would cook up for Arizona.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:30 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Icelandic Commonwealth seems like it was a pretty good system. Not perfect, of course.

yea, an exemplum...
posted by kliuless at 9:33 PM on April 17, 2011


But, hey, someone used a vaguely similar idea some time back and hung it about with any number of ways to twist it into something discriminatory, so we can never use the idea again

I personally don't see how it wouldn't be distorted for negative purposes again, even if at the outset its goals were virtuous.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:45 PM on April 17, 2011


floam: "wierdo, isn't that apples and oranges? Seems the only way you fix that would be the right to bear arms being a state thing, not just giving people in fly-over states more say. (Why should they get a say in what the gun control regulations are in San Francisco?"

Until another recent flub by the Roberts court, the Wyoming resident didn't have any say in what gun control regulations were enacted by California. They still don't actually, but Californians have a lesser ability to enact whatever firearm regulations they deem appropriate. I consider that exactly the opposite of what we need.

This is one of the ways in which the Bill of Rights applying directly to the states turns out to be a bad thing. On balance, I think it's preferable to not having those restrictions apply to the several states, but them's the breaks, I guess.


catwash: "I've been thinking a lot about what's wrong with the American government, and the Senate just seems unnecessary."

An alternative to the theory that the Senate is necessary to bridge the rural and urban divide is that the longer term and staggered election of Senators also serves to (theoretically) insert more reason into the lawmaking process. It should be relatively difficult for inflamed passions to cause an immediate change in the body. To some degree we just saw that in 2010 with the Senate, unlike the House, not being taken over by Tea Partiers. The Senate can be seen as acting as a check against our baser desires.

Not that it worked that way with the patriot act and several other hotheaded blunders we've made of late, but it should.
posted by wierdo at 11:00 PM on April 17, 2011


> Fareed Zakaria: Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

World War II ended nearly seventy years ago.

Other countries have re-built or modernized.

Barring the successful commercialization (or military application) of some truly radical technology, and more to the point, a sustained monopoly on that technology...

and barring a radical change to the campaign finance system...

why, yes, America's best days are behind her.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:24 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know what? The problem isn't the system. Its us. We've stopped trying to understand each other or cooperate to get anything done.

Our cynicism, addiction to easy-results technology, lack of historical perspective and unmitigated desire for entertainment also kills us. We think that if it can't be done easily, the system is broken, gamed, whatever. Its not broken, its just hard people. It was never easy. You think the system is controlled by huge capitalists like never before? Try the 1890s! Nobody sends letters to their congressman anymore and everyone assumes they have zero influence on the process without finding out exactly how much influence they do have.

Which brings me to my next point. We are incredibly ignorant of our own history. Everyone screaming the sky is falling needs to hit the books to where we came from. The so-called "Gilded Age" was way, way worse. Imagine no unions, no regulation, no anti-trust laws, no campaign finance reform, African-Americans and women without the vote and a winner-take all spoils system of government jobs.

Finally our need for entertainment is the worst culprit. People see politics as something to provide entertainment and emotional release like sports and film does. In this respect, our highly responsive politics is our undoing. Our leaders cater to this need more than any other, providing their own "bases" with "red meat," emotionally charged scenarios where conflict is heightened and reasonability is ignored. Take this last budget battle. A straightforward negotiation, where a resurgent GOP asked for some budget cuts they wanted, based on their new-found electoral position. Both parties and their hangers on went through a series of emotional outbursts, trying to provide the image they were "standing tall" and not compromising with the other side. By the end, both parties "bases" had decided their leaders had let them down, despite the fact that the only option the entire time was compromise. There was no scenario in which a Republican House did not find a compromise ground with the Senate and the President. Even if the government had shut down, negotiations would have produced a compromise result. Instead, people want their politics to look like movies or the West Wing. In short, politics is now about providing emotional excitement rather than the government of the country and the growing incivility and partisan divide more about providing emotional content to voters than anything else.

It is well-past time we grew up and acknowledged that politics in a democracy is a slow process of negotiated change and always has been except for two periods of rebellion. Even the vaunted New Deal saw most of its prgrams melt away rather quickly.

Politics needs to get back to governance and away from catering to our emotional needs.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think we should be allowed to vote for up to two candidates in every election, to reflect the reality that three or more candidates should be in a runoff scenario, and if not, then two votes per voter effectively achieves this.

The problem here, though, is that we can barely get people to come out for one stint at the polls, much less two. (Ever check what the voter turnout for the primaries is?)

I've been saying to anyone who will listen for years (so I'm usually talking to myself) is that we to go back to having 50 states, ideally with lots of localities. Most people in Mississippi don't share the the values with those of us in Massachusetts (my home state), let them have their laws and we can have our laws. Protect things BROADLY at the Federal level and let the voters in the states decide.

That's...kind of what we've already got. A lot of the current issues are, at heart, about whether a given issue is something we can "let the voters in the states decide" or whether it is one of the things that should be protected broadly at the Federal level. Everyone already agrees that SOME things should be left up to the individual states -- but the disagreement is about which things those some things should be.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:19 AM on April 18, 2011


I'm just glad we have primaries, so that choosing the frontrunners for the final election isn't left solely up to the political parties.

Maybe in your state.

In WA, the political parties reserve the right whether or not to use the primary results. The Democrats have never used them; the Republicans have varied in their primary results use since the first presidential primary in 1992.

The caucus results are the real source of our delegates to the party conventions. (FAQ from 2008 election, PDF) And of course for the caucus you have to show up in person for several hours on a specific day, must register with a specific party and only decide between candidates of that party. No secret ballot, either. I caucused in 2004 and found the process somewhat disappointing.

It's gotten to the point that the Secretary of State & the governor are proposing to cancel the 2012 primary to save money. It passed our state senate week before last. :(

Wikipedia says 11 states use the caucus, although they leave out Washington.
posted by epersonae at 9:54 AM on April 18, 2011


"The" problem with America is the citizenry. Or, at least, that's where real change is going to come from. Folks need to be invested, passionate, and educated about government. At every level. Folks at every level, but especially those who have traditionally been disenfranchised. Government at every level, but especially locally.

This means voting. But it also means a lot of other things. Rights only exist as far as they're exercised. Demonstrate, protest, and yes, revolt as necessary. There is no one who can't make a difference, especially if they're not alone.

Democracy, even a representative/republican democracy, is a "use it or lose it" proposition.
posted by Eideteker at 12:38 PM on April 21, 2011


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