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January 6, 2010 11:42 AM   Subscribe

How America Can Rise Again by James Fallows
Is America going to hell? After a year of economic calamity that many fear has sent us into irreversible decline, the author finds reassurance in the peculiarly American cycle of crisis and renewal, and in the continuing strength of the forces that have made the country great: our university system, our receptiveness to immigration, our culture of innovation. In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world. But here's the alarming problem: our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. Fixing it—without resorting to a constitutional convention or a coup—is the key to securing the nation's future. (via|previously)
posted by kliuless (61 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
The "rise" part of the question reminds me of Bill Maher's line, which was a lightbulb moment for me: Why can't America get it up any more?
posted by Joe Beese at 11:48 AM on January 6, 2010


I seriously doubt America has been through even one, let alone multiple, "cycles" in the mere 50-100 years it has been a world power.
posted by DU at 11:53 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world.

Hmmm, I'm torn here. Nelson laugh or crazy dude laugh?
posted by i_cola at 11:55 AM on January 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair. But Starr is right. Our only sane choice is to muddle through.

So basically, yes: America is broken, and the best solution is: no solution.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:56 AM on January 6, 2010


Fallows also thinks the future involves flying cars, so he may be a little too wishful about things.
posted by briank at 11:56 AM on January 6, 2010


I was going to ask "What would be so terrible about a new constitutional convention?" Then I remembered that Freedom of Speech would never make it in this time.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


DARPA Kick-Starts Flying Car Program! "Every year flying cars fail to take to the skies is a disappointment." :P
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on January 6, 2010


Repeal the 17th Amendment.
Increase the number of U.S. Representatives.
Figure out some way to programmatically define Congressional district boundaries.
Encourage more states to experiment with different election methods, e.g, Instant runoff, Bucklin, etc.

In short, the governing system isn't broken, it just needs a little maintenance.
posted by madajb at 12:15 PM on January 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Just fix California first, OK? The Federal government is the frickin' shining city on the hill in comparison.
posted by GuyZero at 12:16 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


So basically, yes: America is broken, and the best solution is: no solution.

Why is that? Seems like some simple structural reforms could have a pretty big impact. 1) Using the same system of sticks in the democratic senate caucus that the republicans use in theirs to keep their senators in line: If you don't toe the line in important matters, you can lose your seniority and your committee chairmanships.

And 2) getting rid of the filibuster. If the government fails deliver, the minority party's chances of getting elected go up. So they have every reason to try to scuttle the majority parties chances of success. It sets up a pretty dangerous dynamic.

Ultimately I think moving to a multi-party (as in more then two) parliamentary system would be very helpful. That's probably a long way off, but if a third party could take hold in some part of the country (which would be necessary given the way most contests are dominated by the top two campaigns) then we would have a moderating force that wasn't based on bipartisan selling out to corporate interests.
posted by delmoi at 12:24 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone. It’s an amazingly consistent trait."
... seems familiar.

“I don’t know what we’re funding that will pay off 30 years from now.”
Seems to be the problem in a nutshell.

"Ralph Nader proposes a kind of plutocrats’ coup, in which Warren Buffett, Bill Gates Sr., Ted Turner, et al. collaborate to create a more egalitarian America."
*head asplodes*
posted by Smedleyman at 12:37 PM on January 6, 2010


i_cola: "In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world.

Hmmm, I'm torn here. Nelson laugh or crazy dude laugh?
"

I was thinking more Jokey Smurf.
posted by notsnot at 12:38 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The governing system is not entirely broken. It was designed the do exactly what it is doing: divide power so thoroughly that nothing ever gets accomplished and you can continue plowing your fields unharassed by the king.
posted by jefficator at 12:42 PM on January 6, 2010 [10 favorites]


Old people are nostalgic, film at 11.

Why is that? Seems like some simple structural reforms could have a pretty big impact.

Indeed they could. But no one could agree on what these simple structural reforms are. Because everyone has their own diagnosis as to what the problem is. And the way government works (period) is that politicians have to come to some kind of consensus. Which is about the least effective way of changing things in a time of crisis like the one we're in now, so let me fix this statement:

the best solution is: no one solution.

So don't try to solve the problems around you by trying to get everyone to agree on what to do, that ain't gonna happen. Try to solve them yourself, or with the people around you who agree on what to do that doesn't require the participation of those who disagree.

Ultimately I think moving to a multi-party (as in more then two) parliamentary system would be very helpful.

But don't you see? This requires everyone in politics to agree that we shouldn't have a two party system. It ain't gonna happen (at least by focusing on that as a direct goal), sorry.
posted by symbollocks at 12:54 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


To echo briank, Fallows has also claimed Japan was about to take over the world (he and Pat Choate, among others, rode that horse hard back in the 80s and 90s), and that we'd all soon be enjoying personal aviation. In tend to enjoy the gracefulness of his prose but I don't take his viewpoints too seriously.
posted by twsf at 12:56 PM on January 6, 2010


Can the Atlantic rise again? When James Fallows is far and away the best part of your magazine (which used to publish Emerson, fer crissakes) things aren't looking so good.
posted by bonecrusher at 1:06 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think jefficator has a point; there's a school of thought that holds that the US government is "broken" by design. It's supposed to be unable to do just about anything without overwhelming public demand and near-universal consensus, down to below a few percent opposition: that's safe. It prevents, or ought to prevent in theory, the government from trampling all over the citizenry. It is certainly not an efficient government.

However, that entire idea of government was meant for a much more modest America, an America that wasn't a world power, an America that was never intended to have a vast standing army, an America which did not regard having the ability to kill anyone, anywhere on the planet, in twenty minutes or less, an absolute necessity. But it was also an America that did not dabble in health insurance or providing universal pensions.

Had the people who laid out our government known just how much power it would end up wielding, perhaps they would have made it more efficient. Maybe they would have chucked the concept of democracy altogether. Or maybe they would have gone the other direction, spread the power out even more, to prevent the gradual consolidation away from the states and into the Federal government that has happened as the US has risen, and within the Federal government towards the Executive. It's an interesting question.

But ultimately, I think we will have to decide what sort of nation we want to be. If we wish to continue to be a superpower, than "efficiency" as a goal makes sense. But it might also be time to consider stepping down from running the planet, and be content with doing the best we can within our own borders (or, since that's hard to imagine given our propensity for meddling, at least within our own hemisphere). Reign in the military and the commercial interests that demand it, devolve more power back to the states, and let them experiment with different solutions to some of our more pressing problems. See what works. I'm sure it would be interesting, at least.


Of course I don't think there's much hope of anything like that actually happening; just rooting out some of the most obviously corrupt practices in our government (earmarks and corporate lobbying) has proved elusive. So in the end I think Fallows' non-solution is the only realistic option going forward: we slap some quick fixes on here and there when we can, try to keep the old jalopy bumping down the road, and hope that it doesn't decide to conk out while we're still riding along in it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:12 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


...our university system,
Which increasing numbers of citizens cannot afford. And, even community colleges, while theoretically affordable, find they have no real direction when it comes to training/education for the unknown jobs of the future. Simply put, they can educate you, but they really have little clue as to what kind of job that education might get you...if any job.

...our receptiveness to immigration,
And, how, exactly, does immigration solve the problems of employing (and keeping healthy) the workers that are already here? Or, by "receptiveness to immigration" are we talking about business' openness to replacing those workers with cheaper imported labor?

...our culture of innovation.
That's a pretty meaningless term often favored by the "American Exceptionalism" crowds. To me, it's right up there with writing "and then a miracle happens" when you are whiteboarding a new process.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The governing system is not entirely broken. It was designed the do exactly what it is doing: divide power so thoroughly that nothing ever gets accomplished and you can continue plowing your fields unharassed by the king.

The sky is not blue on your world, is it?

It was designed to do exactly what it is doing: keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:15 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]



It was designed to do exactly what it is doing: keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful.

Please show me trend line of last 200 years where wealth in United States goes from more concentrated among rich and powerful to less.
posted by gagglezoomer at 1:20 PM on January 6, 2010


America's system has proven itself to be totally third-party-hostile. Every rule that empowers "the minority party" ensures that any additional parties or truly non-party-based elected individuals can be treated as it they don't exist. Therefore they don't.

The very existence of the Senate that gives each resident of Wyoming 60 times as much voting power as a resident of California makes a mockery of the claim that it is 'representative'. And, of course, the full disenfranchisement of everyone in each Congressional District who voted for the losing candidate is a long-running tragedy and the source of the Political Theater of the Absurd called Gerrymandering.

The ever-increasing size (population-wise) of our hard-coded number of individual districts is the greatest single factor empowering Money (and therefore corporate interests) in the system.

And California's woes are based on two additional factors: the pseudo-democratic Initiative System and even greater "minority party" protections than the Federal System.

With all the respect Our Beloved Founding Fathers deserve, the system they created was ideal for empowering a relatively tiny portion of the population, and despite what Amending the Constitution has occurred since, IT STILL IS.

I came to these conclusions before the first time I was able to vote, thanks mainly to an Eighth Grade Social Studies teacher/Football coach whose daily class was its era's equivalent to The Glenn Beck Show, and whose stupidity and absurdity was enough to encourage me to go out and learn for myself. Thank you, Coach Klein.

But in spite of this, I have voted in all but two of the local, state and Federal elections of my adult life (one missed because I was in the hospital, the other because my mother died the morning that Pres. Reagan was re-elected). I have gone with the winning candidate less than 25% of the time, if you don't include people I voted against in the primaries who became the 'lesser of two evils' in the general election. The only valid reason for my consistent voting practice is the ability to wave it in the faces of bureaucrats in the offices of elected officials (while never revealing that I voted consistently against them).

So I've never known a time when the American Political System was not broken. Yet, I would have felt much better about a New Consitutional Convention in 1974 when I first voted, than I would now, simply because the political players of the time seemed much better (morally and professionally) than the ones now. I mean, we forced out of office a President who was less corrupt and dishonest than half the ones we've elected since. But hey, the '70s were the peak of American Civilization and it has all been downhill from there. And the most fun part of the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland was the last part where you were hurtling outside the plaster mountain and crashed down into a small pond of water with a big splash. Metaphorically, I'm still not sure if there's water in the pond now...
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:25 PM on January 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


“I don’t know what we’re funding that will pay off 30 years from now.”

Much of what we're funding now we spent over the last 30 years, but didn't show up in the balance sheets until now. (And I'm not talking about Social Security and other things with calculated future costs, I'm talking about past Foreign Policies and Social Policies that blow up in our faces the more we throw money at them)

...our culture of innovation.
That's a pretty meaningless term often favored by the "American Exceptionalism" crowds.


Thorzdad wins. It's really a Culture of Creating Profit-Generating Things, slightly subverted by the DotCom/Venture Capital era that created some wonderfully un-profitable things, that won't totally end until-and-unless the Advertising Business declines enough to de-fund Google's Cool Stuff.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2010


Of course I don't think there's much hope of anything like that actually happening; just rooting out some of the most obviously corrupt practices in our government (earmarks and corporate lobbying) has proved elusive.

I would love to turn government corruption into a new McCarthy style witch-hunt; where everyone is angry and paranoid about it and willing to turn in anyone they suspect for even the slightest of infractions, and as a result, politicians have to swing the pendulum way-the-hell the other direction and live a squeeky clean life lest they get torn apart.

Even if it only lasted for a couple of years, the impacts of making corruption something to be terrified of could have a massively positive impact on our government.

Or completely destroy it. That could probably happen too.
posted by quin at 1:48 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


There's nothing specifically American about the boom and bust cycle- it's simply a result of capitalism. In capitalist economies, larger firms are able to out-compete smaller firms, and as such every firm that has competition (and a few don't- mostly local businesses which are supplying goods and/or services not otherwise available locally) must constantly grow or be pushed out of the market by competitors that do. This means that constant expansion is not simply profitable, it's a necessity- if you don't do it, your competitors will, and eventually they'll either drive you out of business or acquire you.

Unfortunately, we live in a more-or-less finite system. There are only so many human beings and so many resources, and it is impossible to continually expand forever; eventually we hit the edges (a phenomenon which is exacerbated by the fact that we tend to, during the periods of expansion, forget that there's a limit to expansion and start behaving as though the money is never going to stop coming in in larger and larger amounts) and contract. Bubbles burst, the economy turns down, and then we find ourselves where we were in the thirties, in the seventies and eighties, and now. (That gap- you would think there'd be something between the downturns of the thirties and seventies- is basically that era when the United States of America found itself as the only massively industrialized nation whose infrastructure hadn't been bombed to shit. Once the rest of the world became capable of competing with us again, reality caught up with us.)

There's basically nothing we can do about this cycle without abandoning capitalism- and while I'm a big fan of the notion, most of the USA isn't, so we're pretty much stuck with it. The best we can do, then, is to structure our economic policies to make sure that the human beings affected by those downturns aren't harmed any more than necessary. Unfortunately it seems that the general political climate in the US these days is that if you're poor it's your own fault and fuck you, and so people victimized by downturns are taken to be morally deficient rather than simply the outcome of a system which assures their frequent desperation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:15 PM on January 6, 2010 [7 favorites]


I would love to turn government corruption into a new McCarthy style witch-hunt; where everyone is angry and paranoid about it and willing to turn in anyone they suspect for even the slightest of infractions, and as a result, politicians have to swing the pendulum way-the-hell the other direction and live a squeeky clean life lest they get torn apart.

Happened in the UK, somewhat. You need a strong, malicious, muck-raking press, backed by a small-minded, envious populace. It may not be worth the price.
posted by Leon at 2:21 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fallows also thinks the future involves flying cars, ...

Oh, please, please, please, please let it be so!
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:32 PM on January 6, 2010


You need a strong, malicious, muck-raking press, backed by a small-minded, envious populace.



I'm American and I'll raise you one small-minded, envious populace and three strong, malicious, muck-raking presses.
posted by gagglezoomer at 2:36 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which increasing numbers of citizens cannot afford. And, even community colleges, while theoretically affordable, find they have no real direction when it comes to training/education for the unknown jobs of the future. Simply put, they can educate you, but they really have little clue as to what kind of job that education might get you...if any job.

The university system that the author refers to as high-quality is, I believe, the part of the higher education system that focuses on graduate-level and professional, post-baccalaureate programs, not undergraduate degrees. America's university system — and specifically its research element — is so awesome that other countries send their best and brightest here, after which they head home, as soon as they find out about the not-so-good stuff about this country.

If you're after an undergraduate degree, unless you go to an Ivy League school, you probably are getting the same quality of education that you would get at any higher education institution outside the United States.

The real killer is that what made the US great — namely, immigration — is being dismantled by right-wing extremists. This deters immigrants who come here for education from staying and enriching American culture. The other degradation in undergraduate education etc. will take place anyway. The loss of smart immigrants will be the real long-term loss.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:57 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would love to turn government corruption into a new McCarthy style witch-hunt; where everyone is angry and paranoid about it and willing to turn in anyone they suspect for even the slightest of infractions...

Vote for whomever the teabaggers anoint in the next couple elections. Local and national. "Interesting times" will ensue.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2010


America's system has proven itself to be totally third-party-hostile.
....
And, of course, the full disenfranchisement of everyone in each Congressional District who voted for the losing candidate
....
The ever-increasing size (population-wise) of our hard-coded number of individual districts


These are all failures of the current implementation, not the design.
There is nothing in the design that prevents California (for example) from implementing a voting system that makes third-party candidates viable.
Nor is there anything in the design that limits the districts to 435.

The People have the power to change the implementation. That they don't cannot be laid on the designers doorstep.
posted by madajb at 3:31 PM on January 6, 2010


Maybe they would have chucked the concept of democracy altogether.

Considering that only white men who owned property could vote, black people were property, and the state legislatures chose the Senators, I think that's a safe bet.

Or maybe they would have gone the other direction, spread the power out even more, to prevent the gradual consolidation away from the states and into the Federal government that has happened as the US has risen, and within the Federal government towards the Executive.

The Constitution was a strengthening of the Federal government over the weak central government under the Articles of Confederation.

The very existence of the Senate that gives each resident of Wyoming 60 times as much voting power as a resident of California makes a mockery of the claim that it is 'representative'.

I agree that's a problem, but the Senate is supposed to represent the states, not the people. It would take an amendment to change, and there are enough states that benefit from how the Senate works now to keep an amendment from passing.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:33 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Paul Krugman, on Maher in September:

"On bad mornings I wake up and think that we are turning into a Latin American country. [...] But on good mornings I think, well this is America, we have always in the past managed to turn ourselves around, and there is an FDR just around the corner if we could only find him. I was kind of hoping Obama might be FDR, but maybe not. [...] The American dream is not totally dead, but it's dying pretty fast."

In my opinion, in another 60 years China will be shipping jobs back overseas to the USA to take advantage of its cheap, unskilled labor. (Mainly because the public school system is circling the drain right about now.)
posted by mek at 4:34 PM on January 6, 2010


gagglezoomer: Please show me trend line of last 200 years where wealth in United States goes from more concentrated among rich and powerful to less.

In Paul Krugman's inaugural blog post, he reproduces a chart (due to Piketty and Saez). It only goes back to 1917 and it does not show a trendline, but may be of interest.
posted by mhum at 4:42 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The very existence of the Senate that gives each resident of Wyoming 60 times as much voting power as a resident of California makes a mockery of the claim that it is 'representative'.

That's a feature, not a bug. That prevents the high-population states from running roughshod over the low-population states. Without that check on high-population state power, we'd get crap like "Hey, let's just dump all of our toxic and nuclear waste in...Wyoming! And while we're at it, we'll get Wyoming to pay the entire bill for it. All in favor...California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois. Opposed, everyone else. Measure passes."

Seriously, what you're proposing would allow the ten most populous states in the Union to effectively disenfranchise the other 40. That isn't a recipe for a stable government.
posted by happyroach at 4:52 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm going to get on my hobby horse again and comment about two-party systems vs. parliamentary, etc. Both of these ideas miss a crucial idea: what is it we really want to accomplish by voting?

We currently use plurality voting, which is well understood (Duverger's Law) to lead to a two-party system. It's basic game theory: if you have a single vote, you have the best chance of being represented if you vote for one of the two strongest factions. Parliamentary systems with multi-seat elections and some form of proportional representation do indeed produce more parties, and lead to more views being considered during debate.

But is either system the best way of solving our governmental problems? A hybrid approach that emulates natural selection would be to divide the functions of the two legislative houses. The lower house would be chosen by parliamentary-style elections (multiwinner elections of 5, 7, or 9 seats) and the upper by centrism-biased coalescing methods such as Approval or Score Voting. The lower house would generate many line item options for legislation but could not aggregate legislation, while the upper house could not initiate options but could aggregate lower house options into bills.

For further reference: a simpler form of proportional representation: asset voting, similar to proxy voting by shareholders.
posted by Araucaria at 5:02 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


That prevents the high-population states from running roughshod over the low-population states.

High population states SHOULD run roughshod over low population states. As for your nuclear waste example? Of course stuff like toxic waste should go where fewer people live. It wouldn't make much sense to put toxic waste in densely populated New York state, now would it.

The unbalanced tyranny of these tiny states is precisely what has hamstrung the republic from solving most of it's dire problems over the last twenty years.
posted by tkchrist at 5:36 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


High population states SHOULD run roughshod over low population states.
...
The unbalanced tyranny of these tiny states is precisely what has hamstrung the republic from solving most of it's dire problems over the last twenty years.

You don't live under the system of government you appear to think you live under.

But hey, the population of England in 1776 was somewhere around 6 million.
The Colonies were somewhere around 2.5 million.

Guess those pesky colonists should have just sat back and taken it.
posted by madajb at 5:48 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seriously, what you're proposing would allow the ten most populous states in the Union to effectively disenfranchise the other 40.

Nice display of paranoia over the intentions of some monolithic leadership of states where the most people choose to live. Have California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois ever agreed on anything? How about the congressional delegations of any one of thise states? Wyoming's delegation in the house speaks with one voice... because there's only one... and that one used to be Dick Cheney. And your terrible proposal to make a large, empty part of one state the dumping place of all of our toxic and nuclear waste is better than an equally hypothetical proposal by the 25 smallest states (which in total have 16% of the population) to dump it all in the most densely-populated sections of the ten largest cities. Which would pass the Senate easily if it came up in real life right now.

"States Rights" is a code word for Racism and other bigotries, and the structure of the U.S. Senate hard-wires it into our Government. As a Feature.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:49 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Guess those pesky colonists should have just sat back and taken it.

Totally invalid example. But hey, states representing a minority of the population of the U.S. have done the same thing as 'the colonies', but their goal was to protect the proud institution of Slavery.

If they hadn't tried to secede, they most certainly would have kept that institution going well into the 20th Century, slowly going out of practice for moral and economic reasons, but never able to be outlawed, thanks to the influence of the still-loyal-to-the-Union Southern States in the Senate.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:03 PM on January 6, 2010


"The unbalanced tyranny of these tiny states is precisely what has hamstrung the republic from solving most of it's dire problems over the last twenty years."

FUCK YOU VERMONT!

Seriously, to blame our country's ills on the "tyranny" of small states is asinine.
posted by bardic at 6:15 PM on January 6, 2010


Remember folks, states are totally real and the often arbitrarily drawn lines from up to two hundred and thirty years ago are a good basis for distributing representation, regardless of the frequent absurdity of those lines.

Gary and Chicago are in different states, for fuck's sake.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:36 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


oneswellfoop: “an equally hypothetical proposal by the 25 smallest states (which in total have 16% of the population) to dump it all in the most densely-populated sections of the ten largest cities. Which would pass the Senate easily if it came up in real life right now.

Sure, but it would never pass the House, which is the whole point. Big states can't screw small states courtesy of the Senate, and small states can't screw big ones due to the House. Thus it has always been and thus it will probably always be.

The biggest problem really isn't on the Senate side, it's in how unrepresentative and distant from its constituents the House has become. As many other people have suggested, fixing the ratio of constituents to representatives, rather than the total number of Representatives in the House, would be a dramatic improvement and really open up government. While there might have been practical/logistical reasons for keeping the total number low in the past, they're not true today: even if all but the 500 most senior Representatives had to sit in the Kennedy Center and listen and speak via TV cameras, it would be better than what we have now.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 PM on January 6, 2010


In no way should both houses of congress be strict proportional. The Senate represents the States, and the States are entities. As much as the United States is a thing unto itself that lives apart from the strict majority, so to do States have their own personalities, governors, history, natures, taxes, and existences. They are more than just districts to draw lines (if you want that, you're not talking about federalism, you're talking a unitary system (which plenty of places has). As badly as the concept has been abused, States do have rights, because the United States is both a Union of it's people and it's political entities (remember that no amendment can take away a States equal representation in the Senate without its consent too). I'm proud to be a Minnesotan and work towards it and its goals. Minnesota becomes not only an aggregation of the people that live in certain geographic area (though it is that too), but an aspiration that is just as real and fake as any other national identity. There's a reason for the House and the people speaking. And there's a reason for the Senate and the States speaking. And no, we don't want Wyoming to be turned into a province or a territory of more powerful states.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:53 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


High population states SHOULD run roughshod over low population states.

So, do you like the idea of tyranny of the majority as a matter of general principle, or just when it suits philosophies or goals which meet your approval?

And your terrible proposal to make a large, empty part of one state the dumping place of all of our toxic and nuclear waste is better than an equally hypothetical proposal by the 25 smallest states (which in total have 16% of the population) to dump it all in the most densely-populated sections of the ten largest cities. Which would pass the Senate easily if it came up in real life right now.

Seriously? You can say that in the same breath where you're calling concerns over the legislative weight of high-pop states "paranoia"?

"States Rights" is a code word for Racism and other bigotries, and the structure of the U.S. Senate hard-wires it into our Government. As a Feature.

States rights can be used that way, but I've seen it used to deflect flak on social issues by liberal candidates in conservative states, and that's least among its potentials. If your vision of a given principle is limited to its modern Republican invocation, that doesn't recommend your thinking on the matter any more than it recommends theirs.
posted by namespan at 12:00 AM on January 7, 2010


We currently use plurality voting, which is well understood (Duverger's Law) to lead to a two-party system. It's basic game theory: if you have a single vote, you have the best chance of being represented if you vote for one of the two strongest factions. Parliamentary systems with multi-seat elections and some form of proportional representation do indeed produce more parties, and lead to more views being considered during debate.

Counter-examples to Duverger's Law, taken just from the Wikipedia article:
Scotland.
Canada.
Germany.
India.

Counter-examples to the converse of Duverger's (that 2-party comes from plurality):
Malta.
Australia.

That's quite a bit of empirical evidence that Duverger's Law doesn't hold, or doesn't apply, or applies over such a long timescale that it's irrelevant, or something.

Basic game theory isn't.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:15 AM on January 7, 2010


ha, let it burn! let it burn i say. the world would be a much better place.
posted by mary8nne at 5:50 AM on January 7, 2010


States rights can be used that way, but I've seen it used to deflect flak on social issues by liberal candidates in conservative states

Perhaps, but when the same term was also used as the motto for a white supremicist party, it's pretty much poisoned for good.

America can and will be fixed by argueing about the past so we can continue to argue into the future. God bless it.

Wait a minute... "Social issues by liberal candidates in conservative states"?

Gays, god and Guns or all three?
posted by Hickeystudio at 5:57 AM on January 7, 2010


So, do you like the idea of tyranny of the majority as a matter of general principle, or just when it suits philosophies or goals which meet your approval?

People don't like the idea of the tyranny of the minority. The Senate isn't a bad idea in principle, but we're getting to the point where even when, despite the equal represenattion of states, one faction gets a clear majority, a determined minority can simply hold everything up if it chooses. That's really not what was intended.
posted by deanc at 5:58 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you are interested in this topic, you might be interested in listening to Dan Carlin's podcast, Common Sense. I find that he has an interesting take on current events that tends to be difficult to classify between right and left. I don't always agree with him, but I like hearing a point of view that isn't endlessly repeated on TV and Op Ed pages.
posted by jefeweiss at 6:05 AM on January 7, 2010


Let that be a lesson to me to not post in a hurry before I go to work. Feel free to mentally replace one of my many instances of the word interesting above with a synonym or two.
posted by jefeweiss at 6:39 AM on January 7, 2010


summary: sloganeering replaced debate, and religion seeks to replaces rationality, while disregarding that there is some whole which needs tending in the first place.

While there are things about the system that could stand some improvements, to say everything is the fault of a "broken system" is unfair to the system. It's not the system, it's the people.

Once upon a time, there was a people that called themselves Americans. They didn't always agree, but they did tend to have the idea that the goal was about what was best for the whole. Issues were discussed in good faith.

Then along came those that felt the system was something there to be "gamed", to take advantage, for the goals that suited only some. Maybe the whole that was something cherished and nurtured became something that was taken for granted. Maybe the system became so much the focus of attention, folks forgot that the system was a means, not an end.

The gaming takes on whole new dimensions when you include using marketing techniques to politics. Image rules over ideas. Winning is an end to itself.

The secular state was founded on the idea that we could be rational and work towards a common good. That the common good could be discerned from careful consideration and debate, based on reality which is seen and measured.

Now, the only measure of any importance seems to be about stock values and corporate income statements. For the last 3 decades the American people have had it drummed into their heads that this is what it's all about. Again, the means have become the end.

Of course, just so you don't think about that too much, they are quite quick to throw up all manner of divisive issues that shouldn't even be issues. Things that get folks riled up, for or against. In more recent years, hate itself has become an acceptable tool to deepen divides and keep people in an emotional state where they're too riled to see the more alarming realities that should be attended to.

Right now, we're in a time when normally, ordinary folks would be getting lots more rational about what makes their lives work. But that swing is being messed with big time thanks in large part to the ascendancy of religion in the public sphere.

It is my opinion that this is all worse than might otherwise be, because too much of the religious influence has come under the sway of folks anxious themselves to shepherd the religious into position of political tools. Folks fall for that too easily out of their own feelings of powerlessness, in a world of rapidly advancing tech with which it is difficult to keep up.
posted by Goofyy at 8:28 AM on January 7, 2010


Perhaps, but when the same term was also used as the motto for a white supremicist party, it's pretty much poisoned for good.

The white supremacists have also used the internet, free speech, probably miranda rights and the fourth amendment as well, in order to further their cause. And railed against the tyranny of the minority. You ready to throw those all away because they've been tools in a vile cause?

Gays, god and Guns or all three?

Doesn't actually matter, but I'm thinking of abortion, in fact, I think there's a Metafilter member here somewhere that ran for the Senate in Utah.

People don't like the idea of the tyranny of the minority. The Senate isn't a bad idea in principle, but we're getting to the point where even when, despite the equal represenattion of states, one faction gets a clear majority, a determined minority can simply hold everything up if it chooses. That's really not what was intended.

How sure are you that it wasn't intended?

Anyway, near as I can tell the problem isn't the distribution of representation in the Senate, it's the fact that you need a supermajority to operate. That problem could be solved largely by nixing the filibuster and any other procedural problems with similar consequences.
posted by namespan at 8:46 AM on January 7, 2010


How sure are you that it wasn't intended?

Where in the constitution does it say that supermajorities are required in the Senate to pass legislation? When a 2/3rds majority was required, the founders mentioned it explicitly. The assumption was that the role of vice president would be to cast tie-breaking votes in an evenly divided senate, not that she would provide the "60th vote." Heck, the filibuster used to be something that would grind the entire senate to a halt, not something that was done as a pro-forma threat to force a supermajority cloture vote (which itself is just part of the parliamentary rules written and re-written each session by the senate).

near as I can tell the problem isn't the distribution of representation in the Senate, it's the fact that you need a supermajority to operate.

That's correct. The senate does have many anti-majoritarian features. However, as can be seen by many of the arguments here, even when those anti-majoritarian thresholds are overcome, people keep insisting that more barriers need to be put in place. First, you have equal representation of all states. But when one faction gets a majority, well now you need a super majority. And the next threshold will be that it can't simply be a supermajority, it needs to be a supermajority that includes members of the other party. And then it's not simply members of the other party, it needs a consensus from very small states. But not just small states, but the junior senators from those states. And so on and so forth as people come up with explanations about why their opposition to legislation isn't just a fringe political policy belief they hold but is rather dressed up as principled opposition based on the faux-sacred ancient and holy rituals of the senate.
posted by deanc at 9:02 AM on January 7, 2010


i'n not sure bill gross is one to talk but i found it hard to disagree with his latest :P
Question: What has become of the American nation? Conceived with the vision of liberty and justice for all, we have descended in the clutches of corporate and other special interests to a second world state defined by K Street instead of Independence Square. Our government doesn’t work anymore, or perhaps more accurately, when it does, it works for special interests and not the American people. Washington consistently stoops to legislate 10,000-page perversions of healthcare, regulatory reform, defense, and budgetary mandates overflowing with earmarks that serve a monied minority as opposed to an all-too-silent majority. You don’t have to be Don Quixote to believe that legislators – and Presidents – often do not work for the benefit of their constituents: A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that over 65% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing “only some of the time” and a stunning 19% said “never.” What most politicians apparently are working for is to perpetuate their power – first via district gerrymandering, and then second by around-the-clock campaigning financed by special interest groups. If, by chance, they’re ever voted out of office, they have a home just down the street – at K Street – with six-figure incomes as a starting wage.

What amazes me most of all is that politicians can be bought so cheaply.
Public records show that combined labor, insurance, big pharma and related corporate interests spent just under $500 million last year on healthcare lobbying (not much of which went to politicians) for what is likely to be a $50-100 billion annual return. The fact is that American citizens have never been as divorced from their representatives – and if that description fits the Democratic Congress now in control – then it applies to Republicans as well – past and present. So you watch Fox, or is it MSNBC? O’Reilly or Olbermann? It doesn’t matter. You’re just being conned into rooting for a team that basically runs the same plays called by lookalike coaches on different sidelines. A “ballot box” pox on all their houses – Senators, Representatives and Presidents alike. There has been no change, there will be no change, until we the American people decide to publicly finance all national and local elections and ban the writing of even a $1 check for our favorite candidates. Undemocratic? Hardly. Get on the internet, use Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter to campaign for your choice. That’s the new democracy. When special interests, even singular citizens write a check, it represents a perversion of democracy not the exercise of the First Amendment. Any chance that any of this will happen? Not one ghost of a chance. Forward Don Quixote, the windmills are in sight.
/em added; also btw TNC on Politics Or Government?

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 9:41 AM on January 7, 2010


Counter-examples to Duverger's Law, taken just from the Wikipedia article:
Canada.


Canada has almost always had just two parties with a realistic chance of being in power. There are a couple of third parties, but they are so far in the distance that they really don't count.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:27 AM on January 7, 2010


Where in the constitution does it say that supermajorities are required in the Senate to pass legislation?

The actual text of the constitution may be the clearest expression of intent, but that doesn't mean it's complete. I'm not saying I think it should be that way (I think I made it pretty clear earlier that I believe a simple-majority Senate has its merits), but the people who wrote the constitution had all kinds of undemocratic ideas. I think it's entirely possible, completely independent of whether or not it's a good idea, that at least some of them meant the senate to be not only a representative body for state/regions and a check on the power of more populous states, but also a wrench in the legislative works in other ways.

First, you have equal representation of all states. But when one faction gets a majority, well now you need a super majority. And the next threshold will be that it can't simply be a supermajority, it needs to be a supermajority that includes members of the other party. And then it's not simply members of the other party, it needs a consensus from very small states. But not just small states, but the junior senators from those states.

I know! And those people who lowered the voting age to 18: that was totally a plot to get four year olds to vote!

Is there anybody who is actually arguing it needs to be a bipartisan super super majority, other than, naturally, whoever's managing the current minority party right now?

And how do you feel about joining the ranks of boiled frog analogizers?

explanations about why their opposition to legislation isn't just a fringe political policy belief they hold but is rather dressed up as principled opposition based on the faux-sacred ancient and holy rituals of the senate.

You're not telepathic, you have no idea what the motivations of other people for this are, and I don't see any reason to make that assumption.

Of course, it's pretty common to assume people are doing what you'd do, and the combined strawman/slippery slope you just offered up looks like a pretty bright sign, so if I were indulging in half the speculation you just did, I'd say you're projecting. But that would basically be accusing you of arguing in bad faith, and I'd like to avoid that. Maybe you would too.
posted by namespan at 11:14 AM on January 7, 2010


That is a pretty hefty conclusion from such thin evidence - lets rehaul the government to fix our problems! What you are forgetting is that our government has been changed (almost) every four years since the start of this great experiment. We have a living document in the constitution, checks and balances, and some cognizance as a nation of whatever political spirit happens to prevail. That is why the US is the longest running government in history.

Despite what people say about China and India becoming the prevailing powers of the coming century, I believe that the US will continue to prevail as the predominant world power for the next hundred years. The US controls the world's sea lanes. Nobody trades without the approval of our navy. The US is still a young and vigorous nation with a marvelous GDP. Just look at this map.
posted by verapamil at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2010


http://paradoxoff.com/files/2007/06/us-states-as-countries-by-gdp.jpg
posted by verapamil at 12:21 PM on January 7, 2010


Is there anybody who is actually arguing it needs to be a bipartisan super super majority, other than, naturally, whoever's managing the current minority party right now?
Well, that is the main interest group for making that argument, yes. And they're making the argument because the other party has not just a majority in the senate, but a supermajority. And they're couching their arguments not in self-interest or partisan interest but in a veneer of how this is part of the sacred traditions of the senate, which are not sacred traditions at all. You can always invent some kind of belief about what you think the senate is "really" about when it doesn't suit your purposes. But the implied super-majority isn't in there: what is in there is equal representation of states and supermajorities for treaties, amendments, and convictions during impeachment. Claiming anything else is just a put-on.

And it's fairly rich to say I'm "projecting" anything I just pointed out what their chain of beliefs was. Look, here's the thing: the constitution constructed a system to protect minority interests. That system worked, to the point where minority interests were taken into account, and they lost out. Now, it is the natural reaction of the losing side to want to construct a whole other set of barriers and invent "sacred traditions" about their supposed minority interests to cover up the fact that with all of the barriers they had, they still lost. That's what we call "moving the goalposts." What you are arguing for is an infinite fractal of "minority protections" to ensure that your specific minority interests always hold everything hostage.

The minority interests to be protected are not those of a political party. The minority interests are those of certain states and interest groups. And that has functioned as intended. It's just that a set of flexible rules, which can be changed at will, are just being gamed is what is effectively a form of rent-seeking, not a constitutional protection.
posted by deanc at 12:35 PM on January 7, 2010


(Mainly because the public school system is circling the drain right about now.)

Not circling the drain as much as being forced down with a plunger by the no-new-taxes, voucher-lovin', teacher hatin', gummint-cain't-do-nuthin-right right wing.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:52 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just pointed out what their chain of beliefs was.

You made a naked and so far unsupported assertion about those beliefs.

Consider this. Despite the threat of the "nuclear option" a few congresses ago, they didn't just do it when they probably could have and gotten away with it. You don't threaten to do something you have no reservations about doing: you just do it. They didn't. Why is that?

What you are arguing for is an infinite fractal of "minority protections" to ensure that your specific minority interests always hold everything hostage.

Um, no. Since it's apparently not clear, I'm generally arguing for a limited application of the principle of minority protections, not unlimited, and specifically I support of the application of the principle as it's embodied in the composition of our two legislative bodies, in response to more than a few people who apparently believe that when it comes to legislative representation, strictly proportional is the only way to fly. I might add that I believe there are pros to go along with various levels of supermajority, but since there are cons as well, I think simple pluralities are workable.

On the other hand, it looks a lot like you're stating with an apparently straight face not only that some people are earnestly demanding that we have a bipartisan junior super-super-duper-majority, but that motivations behind these as yet undemonstrated people are the same motivations which drive those who support equal representation in the senate for each state.
posted by namespan at 3:18 PM on January 7, 2010


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