Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The BBC Tries to Diagnose the US Government Shutdown

From time to time, the BBC News Web site runs articles under the rubric called Viewpoints. The basic idea is to take a critical issue a source out a wide variety of perspectives on the state of play. I am not sure that the BBC always does a good job of providing a representative sample of opinions, but there is still value to the exercise.

Yesterday afternoon's Viewpoints article was based on the question "Is American politics broken?" For the most part the contributions were reasoned, reflecting a variety of points of view. If definitely was more informative than listing to Washington Journal this morning on C-SPAN, which simply alternated between Republican and Democratic congressman accusing each other of bad behavior. Therefore, what I enjoyed the most from the BBC article was a break from the partisan ping-pong provided by Iwan Morgan, who runs the programs at the Institute of the Americas, which is based at University College in London.

Morgan argued that "American politics is working exactly how the founding fathers intended." In other words the current situation was simply a demonstration of separation of powers in action. He then observed that the Founding Fathers had not anticipated the extreme polarization of views that characterizes the current situation.

This is a good point. The prevailing culture of the Founding Fathers believed that "reasonable men may differ." Differences were resolved by compromise. The process was frequently painfully arduous. However, it resulted in a Declaration of Independence that was approved unanimously and a Constitution that was ratified by all thirteen of the existing colonial territories (which then became "states of the union").

This culture no longer prevails. Facilitated by the Internet, every individual is entitled to voice an opinion as loud as possible. Whether or not that opinion may be reconciled with others through reason depends less than how many followers one can muster through Facebook or Twitter. As a result, the American political system has become a deformed dog with lots of little tails all trying to wag it. If I may continue that metaphor, the energy that goes into wagging all of those tails requires so much metabolic energy that, because the dog never gets a break to eat, it will probably starve to death.

The culture of the Founding Fathers emerged from a (relatively new at the time) practice known as the "Republic of Letters." Writing letters had become a medium through which "reasonable men" could share their opinions across great distances. I remember Internet evangelists preaching that the Internet would launch a "new generation" of the Republic of Letters. It didn't happen.

It didn't happen because the Republic of Letters was not simply a matter of "content exchange." It involved a community of participants who but both mental and physical effort into the acts of both writing and reading. Rather than cultivating a new generation of such a community (as Usenet did in the pre-Internet days), the technology of "social software" not only destroyed and remnants of the community but made it virtually impossible for a new such community to arise. As a result, we are now in a terra incognita that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have imagined, meaning that not only are political practices broken but so, too, are the mechanisms for repairing them.

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