James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
... well, as the joke goes, you really should be reading more! Or in a variant on the joke, the one thing you read should probably be this, from our own magazine. Ho ho.
But if you were going to read one other thing today, you could do very well to choose this new essay by Jeffrey Carr, of IntelFusion. It is about the rich, ripe, sitting-duck target of myths and fallacies about security, and it begins:
Regardless of your position on the over-hyped and under-estimated realm of cyber conflict, crime, and espionage, you probably have a few pet fallacies. I thought it might be fun, and possibly instructive, to start a conversation about them. Here are my top five. Feel free to add yours in the comments section.
The TSA fallacy
The TSA approach to airline security has been completely reactive because they focus on the method of attack (e.g., liquids, shoes, underwear) instead of the person. Likewise, Internet security companies focus on the technical characteristics of an attack (e.g., code, malware, exploits) instead of the actors (State and Non-state). As a side note, Harding was going to move TSA towards a more intelligence-driven model. That's precisely what the Internet security industry needs to do as well.
Hey, I can't resist one more, which is in keeping with my own view:
The China fallacy
This fallacy paints China as the number one adversary in anything having to do with cyber conflict in spite of the fact that there isn't a shred of historical evidence to prove it. The Peoples Republic of China has never engaged in military operations utilizing its IW capabilities against another nation state. The same cannot be said for the U.S., the Russian Federation, Georgia, Israel, and the Palestinian National Authority/Hamas. The PRC leadership are not religious extremists (e.g., Iran) or militaristic wildcards (e.g., DPRK, Myanmar). When you paint the PRC as the world's greatest cyber threat, you miss what China is actually excelling at (cyber espionage) and you overlook and/or underestimate the authentic threats from other nation states that are busy eating your lunch without you knowing it.
And if you were going to read only one more thing on the "Going to Hell" problem, you could do well to choose this big story by Ezra Klein, in Newsweek, which goes systematically into how dysfunctional the Congress, especially the Senate, has become, and what might be done about it. I know from experience how unusual it is to get articles this thorough and relatively subtle into weekly news magazines. Worth reading. (More to come shortly on the "going to hell" problem; links to past items when our "categories" function is restored.)
As soon as I find a video link to President Obama's comments just now on passage of the health-care reform bill, I will put it up and say a little more about his theme and performance. (Hint: I will welcome and thank anyone who can send such a link.) Listening to it in real time, I was struck by the forcefulness of the ending, which was less about the health-care issue itself than about the overall question of how the American political system can deal with largest-scale public challenges. It was as passionate as I have heard this always-"cool" character ever sound on any theme. Update: thanks to reader Jeffrey Schroeder, the link is here, and an embedded player is below. The whole thing is effective, but the part I'm referring to begins just before time 14:00 and runs for the next two minutes. Very last words of the speech are unfortunate, but otherwise...
The question is of interest to me because of the fundamental "Is America going to hell" issue I raised in this article -- and have discussed in a series of reader "going to hell" responses that I was posting last month. Until our "categories" feature is repaired, I can't do a link to the whole series; after the jump, and thanks to reader Joshua Cypess, a list of specific item links.
I have many more responses in the queue, which I'll rev up again soon. For the moment, one more reader response. This is part of a note sent by a political veteran, now in private business, to his Democratic Congressmen, who has decided not to run for re-election and was one of the "undecideds" until the very end. The note was written just a day before the vote; a day after the vote, it's worth reflecting on this passage. It alludes to the late professor Richard Neustadt, the great theorist of presidential power. From the letter urging the Representative to vote for the bill:
What are the consequences for the
country if the President and Congressional Democrats fail on
tomorrow's vote? Professor Richard Neustadt did a good job teaching
generations of students (including me) that the president's power
to accomplish things in the future is always driven by his success or
failure in getting things done today. It's terribly unfortunate
that we find ourselves in the awful and presumably once-avoidable
situation that we do today. It's terrible that the mess in Congress
has driven out or otherwise cost us thoughtful Members such as you.
But, having said all that, I can't see any good for the country
coming from losing the vote tomorrow. I can see a whole lot of harm.
I'm sure you can, too.
It may be galling for you to "reward"
the Leadership, the White House, the bill's proponents with your
vote. But I hope you'd find it abhorrent to reward the other side.
This Representative finally voted "Aye." ________
Here are links to some previous "going to hell" items. This isn't formatted that well, but I'm not going to take the trouble to clean it up right now. We'll have our Categories again some day!
In response to this item, two comments arriving within 30 seconds of each other. To be honest, this sort of thing is the main payoff of having a web site.
From a reader in China:
I live in Zhengzhou, Henan Province and when I travel around the city I have the privilege of using the buses. Today, in the rain, through the steamy window of my jam-packed bus, I saw a women just sit down in the middle of the road and take her shoes off. My God, do I know how she
felt! In true Chinese fashion, the other drivers just drove around her through
all the potholes.
From a reader on a visit to the US:
Like yourself, this week I am being subjected to experiencing the
"pleasure" of riding Acela from Washington, DC to New York and back.
However, unlike you, I am having a hard time finding anything to be
even remotely optimistic about.
Let's start with their much touted, free Wifi. I
was in the business section on my journey up to New York and found the
Wifi so painfully slow, I was pining for the days of dial-up. Trying
to load the Atlantic's web page? I gave up after it took nearly 5
minutes for the just the Atlantic masthead to appear on the page
(luckily, I had a hard copy with me . Google news managed to load after
about two minutes, but when I clicked on a story from PC World, I was
redirected to another page which informed me the site was being blocked
because it may contain content deemed offensive to other passengers. My
Chinese have managed to find a new customer for Green Dam [censoring program]
B)Steve Jobs is upset that Apple's
newest business model, patent troll, is generating criticism and he's
leveraging Apple's popularity to crush dissent (the offending article
was highly critical of Apple's suits against HTC).
This brings me to my second major complaint about
Amtrak and US infrastructure as a whole: I am writing this while sitting
on the floor of the business car (but sending later from home) on
Amtrak 55 from New York to Washington, DC. The 6:20pm Acela was
canceled due to mechanical difficulties and they packed us all on the
7:05pm regional train. I'm one of the lucky ones too; at least I found a
place to sit. There are at least another 20 people forced to stand for
the entire trip. To add to the frustration; there is a completely
unoccupied business car at the front of the train, but they won't let us
use it and will not explain why. Oh yeah, our train was also delayed
by 30 minutes in Philadelphia so they could bring a maintenance crew on
board to inspect another one of the cars.
I tried calling my wife to tell her I would be late,
but it appears the state of Delaware is one giant dead spot for
T-Mobile. [My experience exactly. Delaware's two distinguishing traits: shamelessly milking I-95 traffic with highway-robbery toll booths, and cell-phone black hole, at least near Amtrak routes. Maybe they're mad about the lost tolls. On the other hand, the "Small Wonder" state gives us Dogfish Head ales.]
I currently live in [Europe]... and like you; I am struck by the truly awful
state of our infrastructure. Our roads and highways more closely
resemble the ground in an artillery range than a transport network and
our telecommunications network is so pathetic, I think I can get more
reliable service using two tin cans and a really, really long piece of
The state of our infrastructure is so scandalous and
I'll now I'm right when I turn on Fox News and hear chest-thumping
proclamations about how America has the "best infrastructure in the
world" and that any government sponsored attempt to improve it means
that the American version of Great Leap Forward is only weeks away.
After all, we all know the only thing preventing this country from magically
sprouting a network of maglev trains is the estate tax.
Here's the great irony; I am back in
the States to finalize a new job with an organization dedicated to
promotion and development of intelligent transport systems (ITS)
throughout our nation's infrastructure. I'm starting to think this is a
bad career move...
Last month I had a series of responses (latest one here;
links to all the rest when our previous "category" feature is restored)
on the question of whether America was really going to hell -- and if
so, what might be done about it. Original "going to hell" article here.
previous entries, plus many more still in the queue, were mainly about
alternative prescriptions -- ways to deal with the filibuster, the role
of money in politics, the calcification of the Senate, and so on. The
one I'm about to quote concerns my diagnosis: that the United States
remained strong in its resilient and creative powers, and is troubled
mainly by an obsolete governing system.
Below and after the jump, a long dispatch from a reader who is a university-based research
scientist and department chair, questioning whether America's two,
related commanding-heights advantages -- its dominant research-university
system, and its role as magnet for high-end talent from around the world
-- are as durable as I suggested:
I enjoyed reading your
article on the historic American sense of fear of decline and
rejuvenation. However, I wanted to comment on your discussion with
regards US science in comparison with rapidly developing countries like
First, a bit of background about myself. I am a plant
molecular biologist involved in crop biotechnology and grew up in the US
from Canadian parents who later moved back to Canada. I worked in the
past for two of the largest agricultural biotechnology companies in the
US... and currently have a large research collaboration with XXX.
Further, people who I have trained or worked with are in the research
organizations of all of the large agricultural biotechnology companies.
Finally, over the last few years we have set up research collaborations
with many researchers in China including developing a large
collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and
my Canadian university, XXX. s such, I have travelled to China 3 times
in the last 2 years and hosted many researchers from there. That is
enough about me.
A. You comment on the continuing preeminence of
American universities and this is certainly still true. You also
comment on the fact that Chinese universities train many students but
focus too much on rote learning to hope to be competitive. And yet- a
high percentage of the best graduate students and postdoctoral fellows
in North American universities come from China (and India).
My lab as a microcosm- out of 15 only 3 come from Canada. Therefore, either our best students do not go into science and engineering (see below) or they are not as good in competition with their peers in Chinese and
Indian universities as you would have us think. [JF note: Some of each
might be true, but also that U.S. and Canadian universities attract
candidates from around the world and so have a disproportionately
foreign talent pool, just as the NHL has a disproportionate number of
Czechs and Swedes, and the European/English soccer leagues attract the
best talent from the Americas.]
With regards this latter point,
it is important to remember that having a relatively small number of the
best students from the best universities in China going into research
is enough to be competitive. The change in the competitive landscape is
dramatic. When I did my graduate work in the late 1970s in Wisconsin, we
had two Chinese visitors to our lab and they knew almost no science and
seemed pretty hopeless. When I took my first job [with a major drug
company] North Carolina (1984) all of the people hired were from North
America or Europe. When I first came to [Canadian university]
(1988-1998), the vast majority of my students and postdocs were from
Canada with a small number from China near the end of that time. Now as I
noted a high percentage in my lab come from Asia and this is mirrored
in company research organizations.
B. As you noted, in the past
most of the best researchers from China and India stayed in North
America and this was a tremendous boon. However, now many even
established scientists are going back and newly trained people are doing
the same. Our life-style is still very attractive to them, but the
career opportunities are often much better back in their home countries.
In China, they have attracted back many outstanding researchers from
around the world and are attracting back many of the best new trainees.
Salaries for good people are competitive and getting better with strong
bonus incentives for success. Research funding is in general outstanding
in my area at least (I don't know about other areas) and many of the
research institutes are first rate (the universities up to now not as
much, but I suspect this will change rapidly as well). Most importantly,
the private sector is making large investments. Looking at the three
larges companies in this sector- Syngenta has a center in China; Pioneer
in India; Monsanto in both. In a scary trend, a very high percentage of
new hires will be in those countries over the next 5 years. This is not
to downplay the ongoing problems- societal, environmental, quality of
life issues, issues around research organization (way too many graduate
students and not enough more senior researchers for example). However,
compared to 10 years ago, there is a complete change in the competitive
landscape with many papers in the best journals coming from Chinese
researchers in China.
C. The other major issue is our failure to
attract the best students into science and technology in North America.
At my university, the best students in biology almost invariably want
to go to medical school (or in our case vet school). Very few are
attracted to the rigors of starting a research career- the long hours,
the low pay for many years and the uncertainty of getting a good job in
the end. It is hard to blame them- my own son is an example as he is
medical school after always thinking that he would go into research. I
won't go into all of the issues here, but as noted earlier when most of
the best students come from elsewhere and they either do not come any
more or don't stay after training- well then you have a problem.
"going to hell" article here. Many correspondents have argued, as I did in my original article, that something basic in the structure of government has made it hard or impossible for national officials to concentrate on real national problems. (As opposed to score-settling, posturing, fund-raising, and so on.)
Sol Erdman, of the non-partisan Center for Collaborate Democracy, and his colleague Lawrence Susskind of MIT, wrote in with a proposal to change the nature of Congress by changing the way Congressmen are elected. Before you ask: they argue that the changes they propose would not require a Constitutional Amendment, and therefore are in the realm of "things that could actually be done."
Their whole paper is now online as a PDF here. It is long but worth reading. A few representative quotes: What's wrong with Congress now (may sound familiar, but stay tuned...)
"U.S. elections are organized in such
a way that each lawmaker gets powerful incentives to act against the
public interest. To begin with, a typical member of Congress can win
reelection just by convincing a majority of his or her district's voters
that the other party is more untrustworthy, incompetent or corrupt
than his own. And any politician knows how to make that case in graphic
terms that voters can easily grasp.
"Voters today have equally perverse incentives. That is, in each congressional district, every voter -- every young single, middle- aged parent, senior citizen, truck driver, teacher, salesperson, lawyer, business owner, conservative, liberal and moderate -- has to share the same representative. These diverse groups of district residents have distinct -- often opposing -- needs, values and political beliefs.... So, if a member of Congress advocates a detailed solution to a
controversial issue, several large blocs of voters in his or her
district are likely to oppose his stand, perhaps even enough to want to
throw him out of office. The typical lawmaker therefore avoids proposing
real solutions to the most controversial issues.
The behavior current incentives reward:
"The members of
Congress have found that there are far safer ways to stay in office [than dealing with the nation's real problems]. The
safest tactics include:
"1) Reducing hard issues to simple slogans. "2)
Passing measures that seem to address major problems but which put off
the hard decisions into the future. "3) Blaming the country's direst
problems on the other political party.
"These strategies succeed so
often because of how congressional elections are organized today.
Typically, one Republican competes against one Democrat for each
district's House seat. Any lawmaker can therefore stay in office just by
convincing most voters that the other party is more incompetent than
Could a change in Congressional election procedure be Constitutional?
"Fortunately, the Constitution doesn't require that members of the
House represent districts. The Constitution doesn't even mention districts. It lets each state decide how to elect its own Representatives,
with Congress having the right to supersede the states' decisions."
More in their paper, including an elaboration of a new election system they have in mind. Worth checking out.
Previously here; "going to hell" article here. Part of my original pitch was that America's economic, cultural, and intellectual resilience was strong, but that our basic governing institutions were proving to be worse and worse matched to the challenges of these times. Thus:
"When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he said again and
again that America needed "a government as good as its people." Knowing
Carter's sometimes acid views on human nature, I thought that was
actually a sly barb--and that the imperfect American public had generally
ended up with the government we deserve. But now I take his plea at
face value. American culture is better than our government. And if we
can't fix what's broken [in our system of government], we face a replay of what made the months after
the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change
course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that
chance slip away."
A number of correspondents wrote in to say that this was pandering -- indeed, of the sort I thought Carter was indulging when suggesting to audiences that problems all originate somewhere else, and certainly not with the good, fine American folk. A really honest jeremiad, some of these messages suggest, wouldn't blame some abstract American "system" for our failings; it would tell Americans that they were being so spoiled, ill-informed, short-sighted, and in other ways non-civic that they deserved just the government they/we now have. Here is a sample, which argues that one generation (my own) is the place where the trouble really starts:
"I've been reading the proposed structural fixes to our political system
posted in the blog and have been getting exasperated because I know that
any proposed structural fix must pass through the same broken political
system. That's not going to happen, no matter what the fix is.
"The reason it's not going to happen, imho, is because only the smaller
part of our political problems is the gridlock-enabling senate and other
governmental institutions. The senate and other institutions have their
problems, but other generations have made them work, across a spectrum
of political opinion as wide as the current one. The bigger part of our
current problems is us, by whom I mean baby boomers like
myself--currently (I believe) the largest demographic group of voters
and office holders.
"It's not a new observation that we don't trust each
other and that our normal modes of political interaction are fighting
our political enemies and infighting among our allies. We are a
political fallen generation, acting out the original sins of left wing
hatred of authority and right wing backlash against civil rights and
feminism, exhibiting the huge sense of entitlement that comes from being
the most privileged generation in the history of the world.
"So yes, this is another jeremiad, and yes, the country is on its way to
hell politically and may be in hell's outer suburbs now. But I have not
reached Jeremiah's depth of angry despair because fortunately we boomers
are on our way to retirement or death. If Barack Obama--technically a
boomer but apparently immaculately conceived without the boomer
political stain--is typical of post-boomer politicians, the country may
steer itself away from hell in time. (Yes, Sarah Palin the empty
demagogue is even younger than Obama; conservatives catch on later than
liberals, so there will be a lag on the right wing.)
"My suggestion for
pulling the country onto a new road as soon as possible is: Don't vote
for us anymore. That is, don't vote for angry intransigents; vote for
cheerful realists. No, I don't mean vote for "centrists." As Jim
Hightower says, there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow
stripes and dead armadillos. Vote for people who share your ideals but
who will actively try to solve problems and will not turn down a deal
just because they'd have to give something up.
"I realize that most of the people who need this advice right now are
paranoid to want to follow it and wouldn't read it even if posted
because the Atlantic is an example of the liberal and/or establishment
media, so I don't expect us to actually turn away from hell until I am
elderly or dead. As I said before, tinkering with the institutions can
only be a thought experiment until the general attitude changes. Maybe
then institutional changes won't seem so urgent, but I hope the senators
of the future will get rid of the filibuster anyway."
Whole series here; original article here. Reader Malcolm McPhee of Washington state writes to suggest a single Constitutional amendment to solve several problems at once:
"I agree with you that our old, broken and dysfunctional governing system is an alarming problem. I want to suggest another possibility for reform that requires neither a constitutional convention nor a coup. I also want to suggest that there is a better way than continuing to work within our system's flaws and limits to secure our nation's future.
"I maintain that a single constitutional amendment that cuts to the core of American government's dysfunction would work vastly better than a coup, a constitutional convention or continuing to muddle through within the present system.
"That constitutional amendment would deal with election, election finance and the use of money in the public sphere. Obviously, actual wording warrants considerable thought and effort. However, I can suggest some example content:
"1. Prohibit the contribution of anything of value to candidates for federal office or to federal officials.
"2. Establish federal government funding and procedures for federal elections.
"3. Provide for direct election of the president.
"4. Prohibit the use of super majorities in any public election and in the rules of legislative bodies except in amending the US or state and local constitutions/charters.
"This amendment would be designed to return the right of government "by the people" to America and to reduce the influence of money in American elections and governance.
This recommendation rests on several arguments:
1. That this amendment does cut to the core of the American government's dysfunction
2. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, is still worth dying for and preserving.
3. That money has corrupted our system so gradually, so insidiously and so thoroughly that we do not even recognize it as a serious problem per se and often view it as a given.
"American voters have been disenfranchised as their voting
rights have been denied or abridged or their vote nullified as those for
whom they vote receive large amounts of money to influence their
legislative vote... The vote of the people has been usurped by concentrations of money to
promote the special interests of labor, business, religion, the right to
bear arms, military procurement, war and peace, foreign governments and
a multitude of others whose interests are often at odds with the public
"The subversive influence of money on the political process is the
underlying cause of most of that which ails our country. It has led to
social, political, economic and international disaster for our country.
It has led to unnecessary wars, the near collapse of our economy,
staggering public debt, little hope for any near term recovery for our
country, and collapse in public confidence in our entire political
"James Madison said that we cannot change the nature of man. All we can
hope to do is reduce the ill effects of man's most destructive instincts
(Federalist, Number 10). He realized our government could conceivably
take a bad turn through the machinations of men of factious tempers,
local prejudices, and sinister designs who would betray the interests of
"This is precisely what has happened to America. The voice of the people
has been supplanted by moneyed interests whose primary interest is in
increasing or preserving their money through reduced taxes and
expenditures. What the Founders could not possibly have foreseen was the incredible
convergence of interests through modern technology and monetary systems.
The latter increased liquidity and the influence of money in general.
"Since then, regional, political and economic factions converged into
only two major political parties. Those two parties have effectively
become one with money as the common denominator for the special
interests of both parties. Hence, Madison's dream that a multitude of
interests would prevent Congressional corruption was shredded by the
passage of time and technological and economic advances....
It is futile to think we can rely on the mainstream media, a free press,
to expose money driven domestic and foreign policy influence and
corruption in our government....
"America's fundamental ills may be incurable without constitutional
change. This was the case with slavery, civil rights, women's rights and
other nation altering constitutional amendments. It may be the case
with voting rights."
Last week, as #2 in the "Is America going to hell?" series, reader Joseph Britt offered an action plan that included "centralizing space and science functions in a new department." Reader Steve Corneliussen, who emphasizes that he is speaking for himself rather than for the federal Jefferson Lab where he works, begs to differ:
"As you likely know already, that's an
old, much-discussed idea. I'm with those who say it'd be terrible because it would cut off the avenues by which novel ideas and techno-audacity can circumvent bureaucratic stodginess.
"My favorite example of such circumvention:
"One of my wordsmith jobs in science is at Jefferson Lab, the national particle accelerator laboratory where you kindly visited and spoke one
day in the summer of 2001. The scientists here were the first to apply a
form of superconducting accelerating technology on a large scale. The success of their particle accelerator made obvious an enormously attractive opportunity: you could take that same new superconducting technology and make it serve not only particle physics, but photon science and technology -- that is, the use of light having special characteristics.
You could make the world's first high-average-power, wavelength-tunable free-electron laser, or FEL. That tunability matters because Mother
Nature can be very picky about which precise colors of light can do which
"But Jefferson Lab is a Department of Energy facility, and back in the
early 90s, DOE didn't have or even imagine FELs as part of its mission. What
to do? Well, enterprising scientists found other ways to proceed within the federal research establishment. Jefferson Lab's FEL became a noted
success, one thing led to another, and now there are prospects for further such progress within DOE.
"The anecdote leads to this obvious question: How could I be telling this story if there had been only one monolithic science agency back in the
Whole series here; original article here. A reader writes:
filibuster is not the problem, it is the Senate, itself. Its function
throughout the history of the republic has been suspect. The Senate was
only because small states were afraid the populations of the large
overwhelm the small. That difference never really materialized. Oh,
been many disputes that pit large against small states, but none of
disputes were large enough to warrant creating an upper legislative
lord over the republic. Had the states at the time of the writing of the
Constitution been roughly equal in population, we may never have been
with a Senate.
Our Senate was not based on the
House of Lords; that body is
based on class and heredity. Heredity never played a part in the Senate
(Lodges, Gores and Kennedys were more about name recognition) and class
as strong here as in Britain
(ok, theoretically never as strong). Our upper house became something
else entirely: the main arena for pro-slavery interests then for
"Pro-slave interests fought for the
creation of new slave
states from the territories in the decades preceding the Civil War. They
parity in the Senate to block anti-slave legislation. Then, after the
War, the Senate filibuster rule was the main legislative obstacle to
segregation and passing civil rights laws and other anti-progressive
legislation, as well. Filibustering civil rights lasted into LBJ's
(and beyond?). The Senate has been a lot of things in its over two
centuries of existence, but this racial stain is its main claim to fame,
"Senators are by neither birth nor
capable of legislating than House members. Their contributions to the
legislative process are not on some higher level than the House (note
Sen. Susan Collins' ideas about the Constitution). The House once had
the filibuster, and if it were the only
legislative body, it might bring it back, but maintaining party
discipline over a larger group would be more difficult than in a 50
member Senate. It is habit and magical
thinking that keeps us clinging to the idea of two legislative bodies.
Of course I know we will not
eliminate the Senate. But it is
not unfair to describe it as a legislative body that has outlived
its original function and that holds sway over the republic with a rule
keeps alive to throttle itself."
Background here. Original article here, including my off-hand dismissal of the idea of a whole new Constitutional Convention. ("That would be my cue to move back to China for good--pollution, Great
Firewall, and all.") A reader writes to disagree:
"Had to spend an
in the library last night reading your most recent article in The
Atlanticit. Victim of the economy. I live in
that the Populists will someday come to realize how much of their
goes toward supporting the library. There would be a 'For Sale'
sign up in a heartbeat.
"I felt vindicated to see reflected there
some points I have
long considered salient: a sclerotic political system; the inane
College; and the asymmetric advantage of small populous states in the
Senate. The irony of Libertarian know-nothings disproportionally
debtor-states has long since ceased to be amusing.
"I was disheartened, though, by your
dismissal of a
Constitutional Convention, a concept that I am not yet prepared to
framers of the Constitution included this remedy in Article 5; "...the Legislatures of two thirds of the
several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments ..."
Historically, Congress has been so unnerved by the potential
ramifications of that sort of grass-roots activity that they have been
pressured to act in spite of themselves. Larry J. Sabato in his book A
More Perfect Constitution believes this is the only feasible way for
large-scale constitutional change to occur.
"Yes, it would be
spectacular political theatre, giving all
the demagogues a national forum. And the first few iterations would
chaotic and fruitless. But, as you indicate, change no longer originates
expansive thinking at the top. Conversely, absent the structure of a
Constitutional Convention, the Populists will be encouraged to pursue an
insurgent campaign that will "take back their
country/government/constitution" in any way possible, doubtless
inflicting collateral damage on the original document along the way.
forced to structure arguments in a Convention format could be a
teachable moment for the nation. I'd like to think. ,> "Anyway, "muddling through" is a
to any problem; it's what victims and the powerless do. Wielding the
of Constitutional Conventions as a cudgel against Congress is one weapon
large states, acting in regional consort, could apply in trying to
parity. An active approach to the problem. One that I imagine will
equal measure to supporters of both states-rights and federalists." ,>
Previously in the series, here. Original "are we going to hell?" magazine article here. Reader Joseph Britt of Wisconsin writes:
"I'm not a fan of apocalyptic thinking, and if America really were on the road to hell, tinkering with the structure of institutions that have been around for over two centuries probably wouldn't help very much.
"I would, however, offer a few random suggestions as to how to improve the functioning of institutions important to American democracy. I don't promise that they would redeem American democracy or anything so grandiose; in at least one case (the first one, below), all I can really promise is that they might help keep things from getting worse. But you asked, so...
"1. Stop electing judges. As in, any judges for any court of law in the United States. If the Citizens United ruling does result in a surge of money from corporate and union treasuries into electoral politics, judicial races will be the most easily influenced. This is because they are ordinarily low-turnout elections, held separately from November elections, and low-turnout elections are more easily swung by getting small numbers of zealous people to the polls. Electing judges is probably not a good idea anyway, seeing as how a competent judge must have a specialized legal background most citizens aren't in any position to evaluate.
"2. Stop televising the Senate. The Senate operates on comity and precedent more than it does on rules. Its norms, as with the norms of any institution, are more easily sustained if its exposure to the norms of the broader society is limited. A significant number of Senators now are basically back bench Congressmen, and they act like it; every appearance on the floor is designed to appeal to people likely to vote for them or send their campaigns money. Visual aids abound. Serious debate is avoided (it could be embarrassing if a Senator was asked questions he couldn't answer), and the temptation for Senators to address issues for which the committees on which they sit are not responsible is irresistible. So, remove the temptation. Turn the cameras off.
"Start being way more judgmental
about the private lives of public men. This isn't really a structural
change, but its implications for the Senate in particular (full
disclosure: I used to work there) could be important. In the last
three years or so, sitting Senators have been found to have been regular
customers of prostitutes, to have seduced staff member's wives, and to
have gotten caught trolling for sex in the men's room of the Minneapolis
airport. None of the Senators involved had to resign (one, a man in
his mid-sixties who might well have retired anyway, decided not to run
for reelection); none faced any disciplinary action by the Senate
"Now, it would obviously be a bad thing if notable
public servants were turned out of office because of lapses in their
private lives. In these cases as in most others, though, the Senators
in question were and are undistinguished, combining indifference to the
work of government with immoral, even disgusting private conduct. The
Senate badly needs turnover; Senators need to know there are things
besides losing message discipline during the campaign, not raising
enough money to keep their campaign consultants in appropriate style, or
actually being imprisoned for committing a felony that can cost them
their positions. I would prefer that first among those things were
abuse of the Senatorial "hold" privilege, but can't think of a way to
make that happen. This will do for a start.
"4. Start a new convention as to how
the Executive Mansion is organized. This would involve reserving the
16 or so offices nearest the President's for the Vice President, the
National Security Adviser, the DNI, and every member of the Cabinet.
They wouldn't all have to be there themselves; they could assign agency
staff to keep their chairs warm most of the time. This restructuring
could, if I'm not mistaken, be legislated (it might have to be). It
would be a vivid reminder to each new President that the campaign that
got him to the White House was over, and that he now had to conduct
himself as the head of the government. As for his campaign advisers,
publicists, media specialists and other staff who are there to make sure
the President is prepared for the next campaign, there are many
excellent office suites in the Old Executive Office Building to which
they could be assigned.
"I can think of other ways to improve the operation
of the government -- centralizing space and science functions in a new
department, scrapping the Commerce Department and assigning its
constituent agencies elsewhere, moving the Forest Service back to the
Interior Department, legislating geographic concentration of defense
procurement. None of them head off in the unproductive direction you
have from time to time suggested ("here are the Senate and the states
that have been central to American government for centuries -- let's get
rid of them!"). This is because I don't think it follows from the
conclusion that America's government is not all it could be that the
structure of that government is to blame. It is far more likely that
men and women in the government have failed in their duties, or even
that civic virtue in the general population has declined. Causes of
governmental failure that are difficult to address -- and sometimes
uncomfortable to talk about, especially in Washington -- are not for
that reason wise to dismiss in favor of institutional tinkering promoted
as if we could redesign the American government from scratch."
In response to my long article in the January "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, on whether America was finally, now, really going straight to hell, I received more mail than in have in a very long time. More than I've been able to answer; much more than I've been able to take note of on this site; and way more than we'll eventually be able to use in the print-magazine "Letters" section.
So I'm kicking off a "Going to Hell" series of interesting correspondence -- some with ideas about how to deal with structural problems in American governance, some with signs of hope -- or doom -- that my article missed, some with support for or challenges to the views I set out.
"Going to hell" policy: This is a supplement to rather than a replacement for the "real" letters section in the magazine. In most cases, I'll just quote the message, saving replies for the magazine's letters section -- except, of course, when I decide otherwise. If someone writes directly to me, using the "Email JF" button to the right, and says "You may use my name," I'll use the name. The same is true for letters that went originally to the magazine's Letters section, which requires real names and addresses. Otherwise I will not use names.
To start us off, a message from Joseph Bracewell, a contemporary and long-time friend, who was raised in Texas in a political family. He writes:
"My father was a politician (State
Senator) for 10 years when I was a kid, then a lawyer/lobbyist the rest
of his career. The State Legislature in Texas used to meet for 120 days
(January-April) every other year. My Dad said his principal regret in
politics was voting to air condition the State Capitol (thereby enabling
the Legislature to meet longer and/or more often and accomplish more
mischief). The point I take from this is that small changes could make a
difference, and that there ought to be an action plan somewhere between a
constitutional convention and "muddling through."
"With that in mind, here are a few random ideas that could be on the
"1. I think some kind of national service requirement makes sense. Maybe
some private non-profit work could be made to count also. I had a job
summer working for Coca-Cola, and now I never order Pepsi.
"2. We should have a draft. Elected representatives would see our
military adventurism entirely differently if something were required besides
writing a check. We would be more inclined to work through the UN as the world's policeman.
"3. (This would require a constitutional amendment.). Every former
president should be an ex-officio voting member of the US Senate for life. There
would never be more than 5 or 6 of them, but that might be enough to force compromise and provide moral leadership. They are on our payroll anyway. They can do more than just raise money for disaster relief.
"4. We should establish time lines for elections that limit the windows within which campaign contributions can be solicited/contributed, and
that shorten the period between primaries and general elections, and between general elections and office-taking.
"5. We should limit political advertising (particularly on TV) -- not in terms of what is said, but how it is said. No cut and paste, no special effects, just a person there expessiing his/her point of view. There
could still be negative ads, but if you want to say something bad about me,
you must come on TV yourself and say it to me "face to face" so to speak.
We should change whatever rule there is that seems to require an
"opposition response" every time the President addresses the nation (especially the State of the Union, which I believe is a Constitutional responsibility
"7. We should enlist Major League Baseball, the NFL, etc, in a campaign
to reinforce the position of The Star Spangled Banner as our national
anthem and remind people to take off their hats when it is being played. I
have nothing against God Bless America and other patriotic hymns, but it has
been elevated above the anthem (at least at baseball games) and the fact that
the tradition began after 9/11 dredges up (in my own mind at least) all of
the divisiveness associated with our war policies in the Middle East. One national anthem that everyone respects: that's my view."