'People Don't Realize How Fragile Democracy Really Is'

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Two days ago I mentioned the "Goodbye to All That" essay by Mike Lofgren, a respected (including by me) veteran Congressional staffer who had worked for Republican legislators on defense and budget issues for nearly 30 years.

If you have not read his essay yet, please read it now.  And then, please return!

Among the important aspects of his essay is that it goes beyond one now-conventional point of "the worse, the better" analysis: that the GOP's main legislative goal is to thwart Obama, and if that includes blocking proposals that might revive the economy, so much the better for the Republicans next year.

More fundamentally, Lofgren argues that today's Republicans believe they are better off if government as a whole is shown to fail, not just this Democratic Administration. Republican hard-liners might seem to have "lost" the debt-ceiling showdown, in that they wound up even less popular than the Democrats are. But in the long view, Lofgren says, unpopularity for anyone in Congress, including their party's leaders, helps the Republicans: "Undermining Americans' belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy," because it buildings a nihilistic suspicion of any public effort, from road-building to Medicare to schools. (Except defense.) As I say, read it for yourself.

When you're done, consider this message I received today, from another former Congressional staffer whose tenure overlapped almost exactly with Lofgren's. This too is worth reading carefully, for it advances an important complementary point:

Like Mike Lofgren, I am a retired Congressional staffer who worked for a House Member from 1985 until January of this year. Unlike Lofgren, I did not retire voluntarily; my boss, a moderate Democrat, lost his race for re-election last November. I found myself agreeing with virtually everything in Mike's article and immediately forwarded it to a bunch of my friends, some of whom remain working on the Hill.

Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don't think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.

One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike's piece is the importance of "low information" voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters' minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.

The media likes to call this group "independents," which implies that they think so long and deeply about issues that they refuse to be constrained by the philosophy of either party. There may be a couple of people out there who fit that definition, but those are not the persuadable voters campaigns are trying to capture. Every campaign is trying to develop its candidate into an easy-to-remember slogan that makes him or her more appealing than the other guy. Actually, because negative campaigning is so effective, they are more often trying to portray the opponent as more objectionable ("I guess I'll vote for the crook because at least he won't slash my Medicare").

I'm writing because now that I have been out of the Beltway Bubble, I have gained a little more perspective on how real people see the work of Washington, and I am scared that they are close to revolt. The debt ceiling debate in particular had me screaming at the TV on more than one occasion because both sides botched it so badly. I would like to hope that news outlets like yours could play a positive role in helping to educate people. But I'm feeling pretty pessimistic at the moment.<<

Further on the implications of this soon.

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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. More

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.
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