On whether America is going to hell

Thanks to many readers for thoughtful reactions to my cover story in the current issue (subscribe! just a thought). To illustrate the range, a few items here.

First, from a veteran DC-based writer I know and respect. This is in response to my argument that while every other aspects of American society is subject to constant reinvention, the machinery of government has ossified in ways that make it very difficult to address the big, public issues of the day. A particular problem, I argued, is the Senate:

"When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry....

"The Senate's then-famous "Gang of Six," which controlled crucial aspects of last year's proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states--which together account for 20 of the Senate's 100 votes.) "The Senate is full of 'rotten boroughs,'" said James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, referring to the underpopulated constituencies in Parliament before the British reforms of 1832. "We'd be better off with a House of Lords."

The veteran correspondent wrote back to say that this was too mechanistic a view of the big-state / small-state "rotten borough" problem:

"Perhaps the Senate more accurately reflects a lack of character among its current members rather than the states they represent. Each on his own way, Mansfield, Simpson, Pell, Chafee and Biden, to name a few, transcended their small-state constituencies in ways that, say, Boxer and Schumer patently do not on the other end of the demographic pole."

The list, of course, covers "rotten borough" Senators like Mike Mansfield of Montana, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Joe Biden of Delaware -- in contrast to Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York. Fair point. Certainly the full version of the "what's gone wrong" argument would note that we have both problems: a structurally rigged system, and individual politicians who don't try very hard to rise above it. Or rather, we have not just those two problems but about a hundred others: an electorate that rewards being pandered to, news organizations with a million problems of their own, money in politics, etc. So it's worth talking about any and all of these distorting forces to see if there's a chance of headway on any of them.

Bonus on structural distortions: my friend Tom Geoghegan's excellent op-ed in the NYT yesterday on Sunday about the logic of getting rid of the Senate filibuster. It follows his previous argument about the filibuster last summer in the Nation, here. Gist of the op-ed:

"[T]he Senate, as it now operates, really has become unconstitutional: as we saw during the recent health care debacle, a 60-vote majority is required to overcome a filibuster and pass any contested bill. The founders, though, were dead set against supermajorities as a general rule, and the ever-present filibuster threat has made the Senate a more extreme check on the popular will than they ever intended."

Now, for another perspective, a letter from a reader who doesn't really identify himself, but makes an argument similar to many others I've received:

"I recently read Your article entitled "How America can rise again".  It is a very simple solution and that is to expose Freemasonry, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knight's Templar, the ancient mystical order Rosae Crucis, International Socialism, Communism, etc., etc., etc. because You will find ALL of them to be the same.  Our government is the Constitution of the United States.  If we lose what's left of that, we will lose our freedom and so will the rest of the world.  The present war we are fighting is an educational battle.  I do my part to try to make it a point exposing these deceivers and those who are bringing about a One World Totalitarian Socialist State.  By reading material published by these "Mystery Schools", we can see what is in front of us and who belongs to them by learning their language and symbols.  America will not fail, but rather Mystery Babylon will fail.  It is a system designed to fail.  "The Truth will make You free"  - Jesus Christ."

I believe that the last two words are intended as a quote-attribution, rather than an exclamation. I offer this for the record.

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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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