What’s Ailing American Politics?

In the July/August issue, Jonathan Rauch diagnosed the U.S. political system’s malady as “chaos syndrome,” and argued that the cure involved, in part, bringing back middlemen and backroom deals.


Jonathan Rauch highlights the unintended consequences of various reforms implemented in recent decades. These reforms were intended to make the U.S. political system more transparent and democratic. An underlying assumption appears to have been that direct democracy is somehow “more democratic” than representative democracy.

Direct democracy is fraught with potential dangers. In the first place, is it even possible to determine the will of the people? Participation in elections is rarely universal, and disgruntled voters are more likely to cast a ballot than the uninterested or indifferent. Prior to the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, polls indicated that about 70 percent of young people supported remaining in the European Union, but only 36 percent of voters ages 18 to 24 showed up to vote.

On any complex issue, poorly informed voters will usually outnumber the well informed. This means that the result of a popular vote is more likely to represent the views of the uninformed than the views of the informed. It also means that complex questions must be simplified to be voted on. The complexities of the Brexit decision were reduced to a binary choice: leave or remain.

All of this does not mean that the uninformed voter should be disenfranchised. But should the will of the people be determinative or merely advisory? Devices such as the Electoral College demonstrate the caution of the Founding Fathers in this regard. And in any case, public opinion is an unreliable guide to sensible public policy. What if 51 percent of Americans believed that Muslim immigration to the U.S. should be suspended? Or that 14-year-olds should be allowed to take guns to school?

Both American political reformers and the British Conservative Party appear to have forgotten the rationale for representative democracy. The reason to elect someone to office is because we respect his or her judgment, even if it disagrees with ours. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate we are likely to infer that if someone’s views differ from ours, that by itself disqualifies the person from representing us.

In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy documented the courage of those who defied popular opinion to do what they felt was best for the common good. Today such behavior is more likely to be derided as elitist or, worse, condemned as traitorous. Indeed, it would be far easier to document “profiles in cowardice.” Repeated polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans support background checks for gun purchases, but even that is insufficient to get such legislation through Congress. So much for deferring to the will of the people.

Charles T. Grant, M.D.
West Palm Beach, Fla.


Chaos is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Brexit is just the latest worrying development from Europe, where a dangerous new strain of anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, nationalist populism has taken hold among a significant share of Europeans …

Like Trump voters, these nationalist-populist Europeans are most likely to be poorly educated and rural. They feel betrayed and condescended to by elites who do not share their economic and social anxieties amid rising immigration and social change … Politics has ignored their concerns for a while. No wonder they are angry. In this way, the U.S. and Europe are similar. This shared pattern suggests a shared explanation.

This is problematic for Rauch’s argument, since compared with American political parties, European political parties are much more formally top-down machines, just like Rauch would want. European politics is much less candidate-centric and much more party-centric than American politics, as Rauch would also want. Europeans also tend to be more comfortable with the concept of political power than Americans, again, as Rauch would want. Yet European democracies are suffering from the same problems.

Lee Drutman
Excerpt from a Vox article


As an interested outsider, it seems to me that Rauch may have overlooked an important contributing factor to the decline of the influence of party bosses, pork-barreling, and behind-the-scenes compromises: your Constitution’s Twenty-Second Amendment. Presidents in their second term have no prospect of reelection, so there is little reason for them to pay attention to party bosses, engage in give-and-take deals with opponents, or seek the often secret broad compromises within parties and across party lines that are the real stuff of political accomplishment. There is also little reason for opponents to compromise with a lame-duck president who can only limp and quack. Those of us who are wedded to parliamentary democracy can be accused of hypocritical finger-pointing, but the unquestioning worship of the Constitution in America is a source of amusement and at times dismay for many onlookers.

Cam Ghent
London, Ontario


One issue Jonathan Rauch overlooked is the fact that two political parties can’t possibly represent a diverse country of more than 300 million people.

I live in Colombia, which has a little fewer than 50 mil-lion people, and at least six major political movements. Part of the reason for this is Colombia’s runoff format for presidential elections, in which everyone who wants to runs in the first round, and if no one wins more than 50 percent of the votes, there is a second round for just the top two candidates.

People get to vote their heart the first time around, and choose the lesser of two evils the second time. Candidates have to face the general electorate right away, which forces them to broaden their appeal in order to have any chance of winning, rather than clumsily pivoting from extremism to moderation between the primary and the general election.

Imagine that format being applied in the U.S. In the first round, the Democrats would have run Clinton and the Republicans Rubio or Bush, with Trump and Sanders running as independents or representing smaller parties.

The election probably would have come down to Clinton versus Rubio or Bush, but Sanders and Trump would have gotten millions of votes, enough to give their smaller parties real weight and a good chance to take seats in Congress in the near future. Their supporters would have felt they had a voice in the government, but that voice wouldn’t have overwhelmed the moderate majority.

Of course, that is just the kind of format that Rauch’s establishment doesn’t want, because it doesn’t want to lose its unrepresentative hold on American politics.

Mike Mackenna
Bogotá, Colombia


According to Rauch, “The biggest obstacle” to derigging the system “is the general public’s reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics.” I suggest that the public’s choice on the ballot—because that choice is limited to one candidate—is the main source of the problem.

A simple election reform to encourage moderates to run, and win, would be approval voting, in which voters can “approve of”—and thereby vote for—as many candidates as they like. The candidate with the most “approvals”—votes—wins the election. Because approval voting does not restrict voters to supporting only one candidate, it tends to result in the election of a centrist, not the strongest minority candidate who benefits from a divided field.

Approval voting is widely used by major engineering and scientific societies to elect their officers. At NYU, the politics and economics departments use it to elect a chair.

To implement approval voting in public elections, the parties could choose to use it in their primaries, or state legislatures could mandate its use. Bills to do this have been introduced in several states, including New Hampshire.

In the 2016 Republican primaries, polls showed that Donald Trump was not acceptable to a significant portion of Republican voters, so he would not have done nearly as well under approval voting against the 16 other candidates.

Steven J. Brams
Professor of Politics, NYU
New York, N.Y.



Applying Jonathan Rauch’s metaphor, it seems to me that he correctly reads the symptoms of our political decline but reaches the wrong diagnosis and prescribes the wrong treatment. As one example, he correctly notes that incumbents in gerrymandered districts are safe from general-election challengers pulling them toward the political center, but vulnerable to primary challengers pulling them toward the fringes. His proposed solution? Return to a system in which party leaders have greater power to influence nominations and vet candidates.

Suggesting that we cope with the negative effects of gerrymandering by restoring political “middlemen” to power is a bit like prescribing painkillers for a toothache. Fixing the tooth—in this case, the gerrymandered district—would eliminate both the problem and its symptoms.

The practice of gerrymandering allows candidates to choose their voters. Rather than work around it, why not stop it and allow voters to choose their candidates? We could even go one step further and open all primaries to independent voters. That would give the growing number of voters who don’t affiliate with either major party a say in selecting the candidates who ultimately appear on the ballot.

Howard Konar
Rochester, N.Y.


Not accidentally, Rauch’s major examples of chaos syndrome all involve chaos-creating behavior by Republicans. So even though disintermediation may affect both parties about equally, only one of them has repeatedly demonstrated a disdain for the informal norms that historically have kept American political conflict manageable. Rauch’s account doesn’t give sufficient recognition to this asymmetry, perhaps because he doesn’t want his analysis to seem partisan. It needs to be said plainly: The single most important factor in our political dysfunction is the radicalization of the Republican Party. Disintermediation has undoubtedly facilitated Republican radicalization, but it is not a sufficient explanation for that development, which can be understood only through an examination of the history of the GOP over the past half century or more.

Anthony F. Greco
New York, N.Y.


The War on Stupid People

In the July/August issue, David H. Freedman warned that we are beginning to mistake smarts for human worth.


Freedman conflates several things that are quite discrete. It is, indeed, intellectual boorishness to lampoon those who are not intellectually gifted. This is not the same, however, as ridiculing those with the capacity for reasoning who refuse to exercise that gift. It is mean-spirited to speak ill of a person with an IQ of 85, but it is fair game to take on those of normal or above-average intelligence who deny climate change, evolution, the Holocaust, science, the historical record, and other fact-based realities. Ditto those who believe in gay conversion therapy, withholding medical treatment from gravely ill children, the literalism of religious texts, that President Obama is a Muslim, and most of the Tea Party agenda. What word other than stupid should one apply to those who hold counterfactual beliefs that they refuse to hold up to the light of intellectual scrutiny?

Freedman also needs to consider that there is a tit for tat at work. Historically, the American anti-intellectual tradition is far deeper and more vitriolic than the so-called war on stupid people. This is, after all, the society that invented the term egghead, which was always intended to be pejorative. Has Freedman forgotten Joe McCarthy’s attacks on “pin-headed intellectuals,” Spiro Agnew’s “effete intellectual snobs,” Ronald Reagan’s virulent anti-intellectualism, and George W. Bush’s celebrations of dim-witted mediocrity? Freedman could make the case that intelligent people ought to be above revenge motives, but wouldn’t that be a “stupid” denial of how contemporary politics actually work?

Robert E. Weir, Ph.D.
Florence, Mass.


The idea that we should voluntarily retain jobs that could be automated simply so people of lesser capability have something to do is one that economists have debunked time and again. Whatever can be done effectively and less expensively by machines, we should have machines do. There are more than a few tasks not yet being taken care of in our society—child and elder care are two easy examples—that those without a college degree can handle. Let’s focus on matching people to valued jobs that are within their abilities without simply making work where it’s not needed.

Gidon G. Rothstein
Bronx, N.Y.


I believe you owe an apology to Atlantic readers, to those of us who have worked in education, and—most especially—to the supposed “underprivileged kids who are, against the odds, extremely intelligent.” What an asinine, offensive thing to say. I fear you have mixed up being formally educated at high-quality schools and being intelligent; the latter is not always dependent on the former.

Kelci Lucier, M.Ed.
Boise, Idaho


David H. Freedman replies:

In cataloging the misguided beliefs of an enormous subset of the U.S. population, Robert Weir inadvertently supports my point. I think we can readily recognize these beliefs as ones that by and large belong to the far-right America from which Donald Trump draws support. That cohort has been clearly associated with lower levels of education, which in turn correlates with lower intelligence. Weir can claim that he wants to demean only the high-IQ minority among them who apparently willfully decline to exercise their ample intelligence, but I’m skeptical that he’s friendly to the rest.

I of course agree with Gidon Rothstein that ratcheting down the rush to automation isn’t great economics, and that a preferable solution would be getting displaced workers of limited intellectual capacity into the non–intellectually demanding jobs that survive automation. Unfortunately, the list of those jobs is shrinking, and it’s hard to picture 150 million Americans working in child and elder care and the few other major categories of non-automatable jobs open to the less well educated.

I don’t blame Kelci Lucier for taking offense at my pointing out that poverty is correlated with lower intelligence. Even if I note that there’s plenty of room for exception, I realize it must feel offensive to many, not least to educators who dedicate their lives to defying that relationship. Unfortunately, the evidence behind the correlation is close to unassailable, and there is a vast scientific consensus behind it. That makes it likely true, but I admit that doesn’t make it a nice thing to say. I apologize.


Edmon de Haro

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will

In June, the philosopher Stephen Cave suggested that even if free will doesn’t exist, we may be better off believing in it.


Stephen Cave tells us that “the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.” But in stating this claim he seems blithely unaware that the claim, if true, could never be known to be true. That is because the claim would have to apply to itself, because it, too, is one of our thoughts. Likewise, it would also apply to all the evidence and arguments he offers to support it. In short, if humans are not significantly free to form rational judgments and beliefs, it is not just moral responsibility that goes down the tubes; science goes with it.

Roy Clouser
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion, College of New Jersey
Haddonfield, N.J.


I found two fatal flaws in Stephen Cave’s reasoning.

First, just because my neurons fire every time I think does not mean that their firing is causing me to think. Any good scientist knows that correlation does not make for causation. You have to rule out all other possibilities before causation can be inferred, and then it is only inferred, not proved.

Second, in spite of the arguments presented, when you look at the studies cited by Mr. Cave to show that free will does not exist, those studies actually show support for free will. The fact that people, after being convinced that “free will does not exist,” changed their behavior to be less honest demonstrates clearly that free will exists; otherwise their behavior would not have changed one iota. If their behavior had been predetermined, then it would not have been able to change just because of a change in the dialogue, or the way they understood “reality.” The fact that people changed their giving behaviors in Roy Baumeister’s study again demonstrates conclusively that free will exists, or they would not have changed their behavior. This shows clearly that we are able to make decisions.

Dave Reynolds
Canby, Ore.


The author and the professors he quotes struggle with the quandary of whether or not to inform people that their lives are predetermined—that they have no free choice. They needn’t be so worried, because whatever they choose to do has already been predetermined.

Yosef Reinman
Lakewood, N.J.


By “free will,” Stephen Cave seems to mean the ability to choose with no constraints whatsoever. In that sense, free will of course does not exist; there is no such thing. While this was not apparent to many past thinkers, modern social and natural sciences have exposed numerous constraints on our choices. In making them, we are restricted by our historical time, ethnic/cultural background, educational achievement, economic and social status, gender, age, temperament, and, yes, our genes and brains, among other influences. We have incorporated such new knowledge in our judicial systems by treating offenders differently on the basis of age, mental capacity, and other factors.

But this does not mean we do not make choices. Cave, after all, chose to write his essay and to make the points that he made. The researchers he chose to reference chose their experiments. Sam Harris surely doesn’t believe that his philosophical position is only the determined outcome of his neural processes, nor that his readers’ brains will determine their acceptance or rejection of his claims. Determinists presuppose choice even as they choose to argue for its nonexistence or its impossibility.

One can sensibly hold that neither past, present, nor future brain research will have any bearing on this issue. Choice is a defining attribute of what it is to be a human being. To think of our ability to choose as being totally free is to ignore what we have learned about human beings. But to think of it as totally the result of neural activity is to deny the centrality of choice in the way we fashion our lives.

Forest Hansen
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Lake Forest College
Easton, Md.

* * *

The Big Question: What fictional school would you most like to attend?

(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered September’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. Welton Academy, in Dead Poets Society, where the English teacher John Keating urges his students to “carpe diem” and “make your lives extraordinary.”

— Joseph L. DeVitis

4. Raphael’s School of Athens, from which I would promptly be thrown out for lack of brainpower.

— Tamara Grant

3. The best party college ever—Faber College, home of the irreverent frat in Animal House.

— Dan Fredricks

2. Starfleet Academy. It represents a world of possibilities, scientific wonder, fairness, equity, and toleration. I’m blind, but that wouldn’t have been counted against me in the United Federation of Planets bastion. Who knows? Maybe with their medical know-how, I’d not be blind.

— David Faucheux

1. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I’d receive an owl, meet with the sorting hat, and enroll in potions class!

— Kelly Swims

* * *

Correction

The illustrations for Nathaniel Rich’s “When Parks Were Radical” (September) mistakenly did not include a credit for the artist, Gaby D’Alessandro. We regret the error.


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