Are we going to hell? Kicking off a series

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 list:

"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 one 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.

"6. 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 of his).

"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."