Reason vs fear in Daily Kos by Mark Sumner

Mark Sumner had an interesting post today in the Daily Kos. He makes some points that I’ve thought about for some time, that the current “right wing” in the US has become the party of anti-reason demagogues that do not necessarily even believe what they are saying.

I’ve thought this for some time. I’ve read quite a bit in history and although the reasons that the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire are not exactly analogous to our situation, there are nevertheless similarities.

Rome had a government designed to prevent tyranny and to govern a city state. It worked well enough as they dominated Latium and later the whole of Italy, but it began to break down as they ended up conquering the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. (I won’t comment on the lack of a city police force in the Republican period, but it’s amazing that a city that size lacked one.)

What Augustus did was to reorganize the government, preserving the forms of the Republic while gutting its substance. He basically turned Rome into a monarchy, with a civil service responsible to him rather than to the Senate. At the time, that may have been the best that could be done with an empire, and not all that dissimilar to what the Persians had done centuries earlier.

This “principate” phase of the Empire lasted for a couple hundred years and then began breaking down because of other pressures, both internal and external, and was replaced with a “dominate” phase under the Diocletian reforms in the late third century CE.

I’ve been thinking for the last decade or so that the US is doing much the same thing. We have a government designed for the late eighteenth century to handle the fears of a group of newly independent states of any one region or person dominating the government. Our constitution, designed at a time when the population was just under 4 million people, was almost immediately amended to fix some glaring issues, but in the main, lasted until the civil war, when we then got the 13th and 14th amendments, fixing some civil rights issues, though we still have some problems there.

But our population is now over 300 million. Instead of 13 states we have 50. Instead of being a largely agrarian nation hugging the coast of a continent, we are now an empire occupying a large swath of a continent and economically and militarily dominating the planet.

Leaving aside the question of whether these are reasonable things for us to be, our form of government doesn’t seem to be working all that well at addressing the issues of the decade.

I’m not in favor of a revolution, because lots of people suffer during them and I and those I care about would likely be among them. I’m not in favor of a new constitutional convention because I don’t think we have the statesmen that we were damned lucky to have in 1787. We would end up with an even worse system than we have now, I fear.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I would suggest that we could start with a reformation of Senate rules to make it more responsive. The House of Representatives has gone through periods of being dysfunctional and has come out of them with rules changes. I think the same could be said of the Senate.

But a deeper problem is that we have no way currently to handle informing the public. Our current news media including the Internet, aren’t serving us well. Information gets out, possibly better than it ever has, but it is drowned in a sea of hogwash. How do we get a media that actually informs people so that decisions are made based on reason instead of inflamed emotions?

I don’t know. I could go on, but I’m tired.


  1. Michelle says:

    I’ve often thought it would be nice to make the House and Senate both a little more Parliamentarian, and to require direct representation. Instead of each state being allowed Republican and Democratic representatives, to require representation to be more truly representative–ie, Green, Libertarian, and other parties, as they have in Japan. I think this would gradually reduce some of the friction and polarization of our two-party system, and would also allow 3rd party candidates a great deal more credibility than they currently have.

    As for how to deliver information? I think we’d have to change how the news machine works. At present, it’s dependent on sponsors, and so only sponsor-approved news comes out. In the past, papers were dependent on customers and shareholders, with predictable effects on the news printed. And we know we don’t want only government sanctioned news. It’s too bad there’s no system that would reward accuracy and objectivity in reporting.

  2. I agree with you, but things which require constitutional amendments aren’t likely to happen. Changing the way candidates are elected, which is a state matter, would be easier, though getting 50 states to do anything sensible is pretty much a goner.

    As far as news goes, it’s a hard problem.

    BTW, there’s a bug in WordBooker or possibly the preview package I use such that comments on my blog don’t get passed to Facebook and vice versa.

  3. Another point about news gathering is made in Talking Points Memo’s, which is made by a reporter.

Leave a Reply