Losing Our Common Understanding

“A couple of years ago, reporting from San Francisco, I noted an erosion of public meaning which seemed to getting in the way of civic progress. A key cause, I suggested at the time, was technology’s filtering effects—the way that, as we lived more of our lives in a personal bespoke, we lost touch with the common ground, and the common language, that made meaningful public work possible. Perhaps filtering effects are at play, but nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. The most dangerous intellectual spectre today seems not to be lack of information but the absence of a common information sphere in which to share it across boundaries of belief.”

–Nathan Heller, “The Failure of Facebook Democracy” in The New Yorker

Have we lost Madison’s vision of a representative democracy?

By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Polar Cruises (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
George Thomas has an insightful piece exploring the perils of populist democracy that is worth reviewing, especially in light of what happened last night.

Thomas critiques the movement on both left and the right during this election towards a simplistic, “folk theory” of democracy, in which political leaders are completely beholden to populist will. And what is lost, he argues, is the educative function of representative leadership.

Obscured by the turn to populist democracy is any sense that representatives and political parties play an important role in educating and shaping the public mind, or that democracy depends on political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants. This is curious because it is so at odds with the understanding of liberal democracy that underlies our Constitution, an understanding that is increasingly under pressure. It is particularly curious that Republicans, who not only purport to revere America’s Constitution but have made a habit of insisting that it is being undermined, have embraced a populist view of democracy.

As a recourse, Thomas turns to Madison’s vision of a representative democracy. We’ve reviewed Federalist #10 before, examining the distinction that Madison makes between a direct democracy and a representative democracy (in fact, it’s one of the more popular posts on this blog).

Our political institutions were crafted to be responsive to the people over time, but also to put space between the people and their representatives. Self-government also required self-restraint. This would allow the often inchoate and disparate views of the public to be formed by way of the political process.

. . . Republican and democratic government were both forms of popular government rooted in the authority of the people, but Madison favored a republic to “pure” democracy precisely because of its educative and enlightening ambitions.

A populist democracy requires a populace deeply knowledgeable about policy and politics. This is not a realistic expectation to hold about the general populace.

Ordinary citizens are busy with private life and obligations closer to home. Self-government requires them to be generally informed and able to make judgments about their representatives, but we cannot expect them to be experts on the range of issues they are now asked to speak to during elections.

Yet increasingly, voters are asked, such as on ballot propositions in California, to make complex policy decisions. And politicians, on the other hand, increasingly bow to the “will” of a populace calling for untenable extremes. As Thomas states, “[Politics] requires compromise.”

But what happens when political leaders and the parties themselves seem to be composed of the “less inquiring”? What happens when our leadership class abdicates the educative role that Madison envisioned?

What happens is what we’ve seen from the Republican party all throughout Obama’s presidency: a complete unwillingness to compromise in order to govern more effectively. Which resulted in the “abuse” of executive power that conservatives so loathed the Obama administration for.

Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy.

. . . Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources.

Thomas concludes his essay by stating, “Educating the public mind, and preparing it for democratic self-government, is more important than ever.” I’m afraid that Trump’s presidency will be guidance precisely on how NOT to govern. The extreme contrast to Obama’s measured, dignified, and intelligent administration will be illustrative indeed.

Care about people, not ideology

“With altruism, you don’t care about ideology, you care about the fate of people. And then it solves the issue: If you care about the fate of children, why would you want guns in the school? The most legitimate aspiration of any human beings is the basic wish not to suffer, the basic wish for well-being.”

—Mattieu Ricard, in an interview with Michael Paterni, “The World’s Happiest Man Wishes You Wouldn’t Call Him That

The Federalist #15: Government and Human Nature

Cover of "The Federalist (Barnes & Noble ...
Cover via Amazon

We’ve explored James Madison’s exposition on a democratic republic and the regulation of faction through the mechanism of representation in Federalist #10. I’d like to now move on to some interesting insight provided by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15 on the use of power and sanction by government, and on the self-interest of human nature:

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.

One thing this passage demonstrates is that our founding fathers did not have the rose-tinted glasses that many of us moderns seem to possess when we consider the role of government. Stating the role of government in such stark terms probably rubs our politically-correct sensibilities the wrong way. Recall that Hamilton is referring explicitly to the context of political and economic disarray due to the Articles of Confederation. He knew what it looks like when governance is weak and based on mutual promises of goodwill and intent, rather than backed by an authoritative power to enforce laws.

There is an interesting parallel here in the manner that many people today view public schools. They seem to think that if we simply create a nurturing and caring environment, student behavior will take care of itself (just a quick note: I do believe that environments can be created that will do much to address misbehavior. See my other blog for more on this). This is patently ridiculous to anyone who has taught children. Children naturally take advantage of any opportunity to gain attention and status amongst their peers. Without the ability to enforce transparent and fair codes of expected behavior, a teacher and a school’s administration are toothless. Children know when there are no consequences.

That doesn’t mean a suspension for every child who steps out of line. A consequence may just mean a long conversation with the child and their parent, with a contract drawn up or some other such embarrassing formalized thing. But there must be clear and fair penalties given. Children expect and demand this, and lose all respect for an adult when no such actions are taken (watch and observe children with their parents out in public for further demonstrations of this principle).

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?

What’s interesting here is the somewhat cynical but pragmatic view that Hamilton displays on human nature. Optimists may disagree, believing that without government, mankind will better self-govern through community-based efforts and individual self-interest. Such optimists are also known as “anarchists.” On the other side of this, however, we can also see that authoritative constraint can produce its own set of dysfunction when it is not implemented in a manner that gains the trust and respect of those so constrained. Americans are renowned for their distrust of their own government. Some of this distrust is well-earned, while some is steeped in provincial conspiracy and superstition. /Begin tangent. Currently, the discovery that the NSA has untrammeled access to almost all corners of our online communications has made many otherwise complacent Estadounidenses awaken to the reality that a healthy mistrust of their government can be warranted, especially when that government has demonstrated that it is fomenting dastardly plans in secret. If our government was more transparent about its surveillance methods and the purposes for that surveillance, I don’t think people would be so taken aback. After all, we willingly hand over wads of our personal information to retailers, credit card companies, and other organizations on a daily basis. /End tangent.

. . .in every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate or inferior orbs, by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common centre. This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged.

Hamilton is making it clear here that this natural tendency for subordinate states to desire greater power requires the execution of federal power through law.

In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. . . .The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the States have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. . . 

Hmmm. Our federal government brought to an “awful stand” because of extremism. . . Sure sounds painfully familiar. McDonnell, anybody?

The greater deficiencies of some States furnished the pretext of example and the temptation of interest to the complying, or to the least delinquent States. Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? These were suggestions which human selfishness could not withstand. . . Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.

Again, Hamilton’s pessimistic view of human nature is demonstrated here. It is the selfishness intrinsic to mankind that explains the behavior of the states. Yet this very selfishness is what we see demonstrated when we come up against the greatest challenges to our nation and to our species, such as the depletion of fish from our oceans, the degradation of top soils and water sources, and general environmental volatility across the world. Nations, just like states, just like individuals, act in accordance with self-interest. It is only via the mechanisms of constraint through legislation and justice that this self-interest can be managed for the greater and equitable interest of a collective.

The Federalist #10: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using Vocabulary.com to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

The World, it is a Changin’

Head on view of a Rotary Phone
Head on view of a Rotary Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to argue about the impact that technology and the internet have had on our society. “Revolutionized” is one word that springs to mind. That word may seem radical, but consider this: in order to make a phonecall, we used to have to turn a rotary dial with our fingers and wait for it to spin around with each and every single digit! Unbelievable! Imagine all that time we wasted standing there waiting for that dial to turn back around, when we could have been tweeting. . .

In recognition of this rapid and momentous change in our lives, there has been an increasing effort to bring the contemporary technologically driven world down into the bolted-down-desk backwaters of our schools. After all, our children are digital natives. I’m not quite sure what this term means, other than that our kids are consummate consumers and know how to touch a screen to download porn or a new game. But it seems to imply that if we don’t keep them entertained and attached to the drip feed of a lit screen, we may be losing oodles of minutes to ever constant brain stimulus.

Teachers, also, have been a-clamoring for access to laptops and netbooks and what not. Not simply because they can play games, but because their administrators keep haranguing them to input numbers into spreadsheets. The old gradebook just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore in today’s “data-driven” world. It’s much more efficient to crunch numbers on the computer — you can make charts and stuff, which helps principals out a lot because they like seeing things visualized (hint: use lots of color). These charts then can be foisted onto visitors to the building, along with printouts of the state standards, demonstrating how student growth is aligned to AYP targets. See, didn’t that sound good? Come on over here and look at this nice, colorful bulletin board!

Anyway, let me just say this: technology is cool. It’s going to revolutionize education. Everything is going to be personalized, differentiated, and individualized for each and every single learner. It’s going to be amazing! Wake me when we get there. . .