Monday, July 4, 2016

Political Insanity

July 4 is properly a day to reflect upon the greatness and the successes of American political institutions. However, that is increasingly harder to do in the contemporary climate which seems to highlight the decline of those institutions and the baneful consequences of that process - consequences evident in the inability of our governing institutions to govern and the constant campaign of destructively individualistic politics that has reached a new low in the current election season.

Already back when I was a student, alert political scientists were paying attention to how the traditional structures of American politics - many of which were not unproblematic but which nonetheless played a valuable part in making the system function as well as it did - were beginning to give way to reforms which were having decidedly unhelpful consequences. It was noticed for example how the much criticized urban political machines were being weakened - just when the new urban poor of color might otherwise have inherited them and possibly put them to use on behalf of their communities. The Congressional Seniority system was also much criticized, but perceptive professors helped me to see its advantages in taming inter-personal rivalries in Congress and thus enabling members to get on with the real work of government. 

Over the years, of course, the process of "reform" in Congress and in political parties has continued and accelerated until the point we have now reached when we now have no real party leaders but "only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated ballon."

Those are the words of author and political commentator Jonathan Rauch in his recent article in The Atlantic, aptly titled "How American Politics Went Insane." (His article, which anyone who cares about the decline of American political institutions decline and the almost unbelievable mess that has resulted should read, can be accessed at

We all know the results of the process by which our once-upon-a-time clumsy and slow-moving but manifestly functional politics has so completely deteriorated into an increasingly Hobbesian war of all against all. We all recognize the symptoms of what Rauch calls chaos syndrome - "a chronic decline in the political system's capacity for self-organization" that has resulted from the progressive weakening of institutions like "parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees - that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time." The ultimate cause of all this, he locates in "the general public's reflective, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics." Employing a clever medical analogy, he likens the decades-long reforming of our political process to "abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick." 

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