Monday, November 23, 2009

If only Tom Friedman had had a smarter grandma (or perhaps he did, and he simply didn't listen closely enough)

Sandy Levinson

NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman had one of his folksy columns in yesterday's Times about lessons his grandma (allegedly) taught him about what the United States needs to do to maintain its world supremacy. The key part of the column is as follows:

.... [A]t least six things have come together to fracture our public space and paralyze our ability to forge optimal solutions: 1) Money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.

2) The gerrymandering of political districts means politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center.

3) The cable TV culture encourages shouting and segregating people into their own
political echo chambers.

4) A permanent presidential campaign leaves little time for governing.

5) The Internet, which, at its best, provides a check on elites and establishments and opens the way for new voices and, which, at its worst provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mobs from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their specific orthodoxy.

6) A U.S. business community that has become so globalized that it only comes to Washington to lobby for its own narrow interests; it rarely speaks out anymore in defense of national issues like health care, education and open markets.
These six factors are pushing our system, which was designed to have divided powers and to force compromises, into the realm of paralysis.
It is easy enough to agree with all of Friedman's critique, but much of it is vitiated by the almost willful obtuseness of the last sentence about "our system." Will he never recognize that we are in our present "paralysis" BECAUSE OF, and not IN SPITE OF, "our system"? And what, precisely, does he mean by "forcing compromises"? After all, one might see the present system as forcing all sorts of untenable and stupid compromises in order to get Olympia Snowe's or Ben Nelson's or some other holdout's vote, just as some of the earlier "great compromises" involved all sorts of payoffs to slaveowners. Friedman can travel all over the world, and consult frequently with his favorite political theorists, but he seems incapable of asking whether we are well served by the system designed in 1787. Why does he not even bother to mention the idiotic Senate and its idiotic rules? No one can argue that the Senate is "gerrymandered" in the sense he is using. It simply gives grotequely undeserved amounts of power to people like Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe, and other denizens of states whose total population is a pathetic (and unrepresentative) fraction of "we the people." Argh....


I'm not sure that Grandma's opinion that the rapacious pursuit of "world supremacy" ensures the immortality of the American Dream.

More importantly, though, I have a lot of doubts about all these crazed "constitutionalists." First off, it seems they're factually incorrect a lot of the times about when and where the Constitution is allegedly violated.

Secondly, is it so horrible to imagine that perhaps there are elements of the Constituion -- crafted centures ago in a different time -- doesn't always make perfect sense today?

I will go hide now.

Tom Friedman was on Charlie Rose last Friday and made the points in his column on Sunday. But Friedman went well beyond his column in that appearance. Rather than describe this, those interested should check out what he said on Charlie Rose.

But what is obvious to me is that Friedman is setting the theme for his next book.

"Secondly, is it so horrible to imagine that perhaps there are elements of the Constituion -- crafted centures ago in a different time -- doesn't always make perfect sense today?"

Of course there are. But if you violate them, instead of amending them, then, instead of having a Constitution which doesn't always make perfect sense, you just don't have a Constitution.

And you quite effectively short circuit the public debate over whether those portions of the Constitution do or don't make sense.

Brett, it could be a flaw that the Constitution is so difficult to amend, don't you think?

On the basic point about the Senate giving outsized power to sparsely populated areas of the country I don't see much to defend. It should be changed to a more democratic arrangement... but how?

1. Money has always been in politics, and the 17A was in part passed to deal with senators in hock to special interests. Perhaps, the issue is how campaigns are now run, how expensive they are, etc. Think outside of the box.

2. Gerrymandering also is far from new. It's more specialized, but how many more seats as a whole are really affected?

3. Cable also increases p.o.v.s and information that was not present beforehand.

4. I really didn't think Bush was always campaigning, nor do I think Obama is now. Also, back in the day, often there were annual elections.

5. Any type of speech can do that. Radio brought you Rush Limbaugh as much as Morning Edition.

6. Not sure how public interested business was in the past either.

I do agree that the Senate is going off the rails -- it is going beyond what it even did fairly recently. This underlines that even respect for its original purpose doesn't save it from criticism.

Some of the problems are of its own making, procedures that are reasonable on some level are taken too far. Others are constitutional. For instance, originally, the contrast of population of small and large states was not as stark.

I'd add that even with the burden of the extra check against amending as to the Senate that there are various (constitutional) ways around it. One is to change the powers of the Senate or how the votes are counted.

This does not violate the two senator rule w/o a state's consent. OTOH, our own Constitution ignored an unanimous amendment rule in the Articles of Confederation, so there is a bit of gall in it demanding something similar, now with lots more states to deal with. But, perhaps we are to live with that.

BTW, with a nod to our British friends as well, someone once cited to me a British precedent where a two step process was used to change a barrier to change in respect to the House of Lords. In effect, to my understanding, first the barrier was removed, then the practice changed.

IOW, there is no barrier to amending the rule that each state has to okay changing the two senator rule. Once you do that, you can change the underlining barrier. I said then and now that this seems to violate the spirit of the rule plus seems overall hinky, but it might work.

I will point out, FWIW, that many parliamentary systems with proportional representation and multiparty systems have the same problem -- everything comes down to a handful of swing parties, often obsessed with a fairly narrow range of issues, who can use their power to make or break a coalition to extort unreasonable concessions.

As for the difficulty in amending our Constitution, I am inclined to think it is a problem. In the clear light of hindsight, we should have amended, rather than reinterpreted, the Constitution at the time of the New Deal, if only to shut Brett up. (And to remove a lot of the confusion and uncertainty how far the Commerce Clause goes).

OTOH, there are serious problems with making a costitution too easy to amend, as anyone in a state that has the initiative could tell you. It becomes encrusted with too many trivial amendments and loses the flexibility that is a virtue of our extremely sparse version.

All fixes for the undemocratic Senate appear to be non-starters as a practical matter. While we're talkin about pie in the sky, though, my own impractical preference would be to leave the Senate as is, but transfer all of its powers either to the House or, a new improved second chamber. As the Enlightened Layperson points out, however, that will not eliminate the power of small, unrepresenative groups to thwart needed reforms (see, e.g., the Stupak Amendment, which I espect to be one of the rocks on whch health care reform ultimately will crash )

In my earlier comment on Tom Friedman's appearance on the Charlie Rose Show last Friday, following his presentation of the points listed in Sandy's post, Rose asked about Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the US's role. Friedman was quite harsh, in effect saying the US has to pull back and tell these people that they have got to try to solve their problems. He was quite vehement with these comments. He seemed to be suggesting that resolving the domestic points he raised are suffering as a result of carrying over foreign policy of Bush/Cheney and predecessors.


Are you pursuing this issue of "the system is the problem" elsewhere more systematically? I would be curious to see your analysis since I, coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, more or less agree with it. Feel free to respond offline if easier.

OTOH, there are serious problems with making a constitution too easy to amend

Too true. Oy.

I don't think the recent dearth of amendments is evidence that the Constitution is too hard to amend. I think it's evidence that it's too easy to 'amend'. The courts have become so accommodating, that Congress doesn't bother with amendments anymore. Why should it? If it wants a 'change', it just proceeds as though it had already happened, and like as not the courts will sign off on it.

Given that, why should they do the heavy lifting of drafting a formal amendment, which will make the change depressingly static, subject it to all manner of annoying public debate, and which may just end up being rejected by the states?

michael a. livingston ... have you read Sandy Levinson's book, the one linked on the side of the blog?

thanks . . . this appears to address my questions . . . thanks

Re Brett @ 7:15 pm:

There's a comment with a shelf life of several minutes.

Professor Levinson- it is evident that Friedman believes it to be a good thing that “our system” makes it difficult for narrow and temporary legislative majorities to make sweeping (or even not so sweeping) changes. Perhaps this is an unexamined assumption on Friedman’s part, you haven’t explained why he is wrong.

Take the issue of health care reform. There is little evidence to suggest that the current congressional majority was elected because of a popular desire to change the health care system. The Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 based primarily on opposition to Bush’s war policies and generalized revulsion over administration incompetence and congressional corruption. The wars and the economic meltdown were the primary issues in 2008.

Moreover, the polls show that there is no popular groundswell of support for any of the current health care bills. At best, the polls suggest the public is closely divided on the issue. Indeed, it seems clear that if a health care bill passes, it will be despite public opinion, not because of it.

Obviously, you and Professor Balkin are frustrated that the Senate is delaying legislation which you believe represents good policy. But in this instance the “undemocratic” Senate is more in line with popular opinion than the “democratic” House. So it seems like a strange time to be attacking the legitimacy of the Senate.

If mls believes that Friedman's column bewailing our "paralysis" of governance is an endorsement of the difficulty in making changes, sweeping or otherwise, then we have strikingly different notions of how to define ordinary English.

Hmm, I thought your critique of Friedman was based on his acceptance of “our system’s” checks and balances that make it difficult for a legislative majority to muscle through changes opposed by a resolute minority. To be honest, though, my intent was more to defend the Constitution than to defend Friedman.

But no matter. My copy of “Our Undemocratic Constitution” arrived today, and I am sure that my unfortunate attachment to that document will soon dissipate. Assuming I can overcome my inability to understand ordinary English, that is.

I withdraw any comment (seemingly) directing aspersions at anyone actually willing to read my book!


After slogging through the comments I am treating your book as a sort of door prize and will definitely read and comment on it! I'm sure I won't be alone.

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