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More people participating in politics: is this good for America?

20 June 2010

Summary:  I have often advocated increased public participation as cure for our increasingly dysfunctional politics.   It’s happening, and the result might reveal a terminal weakness in American’s political regime.

The posts listed below chronicle the rise of the Tea Party movement, the first mass political movement in American since the 1960s (which saw them among conservatives, Blacks, and the left).  Increased public involvement is good news.  Mass political involvement can revitalize a political regime — if its people have common sense, seek to preserve the regime rather than their own benefits, and will work with their fellow Americans.   This combination distinguished America’s founding generation.

Although it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions, the early evidence (described in those posts) suggests that the TP supporters tend to have none of these characteristics.  However well-meaning, they seems to often exhibit the opposite of these traits:

  • ignorance rather than knowledge (e.g., faux economics, creationism, the fiscal effect of cutting waste and fraud),
  • a desire to preserve their benefits, first and foremost (seen in their recommended changes to the budget),
  • demonization not only of Obama, who has governed from the Center-Left, but also moderate Republicans

The bad news is that polls show that Tea Party supporters are typical Americans.   If so, this reveals a previously well-hidden secret of the Republic:  we have lost the capacity for effective self-government.  That we have entered the equivalent of the late Roman Republic, when its people had lost the capacity to run the Republic’s political machinery — and the only question was which shepard would manage Rome’s sheep.

An example from the past:  good news sometimes conceals a core of bad news

Everyone rejoiced in Nero’s death and a new Emperor.  But the manner of his overthrow revealed a terrible weakness in the Roman political structure, as described by Tacitus (similar words might be written about us):

However, before embarking on my theme, it seems desirable to go back a little and survey the state of public opinion at Rome, the mind of the army, the attitude of the provinces, and the elements of strength and weakness throughout the Roman world. In this way it may be possible to appreciate not only the actual course of events, whose outcome, whether good or ill, is often dictated by chance, but also their underlying logic and causes.

The death of Nero had been welcomed initially by a surge of relief. But it had also evoked a variety of emotions in the senate, the populace, and the garrison of the capital, as well as in all the many legions and legionary commanders. A well-hidden secret of the principate had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be chosen outside Rome.

But the senators were delighted, and promptly permitted themselves considerable freedom of speech in their negotiations with an emperor who was new to his task and absent from the capital. The leading members of the equestrian order were hardly less gratified than the senators. Hopes were raised among respectable middle-class Romans who had ties of duty towards the great families, as among the dependants and freedmen of condemned persons and exiles. The riff-raff haunting the circus and theatres, and the scum of the slave population, or those spendthrifts and bankrupts who had been the recipients of Nero’s degrading charity were filled with gloom and hungry for the latest rumours.

The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus , I, 4

Posts about the Tea Party Movement

  1. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  2. Our ruling elites scamper and play while our world burns, 11 March 2009
  3. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  4. More examples of Americans waking up – should we rejoice?, 10 October 2009
  5. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”?, 27 January 2010
  6. Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
  7. The Tea Party movement develops a platform. It’s the Underpants Gnomes Business Plan!, 8 March 2010
  8. About the Tea Party Movement: who they are and what they believe, 19 March 2010
  9. The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
  10. At last we see a Tea Party political platform, 13 May 2010
  11. Kinsley – “My Country, Tis of Me – There’s nothing patriotic about the Tea Party Patriots”, 15 May 2010
  12. Why has wild man Mark Williams become a top leader of the Tea Party movement?, 13 June 2010

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