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A Washington Insider looks at America, but does not understand what he sees

7 September 2011

Summary:  A Washington insider clearly sees the dangerous deterioration of our political system, but ventures outside Washington and misunderstands what he sees.  We can learn from his error.

From the always interesting James Fallows at The Atlantic:  “‘People Don’t Realize How Fragile Democracy Really Is’“.  Please read it in full, as this excerpt looks at only two points — both in red (my emphasis):

Two days ago I mentioned the “Goodbye to All That” essay by Mike Lofgren, a respected (including by me) veteran Congressional staffer who had worked for Republican legislators on defense and budget issues for nearly 30 years. If you have not read his essay yet, please read it now. … When you’re done, consider this message I received today, from another former Congressional staffer whose tenure overlapped almost exactly with Lofgren’s. This too is worth reading carefully, for it advances an important complementary point:

Like Mike Lofgren, I am a retired Congressional staffer who worked for a House Member from 1985 until January of this year. Unlike Lofgren, I did not retire voluntarily; my boss, a moderate Democrat, lost his race for re-election last November. I found myself agreeing with virtually everything in Mike’s article and immediately forwarded it to a bunch of my friends, some of whom remain working on the Hill.

The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me … that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress {1}.

Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is {2}.

… now that I have been out of the Beltway Bubble, I have gained a little more perspective on how real people see the work of Washington, and I am scared that they are close to revolt {3}.

The second point is frequently discussed on the FM website.  The other two {1 & 3} contradict each other.  Interestingly, this political engineer does not notice this.

People who spending five minutes deciding how to vote are politically passive, especially when (as he notes) they vote on the superficial campaign slogans and attack ads.  These are people like those of the Roman Empire.  The Empire’s skillful political engineers ruled by giving the people what they wanted:  spectacles and cheap food.  Just as our ruling classes do today.  Fast food and  Fox News babes re-telling exciting morality tales:

.

.

Taxes on wages are at post-WWII lows.  Life is good for the majority that are employed or retired (and even for some of the underclass).  We whine about terrorism, bureaucrats, and almost everything.  But we patiently line up at the airports like well-trained sheep, to have our shoes inspected and — if she is well-built — our girlfriends or wives selected for special attention.    Aggressive whining does not suggest a people ready to undergo the sufferings required for successful revolt, nor provide the discipline and commitment necessary.

A frightened people (as our reaction to 9-11 proved), people having low confidence in their political institutions, people facing great challenges — who will they turn to?  Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions survey tells the answer.   Military and police are the most trusted institutions (small businesses are not an institution), and among the few in whose our confidence has increased since 1999.  Not surprising results for a frightened people who have lost the capacity for self-government.

God only knows how this will play out.

For more information

See Fallow’s follow-up article here, with additional insights from Washington insiders.

Other posts about about our struggle to adapt to a new century”

  1. Which is better? Rioting in France and Greece or snoozing in America?, 28 October 2010
  2. Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
  3. We have the leaders we deserve. Visit MacDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010
  4. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 2 November 2010
  5. The Enigma of American Power, 8 November 2010
  6. Why China will again rise to the top. About their most important advantage over America., 11 November 2010
  7. The story of the early 21st century: the future arrives, forcing us to build a new world order, 6 December 2010
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20 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 September 2011 1:57 am

    “The other two contradict each other. Interestingly, this political engineer does not notice this.”

    What “other two” ?

    I had read Fallows and the other gent’s article. They just sorta woke up, I guess. Kevin Phillips has been writiing about all of this since 1995, I think, in his well-documented “ARROGANT CAPITAL”…he a former Repub also.

    The FOX Clips were sadly well-edited to make an obvious point. The GALLUP Poll was terrible in its overwhelming conclusions.

    “God only knows how this will play out.”….???? Surely, it is pretty obvious. But then what isn’t these days?

    • 7 September 2011 2:08 am

      Thanks for catching that about the 3 points. I tweaked the text to make that clearer.

      As for the rest of your comment, I agree. Interesting times.

  2. 7 September 2011 3:31 am

    “During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me … that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress”.

    Original quote: “During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.”

    If most Congressional staffers are as credulous and condescending as this one, it’s no wonder they and their employers are out of touch with the electorate. Along with the condescension, no doubt, comes the perception that “democracy is fragile”. What they should realize is that their grip on power is even more fragile. I wonder if they realize how easy it is to ignore their ads and other marketing gimmicks, perform due diligence on their voting record and financial connections (and the comparable record of their opponents), and diffuse this information by word-of-mouth, Gutenberg II style? As a voter approaching the booth, I may spend only a few minutes doing a mental review of my voting plan, but that is after weeks or months digesting the results of due diligence. Dream on, Beltway boys, but don’t be surprised when events give you a rude awakening.

    • 7 September 2011 5:38 am

      I agree with parts of this.

      “If most Congressional staffers are as credulous and condescending as this one”
      You assume that the staffer should not be condesceding. I suspect that 2 days working in a Congressman’s office would produce a similar viewpoint in most of us. It’s a front row seat on the America show, not a pretty picture.

      “What they should realize is that their grip on power is even more fragile”
      In what sense? Most seats in Congress are now safe seats due to gerrymandering and skillful political engineering.

      “I wonder if they realize how easy it is to ignore their ads and other marketing gimmicks, perform due diligence on their voting record and financial connections ”
      In a broad sense, this is a commonplace viewpoint in the FM comments — people saying that the professionals in a field don’t know their business. Most fields in America are highly competitive, and the people in the top ranks know their biz quite well. I suspect this staffer is correct and you are wrong. In some theoretical sense it might be easy for citizens to change and vote intelligently. Just as it would be to diet and do less drugs. I suggest not holding your breath while waiting for any of these changes to occur on a large scale.

      “‘but don’t be surprised when events give you a rude awakening.”
      I will bet on the pros’ knowledge of history and current dynamics, not your dreams.

    • 7 September 2011 3:36 pm

      “I will bet on the pros’ knowledge of history and current dynamics, not your dreams.”

      You could have bet on the “financial pros” expertise in years past, too, as many did whose 401K’s became 201K’s, and are on the way to becoming 101K’s. I will reserve my betting for a while, a long while, and avoid the commonplaces of the “professionals” who have been successful at vying for positions at the helm of the ship of state (that is their “profession”: after all), but scarcely have a clue how to pilot it safely once they have the opportunity, as several generations of “passing the bag” to successors has amply demonstrated.

      “Changing to vote intelligently” is not the benchmark of awareness. Conscientious preparation to work through the local consequences of national, state, and local failed ponzis is a better measure of awareness, and a careful study of the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR is a useful part of that preparation. Noting that life goes on after the end of empire, and focusing on how to make that life better locally and then at wider levels of cooperation in a better-ordered “new republic” is a more useful investment of time and effort than endless angst over the antics of the “wizards behind the curtain” in Rome-on-the-Potomac, and their enablers in NYC, LA, etc.

    • 7 September 2011 11:36 pm

      Point taken! You win that round, decisively. Time will tell how this all turns out. I hope you are correct.

  3. Grimgrin permalink
    7 September 2011 6:45 am

    I keep thinking about 4GW. People have needs and when their needs aren’t being met by existing structures in society they form alternative networks. Sometimes meeting those needs becomes a method by which non state actors gain not just power, but legitimacy at least in local communities.

    I hope you’re right about ‘skillful political engineers’ running the show. I hope that it turns out the production is not just being put on by a motley collection of individuals with limited information and understanding, perusing policies for their own perceived maximum short term gain, with little thought about the possible consequences of their actions.

    “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good… and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
    - last line from The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

    For some reason this quote has been on my mind through the entire post.

    • 7 September 2011 1:00 pm

      Good news for you: most governments in most places and times were incompetent, and most of their people grossly mistreated! And still revolutions are rare. So the bar defining “skillful”, as in allowing the ship of state to sail on, is quite low.

      Watching and reading fiction encourages us to set the bar far too high, assuming that society can only continue with the continued effort of steely-eyed, brawny ubermensch and their young hot brainy omnicompetent female associates (training in firearms by their dad, learning martial arts from their brothers). Not so..

    • Grimgrin permalink
      7 September 2011 3:30 pm

      See, I don’t think that at all. Society is the natural state of human beings, and it takes pretty extraordinary stresses for it to break it down entirely. I’m rather more concerned at what incompetence at the highest levels can do in a nation where the source of legitimacy seems to have shifted to authoritarian institutions from democratic ones.

      I suspect we may simply be talking across each other though.

    • 7 September 2011 3:41 pm

      Perhaps. These highly abstract high-level discussions about “society in a state of nature” have little interest for me.

  4. 7 September 2011 8:11 am

    I can’t see this ending well for the elite one way or the other. Yes people with employment and retirees might be placated, but the underclass is growing rapidly. Once people realize social mobility is dead: the best case scenario then is a new new deal. The worst case scenario…I shudder ….total breakdown of all institutions.

    • 7 September 2011 1:07 pm

      See my reply to the previous comment. The most likely response of the America people is nothing. How did the Romans respond to the death of the Repbulic? Passively, with irony, detachment, or resignation. The philosophically inclined adopted Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Hedonism. The relibiously inclinded adopted one of the mystery religions (esp popular in the Army), or something different like Christianity or Judaism.

  5. Pluto permalink
    7 September 2011 5:34 pm

    I’m goin to take a stab at reconciling the two comments that FM finds incompatible:
    1) People only spend 5 minutes thinking about who they want to represent them in Congress
    2) The ex-staffer fears revolt

    I basically agree with FM that revolt does not seem likely at this time although there is a LOT of anger out there. I think a bigger and more logical fear is Congress’ loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

    As FM has pointed out, Congress critters are safer than ever from challenges because of gerrymandered districts and ever increasingly skilled political engineering. This gives the critters the freedom to act more as they please and they are exercising it to the general dismay and disdain of their fellow Americans (who are united in their dislike but can’t agree on what should be done next).

    But the inactive Congress is leaving a power vaccuum. People need and want goods and services from their government in accordance with the social contracts of the 1930′s through the 1960′s and if the government does not provide such goods and services they will first delegitimize Congress (which has pretty much already happened) and eventually go in search of other organizations that will fill their needs and desires.

    It is reasonable that the government will seek to suppress the competition, perhaps by outlawing it or attacking its supporters. And it is equally logical that the new organization(s) will seek to fulfill their social contract with their followers by protecting them from external harm or getting their support to continue to exist. At that point we may very well have 4GW in our backyard.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Interesting speculation, nicely expressed. Thanks for posting!

  6. 7 September 2011 9:33 pm

    Why would a person take as a pseudonym the Roman Emperor who’s deeds inspired the naming of the Fabian Society?
    .
    .
    Reply: Good question. For the answer see section 6B on the About the Authors page.

  7. Matt Taibbi looks at Mike Lofgren's memo about the GOP permalink
    8 September 2011 1:18 am

    Apocalyptic GOP Is Dragging Us Into a Civil War“, Matti Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 7 September 2011 — Another look at Mike Lofgren’s article and the broader political context.

  8. 8 September 2011 4:45 am

    This is all very troubling. And re-reading Lofgren’s piece after Taibbi opines about it was even more troubling/sad to me. Not to be dismissive at all but this is really not “news”.

    Sure it is good that it is being revealed and discussed today but the participation in Electoral politics has been declining for many years and surely even among the aware this has happened for good reason. Yes. It has accelerated. Did anyone catch the premier of Top Secret America on FRONTLINE?

    It is sadly way beyond the GOP dragging “us” into a Civil War (and that is very unlikely, I assure myself).. I had discussions with Attorneys who practiced in Federal Court as a Defense counsels almost exclusively, in the ealrly 90′s, who were appalled at many things “Anti-American” that are now very common (and terribly accepted by established Law)

    This America is a country, an island actually, that has very little self-awareness of the Path it is now well-embarked upon and that path is very destructive. The World in general is no longer amused nor surprised and like FM, I sense most Americans will simply stand by, stand down ….and watch or worse, ignore where we are heading.

  9. 8 September 2011 5:01 am

    As Thomas Hobbes illustrates, we’ve been the revolt route: “Grover Norquist v. Thomas Hobbes: After Drowning Leviathan in the Bathtub, What Next?“, Peter Kinder, September 2011

  10. WTF permalink
    8 September 2011 7:06 pm

    “God only knows how this will play out.”

    Recent anthropological research indicates that if there is a “god” (as conceived in conventional terms), s/he does *not* know. Human beings were wired by evolution for transcendence, compassion, altruism, and equality, but in a tribal setting (long before formal religions came into existence).

    All civilizations are limited by human DNA, as expressed in culture. All culture is tribal, and civilizations are simply unstable super-tribes (scaling theory, Goeffrey West, Santa Fe Institute). There is no divine order to the diverse range of civilizations that have developed in the last 8,000+ years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_inheritance_theory). Human DNA is an inadequate basis for a complex, global culture.

    The current species of human being (and our limited DNA) will most likely be replaced by one or more robot/robot-human hybrid species within 50 to 100 years (see Bill Joy on Kurzweil, wired.com) which may have cultural capacites more sophisticated than current human species. Current culture, at its best, allows human being to “see” beyond (transcend) a given culture, but not implement complex “solutions” that transcend supertribalism. Evolutionary theory and developmental theory (all of which is still very rough science) do tell us some valuable things about the nature of super-tribal cultures, and how they respond (badly) to crises of legitimization, paradigm shifts, etc.

    • 8 September 2011 7:32 pm

      Thank you for posting this interesting comment!

      I keep my religious views out of the discussion, but this is a good point make a brief mention. There is a religion that not only is fully consistent with science but also expplains the nature of human history. That is, one of the two great questions religions answer: why is there evil? (the other concerns death). I urge you all to lean about Gnosticism. At some point we will attain critical mass. The Great Gnostic (reformed) Revival will reform the world! We can fight the Demiurge!

  11. 11 September 2011 1:11 am

    Lofgren is barely a RINO and he makes terrible conclusions. Yes, he has some good factual points, but that’s it. I’ve got a series of posts on the article at my blog, linked above.
    Mark Erickson

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