A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?

The salons of our Versailles-on-the-Potomac ring with gossip about the election.  Every day brings exciting news… about Michelle’s and Cindy’s dresses, changes in the lineups of each team’s gladiators, the daily score of money raised, and new fantasies about the “true” values and beliefs of each candidate.

Listening to this bustle, I wonder if we remain capable of self-government?  Or, like the Romans of the late Republic, have we grown weary of the burden — and wait for someone to govern us?  To shed light on this, let’s compare the political rhetoric and literature of America’s past with today’s.

  1. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
  2. The Federalist Papers
  3. Presidential inaugural addresses and State of the Union Speeches

(1) The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858:  7 debates, 3 hours each

Take a look at the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (also see Wikipedia). They read like term papers of today’s college sophomores.  They are longer, more complex and sophisticated than the “debates” of today, in which candidates volley sound-bites with journalists.

(2) The Federalist Papers, 1787-88  (the text)

Consider the Federalist Papers.  Originally published as 77 articles, the demand was so great that they were reprinted and eventually published in book form (with 8 new chapters).  They were political literature directed at the American people:  merchants, farmers, and professionals (as defined at the time, male and white).

What if the New York Times were to publish the Federalist Papers, one chapter every Sunday for 85 weeks?  Would they have a large audience?  More likely they would have to donate the advertising space to Public Service advertisements and charities.

Our interests run more to 30 second attack ads (the candidates media advisors run these because they work).  What does that say about us, our minds and nature?  Perhaps this is not what the Founders hoped for, as the raw material on which to build a Republic.  They gave much thought to the character required of America’s citizens if the Republic was to survive.  Here is the conclusion to Article 55:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

(3)  Presidential inaugural addresses and State of the Union Speeches

Excerpt from Elvin Lim’s “The Anti-intellectual Presidency“, a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia (27 August 2003).  Published in expanded form as The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.

This paper shows this data in graphic form, powerful evidence of the dumbing-down of American political speech — and weakening of the Republic.  The higher the Flesch readability score, the simpler the text.  Bold emphasis added.


We look at the annual message {now called State of the Union speeches} first because it allows us to generate an annual time series, and we can observe changes across constant intervals of time within and across presidencies.51 Figure 4 is a scatter plot of the Flesch scores of all 214 annual messages delivered between 1790 and 2004 fitted on a Lowess curve connecting 50 percent of the data points and showing the relentless simplification of the annual message.

If anything, the annual message would be the genre least susceptible to the pressures of simplification. It is a formal, constitutionally mandated genre, as well as the one speech that presidents today can be assured of uninterrupted prime-time coverage on all major television networks, and in which presidents are therefore relatively free from the pressure to abbreviate and sloganize. The speech is no mere “rose garden rubbish,” but conscientiously designed to communicate all the major policy initiatives of an administration for the next legislative year as well as to act as “a marching order for the bureaucracy.”

… Figure 5 depicts the same analysis performed on every inaugural address delivered between 1789 and 2001, showing that the pattern observed in Figure 4 is neither genre specific nor, more significantly, dependent on mode of delivery, since the inaugural address is and (unlike the annual message) has always been a spoken genre.

… We can further break down the Flesch formula into its component parts in order to better appreciate how it is a test of readability. Figure 6 shows the downward trajectory of the average sentence length of the annual message, which has done most of the work of driving the Flesch scores upwards. … That is why observers have noticed that State of the Union addresses have increasingly become a “laundry list” of sound-bites truncated by pause and applause, exemplifying the “primer style” of presidential rhetoric.

… Figure 9 looks at presidential language writ large via the totality of presidential documents – both written and spoken, formal and informal – recorded in the Public Papers of each president in their first full year in office from President Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. Each president’s Papers constitute the full public record of his rhetoric in office, so the Papers lend themselves to a meaningful comparison between the rhetorical modes of different presidents.

Figure 9 shows that the upward trend of the Flesch scores across the last 80 years is, again, unmistakable. In this brief span of less than 80 years, the readability of presidential rhetoric has transformed from college level to the eighth-grade level.

… To depict this trajectory in more tangible terms: if the trend in Figure 4 continues unabated (and unaccelerated), in 121 years the State of the Union address would reach a score of 90, which is to say that it would read like a comic strip or a fifth grade textbook. Even if this were merely a matter of readability (and not also of substantive simplicity), this is hardly a level of discourse at which serious public communication and deliberation can take place. Thus, if anti-intellectualism is individually rewarding {for politicos}, it is cumulatively irrational. …

———————–  End excerpt.  ———————–


At last the closed doors of Independence Hall were opened and the delegates as they issued from the building found themselves surrounded by a crowd of citizens eager to know what had been the outcome of the Constitutional Convention’s long deliberations. Among them was Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia. She approached Dr. Franklin with an anxious question: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic” replied the Doctor, “if you can keep it.”

— From Meet Dr. Franklin, The Franklin Institute (1943).

Are we still capable of self-government?  The most likely alternatives are probably plutocracy or oligarchy.  Either way, the transition will be easy (we are almost there).  Few Americans have more than a vague idea what’s in the Constitution (thanks to our public schools).  And we already have a massive and militarized police forces, plus a large federal security apparatus.

If we could contact the hereafter to obtain the Founders’ advice, what might they say?  Probably a reminder that self-government must be fought for, earned anew by each generation.  The structure of the Republic is a gift from our parents.  What happens next is up to us.  Fortunately there is an election in November.  Voting is not enough.  Please donate your time and money to candidates at some level (local, state, or national).

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For ideas about what to do next see the posts at Reforming America: steps to new politics. Also see these…

  1. Recommended: Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006.
  2. What we should Americans do on the 4th of July? — 2010.
  3. Advice from the past about ways to celebrate Independence Day — 2013.
  4. Let’s discuss the future of America while we celebrate Independence Day — 2014.

6 thoughts on “A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?”

  1. What if the New York Times were to publish the Federalist Papers, one chapter every Sunday for 85 weeks? Would they have a large audience? More likely they would have to donate the advertising space to Public Service advertisements and charities.

    I disagree. Remember when the Washington Post published the Unabomber manifesto? People ate that up, even though it was incredibly long and made practically no sense whatsover. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to envision a mass audience for serious arguments in long form — IF the arguments are provocative, and directly connected to the issues of the day. (Remember that the Federalist Papers were published at a true moment of decision for the country — when the country was basically reinventing itself.)

    Don’t assume that just because they feed us mush we can’t appreciate a good steak…

  2. Raymond Reichelt

    To me, the “dumbing down” of political discourse in N America represents the triumph of the marketers. Marketing specialists assume that people are more likely to be persuaded by an emotional argument rather than an intellectual one. Thus there is no need for presenting deep analysis or complex arguments. All that is needed to sell a product or get a politician elected is to elicit a stong “gut-reaction” in their audience that can be manipulated to their own ends

    The effect of the triumph of marketing in a representative democracy is ultimately pernicious., The process leads to the disenfranchisement of the public by simple expedient of exluding them from any serious discusion of the significant issues.

  3. At the time of the Federalist papers, the “voting public” consisted of land-owning white men. By the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates it had enlarged somewhat, but was still nowhere near universal suffrage. It may be that the great mass of people are not capable of self-government, and that the ideal of democracy can only function when some elite group within it is empowered, to those who are relatively immune to the simple sloganeering of a political campaign. But how does a country dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” restrict the suffrage, and how do you keep that group from creating a tyranny for themselves?

    It also seems to work best for people who actually want it (voting), who have to make some sacrifice of their own to get it, rather than having it by birthright. “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”

  4. Duncan Kinder

    Before we get too down in the mouth, consider the election of 1828.

    The campaign was marked by an impressive amount of mudslinging. Jackson’s marriage came in for attack: when he had married his wife Rachel, the couple had believed that she was divorced; however, the divorce was not yet finalized, so he had to remarry her once the legal papers were complete. In the Adams campaign’s hands, this became a scandal….

    The notorious Coffin Handbills attacked Jackson for his courts martial and execution of deserters, for his massacres of Indian villages, and for his habit of dueling.

    Adams did not escape attack. It was charged that Adams, while serving as Minister to Russia, had surrendered an American servant girl to the appetites of the Czar. Adams was also accused of using public funds to buy gambling devices for the presidential residence; it turned out that these were a chess set and a pool table.

    Following his election, the Petticoat Affair caused an uproar. The scandal was so intense that several members of the Cabinet finally resigned….

    So early Americans were not all sages reading Federalist Papers.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your point. My post did not suggest that 19th century Americans were Vulcans, cold reasoning machines — but rather, the political dialog back then had substantial elements on a higher level than today’s.

    Political passions were intense, than as now. Personal scandals were a frequent, people being what they are. Like that about Jackson’s marriage.

    The other three examples you cite were about substantial, not trivial, issues (whether true or false, is a different question). The first two, about Jackson and Adams, concerned important aspects of their characters. The third, the Petticoat Affair, was a vehicle for pre-existing poltical factions to fight. This article on historynet.com gives a more accurate description than the brief Wikipedia entry.

  5. Probablement les développements les plus importants en Amérique du procédé de soins de santé au cours des nombreuses dernières années, est devenu votre baisse concernant les soins maintenu .

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