Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Spocko asks...

... of the previous post, what can be done to fix the problem (which, I suppose, can be reduced to one of reversing the anti-intellectualism which seems to dominate politics in the U.S.).

If I had a sure-fire answer to that, I'd be making the big bucks advising political campaigns, certainly. But, maybe, drilling down into the problem itself offers some avenues to explore.

As a rule, we don't do a lot of sociological investigation into how large, complex societies evolve, which is how the U.S. ought, properly, to be defined today. We tend, more often, to look at subsets of society and then evaluate their influence on society in general. For example, there are an awful lot of trees killed in the examination of particular laws and how they will affect society, but, on the subject of the effects of the entire accumulated body of law on society, not so much. That's not a trivial concern in a society founded on the rule of law. If the body of law becomes so tangled that it is little more than a gigantic warehouse full of funhouse mirrors in which the cleverest navigator finds the reflected image desired, that the very complexity inherent in the system of law can therefore be manipulated and politicized for the advantage of the few, then the average person in society is, literally and figuratively, going to feel alienated from the foundational principle of the society. The inability to fathom that complexity, to understand it, to address it, can lead to the general perception that the presumed object of law--equal justice for all--is either out of reach or irrelevant.

So it is with politics, from which all that law ultimately derives. We lull ourselves into believing that the ideological and practical divisions between the two parties are clear and distinct (and, when campaigning, politicians attempt to capitalize on that tendency of ours to label and categorize), and into believing that those two parties encompass the political spectrum, when, in fact, the opposite is true. The greater truth is that the society is incredibly diverse and chaotic, politically, and that, even in those elections where turnout is described as "high," roughly forty percent of those of voting age don't vote. In a society where our only absolute ability to participate is voting for representatives every two or four years, the process in which republicanism is rooted, almost half opt out, in large part because they no longer see or sense any connection between their own interests and the greater process. For that reason, winning a political campaign is often solely a matter of (temporarily) motivating a greater number of the disenfranchised and disaffected.

As Richard Feynman said of the cold inflexibility of the shuttle booster o-rings in the Challenger accident hearings, "I think this has some bearing on our problem."

We ignore the complexity in society at our peril, but, it's understandable that we do. Most of us aren't wired to take in the enormous number of permutations of interactions in a society of three hundred-odd million people. Our tendency is to arbitrarily reduce complexity to a simpler set of rules that we can understand. That's what the two major political parties do, and yet, that's precisely the reason why so many people are effectively excluded from the political process. Over time, those two parties have learned how to manipulate the arbitrary limitations they've created, out of self-interest. For example, the two parties, about twenty years ago, successfully wrenched the campaign debates from the League of Women Voters, thus ending any opportunity for third-party candidates to obtain national exposure, name recognition and presentation of issues. Likewise, the two parties at the state level have created primary election rules that have successfully marginalized candidates not beholden to the two parties. In a sense, machine politics is an outgrowth of the human inability to understand and respond to complexity, and the human tendency to take advantage of it.

So, perhaps, a better understanding of societal complexity is a good starting point. How that is done is beyond my ken, but, maybe some of the principles of chaos theory and the theory of complex natural systems can be adapted and applied to understand similarly complex interactions in society.

More practically, maybe the process of representation has been over-simplified and is now manipulated to concentrate power. For example, the number of representatives has remained static since the turn of the last century. This may have been done to avoid running out of work space in the main assembly of the national legislature, the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., but, the actual net effect has been to further distance legislators from their constituents, making them less likely to be responsive to constituents' demands, more likely to restrict access to campaign contributors, more likely to endorse campaign finance law which facilitates meeting the huge costs of television and radio advertising (which are now virtually the only ways of reaching voters in very large districts), and more inclined to engage in the sort of gerrymandering that distorts representation to protect individual and party power.

Most importantly, it increases the complexity with which each legislator must deal in what is a finite and fixed period of time, while at the same time requiring the legislator to spend more and more time on fundraising. In the context of the ills that decision has spawned, the notion of maintaining the Capitol Building for iconic, symbolic purposes, or simply for the sake of not overcrowding available floor space, seems arbitrary indeed and antithetical to the spirit of representative democracy, the core tenet of republicanism. Around the time that the country was founded, the House of Representatives had one member for, roughly, each 40,000 people. Today, in a vastly more complex society, each representative serves, on average, about 700,000 citizens.

The response to this feature of complexity, therefore, ought to be more representation, not less. The only likely way to achieve that is through a Constitutional Convention, the invocation of which is quite another political problem.

More on Spocko's question later....


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