originally published on April 9th, 2007 on FaceTheCrisis.com

Republished as an essay in “rebooting america” edited by Allison H. Fine, Micah L. Sifry, Andrew Rasiej, & Josh LevyPersonal Democracy Press; 1st Edition (September 1, 2008)

Saving America from Its 18th Century Political System

We want to share with you what we believe is the most pressing problem facing our country: the meltdown of our 18th Century political system.

It is not easy to watch the American media culture (from progressive to hard right) being totally sold on the idea of one president for 300 million people, as though the presidency is still fit to human scale. The only issue at hand seems to be which individual is best suited for this task.

It is also difficult to observe the best political writers blaming Bush’s White House for shredding the Constitution when much of the cause has been the inertia of political decay from decades past. Jefferson warned that this is what would happen unless the Constitution was updated, totally rewritten, every few decades. But the Constitution remains virtually unmodified from its inception — we’ve added only a handful of amendments.

And as the politics have stayed the same, everything else has raced ahead. We have gone way past ourselves — science and technology move society with increasing speed, and we are left with a primitive political system to deal with the modern world.

Looking around — at the unfathomable numbers in the national debt and deficit; at the way that the federal government was physically unable to respond to Hurricane Katrina; at its inability to change energy and environmental policy — the only solution we see at this point is that the political system itself must be radically updated. Otherwise we can watch the state continue to fold in on itself, stripping rights and freedoms, becoming more inept and more corrupt to survive.

Quotes like this one from GOP Senator Judd Gregg, Chair of the Budget Committee, talking about the government’s fiscal year for 2006 make it clear: “It’s hard to understand what a trillion is. I don’t know what it is.” That is what he said hours after shepherding a $2.8 trillion budget through the Senate.

It is not fair to expect anyone to understand what a trillion dollars is, or how to manage that kind of money in a democratic fashion. But our political system forces 535 Members of Congress and a president to navigate impossibly large issues, often thousands of miles away from their 300 million constituents. The inertia of this process is virtually unstoppable. Who is to say that we have the right number of representatives? Or that they should continue to physically live in Washington DC and pass their laws?

We are at a point where the idea of a political savior in the guise of a presidential candidate or congressional majority sounds downright scary. At the same time the writers and journalists of our era (across the ideological spectrum) are still completely sold on it. Here and there, tucked away in transcripts and op-eds are wisps and backhanded references, mostly gloomy, to our dying republic.

Former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote an article hinting at this in 2005 that “we’re at the end of something”:

“Let me focus for a minute on the presidency, another institution in trouble. In the past I have been impatient with the idea that it’s impossible now to be president, that it is impossible to run the government of the United States successfully or even competently. I always thought that was an excuse of losers. I’d seen a successful presidency up close. It can be done. But since 9/11, in the four years after that catastrophe, I have wondered if it hasn’t all gotten too big, too complicated, too crucial, too many-fronted, too . . . impossible. … It’s beyond, ‘The president is overwhelmed.’ The presidency is overwhelmed. The whole government is.”

The longer the state remains unchanged, the harder it becomes for it to enforce any laws other than those that protect itself. And that means that at some point, well-meaning politicians start passing laws and regulations that are meaningless. This is especially crucial because it means that the federal instrument and state governments are not equipped to adequately deal with on gigantic issues like the environment and energy reform. This phenomenon is already in action at the state level: California has passed a series of emissions laws (which is laudable) but the state is unable to enforce them in any meaningful way.

This is the real political crisis we face: a political system that is ineffectual, disconnected from the people, and feeding on itself to survive. We need the thinkers and leaders of our time to come out and “fess up” that our political culture has become unmanageable — crazy, in fact. Even with the best people in office holding the best of ideals, our political system dooms them. The system needs to be updated, becoming more distributed and vastly more democratic.

We need to talk about our collapsing political system. It is the only way we will find a solution. We need a public discourse, started by our leaders, to support and encourage emerging democratic efforts across the country. Americans are looking for political figures in Washington to affirm their beliefs about the dire state of our political culture — and to encourage them to re-imagine the Republic.

For a public figure of our day to embark on this path is to be regarded by the rest of the political class as at best a buffoon and at worst a threat. What makes it all the more embarrassing to go down this road is that the political class will expect a solution, when the only way to come up with a solution is to begin a national discussion.

The closest existing reform movements and campaigns that touch on this subject relate to campaign finance, the electoral college, run- off voting and the like, but none of these issues take on the entirety of the dangerously outdated culture of our political system. These reform efforts may even strengthen the fundamental architecture of our political system as they set the imaginative boundaries in the mainstream for what constitutes political reform.

It is worth wondering why there is not much political argument out there that goes after the fundamental precepts of our political culture — such as the suggestion that 300 million people sharing one president is itself a big problem. Looking around at the state of things, one would have guessed there would be a lot more demand for an examination of the fundamental mechanics of the system.

Instead, what is going on right now is that a large portion of the politically active element in society is expressing itself through the presidential format — two years before the election. Ten thousand people went to Barack Obama’s speech in Oakland in mid-March, one of many rallies he has held with an audience that size. The explanation available in the media for the huge attendance is that people are inspired by Obama’s appeal to “hope.” And the general explanation for the early interest in the presidential race is that there is no sitting incumbent, an unpopular war, and a defective president.

The truth is of course that 10,000 people are not coming to see Obama as much as the fact that going to see a presidential candidate speak for an hour is one of the few socially sanctioned ways to express your political concerns in this country (sending checks to candidates is another). That is the way that these 10,000 people “knew” how to practice their politics. Never mind that it is deeply inefficient to try to squeeze the issues facing 300 million citizens in this country into the bodies of 8 or 9 people in a two-year discussion before one of them has any real power: That is our political culture.

Until something is done to challenge the political culture, we will keep seeing citizens who want to change things using a tired vehicle, like a presidential candidate, or retreating with disaffection from the unreality of the political process.

A good way to start a challenge to the existing political culture is by having a series of conversations public figures that serve as ambassadors for various political and social viewpoints who would in turn communicate this perspective in their own ways to their audiences. Countless democratic efforts across the country would be emboldened when some of the voices in the national media and Washington confirm the discomfort with the state of the American political system. It would give Americans a resolve to try a different kind of politics where they live, in their communities.

We believe that it’s not too late to save the republic because we believe in the American mind. We believe that the American people can craft and invent a new political culture, with the institutions and systems to match, that take advantage of all of the technological and social advances of the last three centuries.

formerly of @LATimes & @Kennedy_School - author of The End of Big - lots more at http://nicco.org — Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.