February 3, 2010

"[T]echnology has subverted the original idea of America."

Says Robert Wright:
The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy — in which citizens vote on every issue — in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.
Yes, one wonders what the Framers might have thought of free speech.


Awesome said...

Robert Wright is such an anemic ninny. If he's for it, I'm agin' it!

Balfegor said...

Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.

You could say as well that technology has enabled despotic enforcement mechanisms that would have been unthinkable to the Framers. Or rather, "despotic" in their frame of reference. After all, they thought a modest tax on tea was sufficiently despotic to start a bloody revolution over. Their tolerance for that kind of thing was quite low.

Bob_R said...

Yawn. The eighteenth century was different than today. Our current government is very different than the framers imagined. Fortunately, they were both lucky and smart. The smart part was setting up a very limited constitution guaranteeing a small set of negative rights that were fundamental enough to be sustained through massive change. The lucky part was designing a power structure that has been able to govern a continent size government for 200 years. The wonder isn't that things have fundamentally changed, but that the same structure works at all.

rhhardin said...

The technological change was the news biz soap opera audience coupled with women's suffrage.

A large audience eager for soap opera narratives.

Balfegor said...

A large audience eager for soap opera narratives.

But tell me -- is Little Nell dead?

littlebeartoe said...

Wright's notion of "the idea" behind America's republic is interesting, but unfounded. The main idea was representation, not insulation. In 1789, direct democracy was simply unfeasible. Yes, the founding fathers hoped and argued that the electorate would send their best and brightest to Congress, but the notion that they hoped Washington would be some kind of elite class that knew better than the citizenry is not supported by any review of what those supporters of the Constitution actually wrote and said.

Angst said...

I could not read Bob's article to its conclusion.

However, was it a prequel to his announcing the demise of bloggingheads.tv?

CAA said...

I don't think the Founders were all that keen on free speech/free press. Wasn't it many of the same Founders who helped enact the First Amendment also enacted the Sedition Act under John Adams? Wasn't censorship alive and well in the states during and after the passage of the First Amendment?

Bushman of the Kohlrabi said...

This wasn't a problem when Bush was president. Why is life so unfair to Barack?

Florida said...

".. and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation."

All you liberals need to listen up, because it's not "the Internet vs. Barack Obama." The internet can't vote. People vote:

This is the most dangerous sort of commentary that is being expressed on the left today ... this idea that legislators should foist upon us that which they, at a safe remove from our influence and passion, decide is best for us.

Listen here: We simply aren't going to accept that shit. So Robert Wright needs to understand ... and all you liberals need to understand ... that you govern us at our fucking pleasure.

The moment you are no longer representing our interests is the moment you lose all usefulness to us.

If you then insist upon foisting upon us that which you ... safely removed from us ... decide is best for us - is the moment that there will be blood.

There will be blood.

Synova said...

"Could we give Barack Obama a break?"

Well, no.

But it is sort of nice that a different set of people has suddenly discovered the virtues of a Republic.

Still, that's the reason not to give Obama a break. He's pushed the notion of direct democracy at home (with his initial "direct to the people" appeals working through organizing for america and getting people to sign pledges to support him personally) and overseas (with his "hey, the people voted for Chavez, and if the people vote for Zelaya, who cares that the election would violate the constitution?)

So no, Obama doesn't get a break.

Still and all... I'm all for people discovering all of the ways that a Republic works to buffer the excesses inherent in Democracy.

Synova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

Repeal the 17th amendment and require only state legislatures to appoint senators and we solve part of the problem. (It also gets rid of campaign finance issues for the senate.)

In the end, though, politicians at the national level have done more to subvert the original idea of America than technology. American government was supposed to be limited; Congress wasn't meant to regulate everything. (I wonder if Wright also complains about how obstructionist our congressional system is without realizing that Madison designed it that way very intentionally. While may complain that Congress moves too slow, I complain that it doesn't move slow enough.)

Balfegor said...

There will be blood.

Ye-es, thank you Thomas Jefferson.

Julius Ray Hoffman said...

Let me summarize Wright's piece thus:


The job of the President – any President – is to get people behind him if he wants to get stuff done. He needs to make his case to legislators and to explain himself to the public at large. You do this by leading.

An American leader fails to live up to his promises and... Oh no it can't possibly be his own fault! He couldn't have made promises that were too big! He couldn't have failed in making the case for what he wants to do! The blame must lie somewhere else.

So an Obstruction 1.0 is invented. Then the writer concocts the idea of Obstruction 2.0 to show how the new environment is even worse than it was before – this time the difficulties really are soooooo much different. Then put in Obstruction 3.0 for good measure and a nice whiny dramatic effect.

But I'm not going to buy it, Asshole Bob! The difficulties Obama faces are of the same sort that every single one of his predecessors faced – a skeptical public that, at the same time, thirsts for leadership. Technology can help a leader in his leadership tasks, or it can hinder it, and part of modern leadership is knowing how to put technological things to use in ways that are morally right and just and good for everyone. The fact that Obama failed in using technology after he got into office just underscores how much his overall leadership has failed.

Not that Republicans would be any different. You could say, in fact, that both sides are just participating in the great American Show, and don't really give a hoot about good old fashioned leadership. And so America is left sad, and uninspired.

Joe said...

One more thing; one area where technology has had a horribly negative influence is in its ability to make gerrymandering so precise. While this makes a congressperson's seat more secure, it also make them beholden to a specific group and does more to harm the ideal of representational democracy.

And, once again, why are liberals so afraid of free speech?

Hoosier Daddy said...

The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation.

Hmmmm. Maybe I'm reading too much into this but it sounds like Wright is saying the original representatives of the people removed themselves from the potential contamination of those proles whose ‘narrow interests’ they were elected to represent and to go ahead and pass legislation that they knew was in the proles best interest.

I wonder if tools like Wright even know how elitist they sound when they write this tripe because it sounds whole helluva lot like Wright wants a parliamentary monarchy.

traditionalguy said...

Wright has his head up his ass as usual. The telegraph and the Railroads had already done that trick by 1840, and then the Movies/newsreels and radio came along to finish it by 1930. Wright has created a phony meme to say something profound, but he has only displayed ignorance of history. Does he mean that the communicatios of speech can now go unfiltered over the internet? Maybe that is a temporary phenomena, until the Rulers everywhere figure out how to make it illegal like it is in China.

Henry said...

The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation.

Good god, this sounds like John Adams complaining about William Duane. I regret the death of the Federalist ideal, but that corpse is nothing but dust now.

Synova said...

"Wright's notion of "the idea" behind America's republic is interesting, but unfounded. The main idea was representation, not insulation. In 1789, direct democracy was simply unfeasible. "

It was representation and insulation. And I don't believe for a moment that the insulation part was simply a reality of travel and communication times.

Too much of our government was set up to *insulate*. The three branches of government, for example. Or the fact of the House and Senate, breaking one of those branches into two. If the House could be directly elected, why not the Senate? Yet the Senate was initially set up to be seated at one more remove from the people. And the House and Senate was also set up to *insulate* against majority rule with the "big state - small state" balance, so that the majority would not have absolute power over the minority.

Which brings us to the Constitution itself, which is all about keeping majority rule in check.

Rule by the people and for the people, oh absolutely. But the founders and the writers of the constitution didn't think that "the people" or any people at all were without vice or without the need to dominate others or didn't need to be kept in check.

The representative part of our government was not set up merely because it was difficult to collect and count votes.

RueMom said...

Technology has subverted the original idea of America??????? I think that politicians have subverted the original idea of America!!!!! Grrrr...

Monkeyboy said...

If they have our long term interests at heart, and no them better than we do, why let the stupid, teeming masses vote against their better interests (and their betters?)

Sound like we need a House of Lords. Those guys knew how to think long term.

Joe said...

Wright completely fails to respect that the early federal government did far less by design (a design perverted by politicians of all strips.) Their job was to decide important issues of truly national import. Of course he doesn't want that; how dare Utah do something different than California! How dare my school district actually decide how my kids are taught based on feedback from parents and not Artie Duncan.

The Crack Emcee said...

I've asked before why Ann has done those Bloggingheads with this guy, he's a fool who can talk a lot.

BTW - tommorow, I'm planning on blogging all day - all day - and crowing about all the wonderful things that are happening. I think we've reached a tipping point, y'all:

Things are going our way!!!

ricpic said...

But an insulation against the popular will has been created that the founders never imagined -- a massive permanent unelected bureaucracy which has its own agenda, the public be damned.

rhhardin said...

Wright is good on Blogging Heads.

Look for the sense of humor, is always my rule.

Take Obama as a test case.

wv: adcatist, argument by disparaging cats (classically, by appealing to cats)

Lem said...

Is this the same Robert Wright that complained about the cozy relationship btwing lobbyist and representatives?

Does he really think that less sunshine is a better disinfectant?

I doubt that the founders though of themselves as angels custodians of posterity.

Federalist Papers #51

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary...

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions

Richard Dolan said...

Wright's thesis doesn't fit well with the historical facts. The technology of the early Republic was well able to generate "the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions," and Congressmen got the message.

For example, in his recent Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2009), Gordon Wood recounts the Congressional election of 1816 (at pp. 718-21), in which 70% of incumbents were voted out of office. Their offense had been to vote for an increase in Congressional per diem rates, which had the effect of doubling Congressional pay.

When a few journalists figured it out, the press of the day whipped up a bipartisan frenzy. Thomas Jefferson joined the fray, arguing that the "drudgery" of office and the bare "subsistence" provided for officerholders in a republic were "a wise & necessary precaution against the degeneracy of the public servants."

Professor Wood concludes that "[t]he issue marked an important point of transformation in American politics." He quotes the Republican National Intelligencer, declaring that the election was a was "productive good ... in so far as it has been the means of teaching the Representatives of the people a lesson of accountability, which will not be soon forgotten." Professor Woods notes that the 1816 election made it clear to practical politicians that, henceforth, they would be losers if they projected the aristocratic disdain for the ordinary man that had characterized many of the players in the 1787 constitutional convention.

Even when information traveled no faster than a horse, Wright's thesis is hard to credit against the reality of American politics.

Rialby said...

Funny, here I thought Robert Wright was a DEMOcrat not a REPUBLICan. I guess that's only relevant when the masses do something silly like elect a community organizer as POTUS.

MikeDC said...

Wright's point is so contextualized within his desire for more Democratic policy successes that he ignores the (more likely) possibility his point works against him.

That is, he assumes our "ephemeral passions" might prevent health care reform by sober, detached rulers.

I assume the desire for the government to (further) take over management of our health is itself the ephemeral passion.

It's a nice thought, but after consideration, the sober, detached rulers (us) have concluded it sucks ass.

SMGalbraith said...

The technological development that subverted American democracy the most was air conditioning.

Before it came along, Congress would meet for just half the year since it was too humid and hot to stay in Washington.

Actuall if we want to reduce the influence of factions and the people, cut down the role of the central government in our lives. If they're not influencing so much of people's affairs, the affairs of the people will not focus on the government.

Yeah, I know - fat chance.

Lem said...

This generation of political technology — Special Interest 2.0 — has made Obama’s job a lot harder.

The horror, the horror..

Marlon Brando - Apocalypse Now.

El Pollo Real said...

"All Local Politics Is National"

Beth said...

Isn't this the same question as Do we want Obama doing Question Time? Is the answer the same, yay for free speech?

LonewackoDotCom said...

Here's a listing of several recent failures of direct democracy in a certain area.

Allowing regular citizens to submit and vote up questions sounds good, until you realize what happens: it allows politicians to skate as they're only asked the weakest questions.

For a tangible example that I haven't yet discussed, consider the top Teaparty imm. plank: link. There version of direct democracy has put that question at the top of that field with 607 votes, despite the fact that it could be a satire.

We need specialists and elites, we just need to hold them accountable and make sure they're working for us and not just themselves.

DADvocate said...

The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation.

Same thoughts as littlebeartoe on this. The logistics of a true democracy in the 18th century were undoable. As far as narrow interests, they've been around since the beginning.

Our current legislators are more insulated than our founders ever imagined being. Security guards on buildings, all sorts of personal security, etc.

Wright is truly an idiot on this subject.

Lem said...

It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America.

If Robert Wright really believed that why did he help create Bloggingheads?

Is Robert Wright resigning.

SMGalbraith said...

I think Wright has the better half - if not 2/3s - of the argument. Think of public choice theory married with modern means of communication and organizing.

But this does smack of frustration with the rejection by the public of Obama's liberal agenda.

Ye olde 'Liberalism doesn't fail the people; the people fail liberalism'.

Hunter McDaniel said...

Here's where I think Wright is on the right track. Technology has made it practical to write an 1800 page bill, with whole sections written and supplied by interest groups, and then to add 200 page amendments the night before consideration.

It is the developers of WordPerfect and MS Word who have subverted democracy.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I think the issue is that the Founders envisioned and experienced that when the legislators went HOME to their constituents that they would more closely connected to them and would be able to listen to the voters. By being more closely connected by sheer virtue of the fact that there were just not that many people they could then come back to Congress and legislate in the best interests of their own voters.

Instead today, our rulers...I mean legislators, hide from their constituency and pander to special interests. The Congress critters are not in the least interested in hearing from their voters and make laws based on their own personal hobby horse vendettas and of course to benefit their OWN pockets.

Technology, in the form of the internet and emails, has actually brought the vision of the Founders back into a reality. The Congressmen and women can't connect with the numbers of constituents as they could in the past. The PEOPLE are now able to get their voices hear (we hope) by technology.

I think the Founders would be impressed by the free speech that the common man has today compared to the cumbersome methods in their times.

paul a'barge said...

Um, ok am I going to be the first person to point out that Wright is a Luddite?

Do these people have no sense of shame at the stupidity they broadcast when they open their mouths and start typing at their keyboard?

Where is Rahm Emanuel when you need his pointed commentary, eh?

Lem said...

By Robert Wright's logic it's the SUV (not the driver) ultimately responsible for road safety.

Nevermind that the science shows people are safer in SUVs.

Reject the technology people use to do something you dont like. Even if you yourself drive it?

Robert Wright is a phoney ;)

Lem said...

I think the Founders would be impressed by the free speech that the common man has today compared to the cumbersome methods in their times.

I think they would be.

Tea Party Star Leads Movement On Her Own Terms

rcocean said...

"Postscript: I run a Web site — Bloggingheads.tv — that aims to transcend the balkanizing tendencies of the Internet by hosting video dialogs that feature an ideologically diverse array of commentators."

I found this amusing. Yes, 'diverse' BHTV - where somewhat apolitical, Obama-voter, Althouse is the "Right-wing". And where McWhorter was banished for talking to a critic of Darwin.

rcocean said...

Lefties are only for "The people" when the "The people" support the lefties.

avwh said...

"Lefties are only for "The people" when the "The people" support the lefties."

And not always even then. Wright's argument sounds like the systemic or structural version of Edwards disclosure in microcosm: "I know I'm supposed to be the people's senator, but do I HAVE to actually mix with them and eat that horrid food? They're fat & gross!"

Lem said...

Doesn't the left support the idea of an "evolving constitution"..

Has Robert Wright gone off the reservation?

Is Robert Wright a crypto-neoFederalist?

AJ Lynch said...

OT a bit, but i'd hate to be a kid today. You are permanently connected to your parents and all your friends. Fewer surprises [you know who is at a party before you get there] and fewer mysteries [where were you last night?].

Many of these things have been disrupted by technology.

Shanna_B said...

i think it is safe to say not one of the founders feared elections and the inevitable rebuke of the public,which is why the say vigorously argue their positions in public and on paper

John Stodder said...

Wow. That Wright article is just breathtakingly dumb! He's another John Kerry: Looks way smarter than he actually is, so he gets credit for intellectual firepower he doesn't deserve.

The Founders also didn't like political parties, Bob. Without political parties, you wouldn't have a Pelosi forcing representatives of her party to vote for a bill they had misgivings about. The speaker would have a completely different role, far less powerful.

The founders also didn't envision an American populace that would become, in essence, clients of the federal government. The decisions undertaken back then were far less about taking money from one group of people and giving it to another group in the form of services or cash. If you're going to tax people this heavily on the one hand, and offer up myriad opportunities for people to get their hands on some form of federal bounty on the other, then damn straight you're going to see a lot more people who want to influence the process. Given the powers of the federal government at this moment in history but remove freedom of the press, freedom of expression -- it would be indistinguishable from tyranny. Leveraging of public opinion is virtually all we mere proles have. And Wright wants state elections, polls and the unregulated speech of the Internet to be ignored by our elected leaders? My God. You'd never be able to stop them.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Looks way smarter than he actually is, so he gets credit for intellectual firepower he doesn't deserve."

Dude, that's been the story of our country's "intellectual class" for far, far too long.

That, and a general unwillingness to let anyone who doesn't share their outlook enter the conversation,...

John Lynch said...

Funny how they get all originalist when it's convenient.

The Crack Emcee said...

Thomas Sowell:

Interviewer: What would you say to the intellectuals in Obama's cabinet if invited to give your opinion?

Sowell: Goodbye.

He went on to say the reason he wouldn't talk to them is because they don't want to hear his opinion since there'd be no incentive (financial or even of the back-slapping kind) for them to listen to them.

The idea that anyone else, including the country, may benefit just isn't one of their concerns.

Pogo said...

@Crack: "Dude, that's been the story of our country's "intellectual class" for far, far too long."

WF Buckley's musing that he'd "rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." continues to ring true.

Kirk Parker said...

"70% of incumbents were voted out of office"

Be still, my beating heart!

Also love the Jefferson quote.

wv: 'faster'. (Please, is Michael Ledeen running the tech staff at PJM now?)

Richard Dolan said...

Lots of folks here just want to diss Wright, evidently because his politics are different from theirs. While I don't share his politics either, Wright is a very smart fellow, and often has interesting things to say. Here, he starts with a thesis (technology has advanced in ways no one could have imagined in 1800) and a proposition (advanced technology has radically changed how life is lived) that, as generalities, are unremarkable. Things go off track when he uses them to make large historical judgments about how technology has supposedly up-ended the relationship between voter and representative.

Here as elsewhere a page of history is worth much more than a lot of abstract noodling, which in the end is what Wright has to offer. Earlier in the comments, I quoted Gordon Wood's history of the 1816 elections to suggset that Wright's thesis, though not implausable in the abstract, doesn't fit well with the historical facts.

But I just don't get the vitriol.

Pogo said...

"But I just don't get the vitriol."

It's based on the unspoken but understood conclusion of Wright's argument, that the state needs greater power because the citizens are stupid and selfish and don't know what's good for them.

And that has always been the left's conclusion of every thought they have ever had about US politics. They need to be in charge and that's that.

So the mere whiff of that kind of bullshit talk gets my dander up.

MikeDC said...

The vitriol is due to the misuse and mismeasure of intelligence.

Thinking up a novel and interesting point, even a mistaken one, and rather than rising above the fray, using it in a venal manner.

Kirk Parker said...

Oops, I mean Blogger of course!

Trooper York said...

Bob Wright has always had a problem with technology!

Trooper York said...

And his site Boring Heads is one of the most consistently soporific sites to be found this side of a soothing sound machine at a day spa.

Tiger Woods should have listen to the Boring Heads instead of abusing Ambien.

Trooper York said...

But old Bob is known for one thing in his writings of which he is the master!

We need him on the internets.

It helps with the curve.

PatCA said...

Yes, Robert, if only the bitter clingers would leave governance up to their betters in Washington! Or better yet, as in Beijing.

The Crack Emcee said...


My viterol is based on the fact that, whether I understand the topic at hand or not, I have a bullshit detector that's spot-on, and I hate to be bullshitted. (I know nothing about climate change/global warming either, but the idea that we have to do something - now - for a potential disaster 100 years from now - based on the word of people I don't trust to begin with, is so bogus any five year old could've seen through it.) Bob Wright's politics don't even come into it.

You say his ideas, here, are unremarkable, go off track, and end in abstract noodling - that makes him a very smart fellow? How?

rcocean said...

"Lots of folks here just want to diss Wright, evidently because his politics are different from theirs. While I don't share his politics either, Wright is a very smart fellow, and often has interesting things to say"

First, Bob MAY say interesting things, but never about politics. He's basically a hardcore liberal democrat who rarely strays from the party line. Secondly, people didn't "diss" Bob because "their politics differ" but because Wright's knowledge of American history is crap and he's misusing it to support elitism. Said 'Elitism' being supported by Wright because the Democrat's control all 3 branches.

Bob was all for 'the people' talking to Congress when the Republicans were in charge 2005-2006.

pst314 said...

I think Robert Wright is just nostalgic for the good old days when (mostly liberal) media elites could control what news was reported and how it was spun.

gbarto said...

I believe the founders wanted our government insulated from acting on behalf of the popular passions. The idea was not that an isolated government would defy the will of the people, but that a limited government would refrain from imposing it.

Let's look at just two of the ways our government is limited:

1) Only the House can originate spending bills; both the Senate and the President can kill them.

2) Even if the President wants to declare war, first he needs authorization to do so and then he needs the legislative branch to approve the money for it.

Our founding fathers weren't just insulating government from popular passions; they were also insulating the people from the power of the government.

Wright says: Over the past half century, technological evolution has made it progressively harder to get big things done in this country, and now it’s just about impossible.. To read this, you would think that we had a strong central government directing the energies of the people toward some great and noble purpose until television went and spoiled the whole thing. But with the exception of the Civil War, the reality is that only in the era of Mass Media - Roosevelt on the radio, Kennedy and Reagan on television - has it been possible to get the whole country thinking about the same thing at the same time and to harness the popular will to things of which the founding fathers could not have conceived.

What's breaking Bob's heart is that he can't be the next Walter Cronkite and Obama can't be the next JFK because this here internet gets more than three channels and so the Republic is able once again to revert to an earlier era where people interest themselves in their local communities - only now those communities are virtual, as well as real. What's more, even if you want to get us to tune into our television sets to find out the "big things" that government can do for us, you won't find Kennedy facing down Kruschev and promising us a man on the moon. No, you'll find Obama scrapping the space program and boasting that the government did a swell job of reading the Underwear Bomber his rights after the citizens' militia (which he doesn't believe in) arrested the bastard.

Maguro said...

Diss? What are we, 15 year-old wannabe gangbangers?

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

Yes, one wonders what the Framers might have thought of free speech.

Or for that matter, cheap speech.