Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Genius of America

In The Genius of America, Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes argue that a large part of America's success has been on a "Constitutional Conscience" and that since the Carter Administration this Conscience has weakened to the point of collapse.

This Conscience arose at the Constitutional Convention when James Madison and others crafted a series of compromises meant to protect the views and interests of both minority and majority viewpoints. The series of checks and balances and the belief in the political process as a means of solving problems kept the country growing and developing as well as laying the groundwork for the expansion of rights. The idea developed is that means are equal in importance to the ends, as policy that is crafted quickly and without care is very often worse than no policy at all (see, for example, Iraq.)

The first half of the book is of greatest value to those without a political science/government background, but the second is where the book shines.In the latter half, the authors identify a trend towards trying to circumvent the political process through a variety of means whether fully illegal like Ollie North, or legal like the use of propositions and referendums. The latter is pernicious because it requires only a straight vote of participants, and normally not even a majority of voters. And you can bet that few voters will go beyond the insipid TV ads meant to drive votes. A law on the other hand must survive committees in both houses and then votes in both houses. And there are trained professionals, the staff, who make sure that the interests and values they support are considered in the law.

In the Bush 43 years, we have the added problem of an rapacious executive branch grabbing as much power as possible and a Congress cowering and kowtowing like a weak spouse desperate to avoid a beating. The traditional role of oversight is finally re-emerging with the likes of Henry Waxman, but it will take more than that to revive the idea of the Conscience.

The authors do not deeply probe into how to fix it, but they do identify a problem at the education level. It's not immediately obvious than the means matter as much as the ends, especially to our impatient populace, but it is worth investing in understanding. It would also help if our popular historians moved to describe systemic issues as well as personal ones.

The authors will have a live chat with Larry Sabato today at 3PM EST on the Washington Post.

No comments: