Posted by: George | January 6, 2017

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 3

     Because when once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve, but also will generally be appointed to manage it; for, although town or country, or other contracted influence, may place men in State assemblies, or senates, or courts of justice, or executive departments, yet more general and extensive reputation for talents and other qualifications will be necessary to recommend men to offices under the national government—especially as it will have the widest field of choice, and never experience that want of proper persons which is not uncommon in some of the States.

    John Jay, The Federalist Papers, No. 3

In No. 3, John Jay wrote that a stronger central government, the kind in the proposed constitution, would prevent unnecessary wars. His argument was, in part, that state governments often have trouble finding competent citizens to serve in key positions; the federal government, on the other hand, would naturally attract the “best men” across the thirteen states. These “best men” would be less likely to make bad decisions and be swayed by local issues. They would, thus, be more likely to keep us out of bad wars.

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In 1787, Jay’s claim—that the “best men” would rush to serve in the national government, for the benefit of the entire country—seemed reasonable. Self-evident, even. After the extended and torturous 2016 election, Jay’s claim is a little hard to accept. Even with a much larger pool of potential candidates—we can now also look for the “best women”—we have come up with a comic hoard to run the country. How can they protect us from unnecessary wars?

Congress has the lowest approval rating in the history of modern polling. In March 2016, the approval rating for congress hit the all-time low of 4%. I don’t know for certain what the margin of error was for this poll, but it might have been around 4%, which means, at least conceivably, the actual approval rating might be closer to 0%. It is hard to believe that it could be so low, unless the number of “disapprovers” included the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, children, and fair-weather friends of pretty much every silly member of congress.

In the presidential election, the country also set records. At just about any point in the election process, the unfavorables for Trump and Clinton exceeded the favorables. Many, maybe most, Americans voted against one of these candidates. Many chose to not vote at all.

How have we gotten to the point where our national politicians are perceived as being a basketful full of deplorables? I write perceived as being because polls about “favorables” are  about, to state the obvious, perceptions.

Just maybe, just possibility, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be qualitatively different when judged by the whatever abstract code of ethics you might want to choose than Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, both of whom showed their darker selves in elections, especially when they were running against each other. But we revere Thomas and John, and we think Donald and Hillary are sadly flawed.

Here’s what I think is going on. We are moving too fast and skimming across the surface. We have multiple 24/7 news channels and Twitter and Facebook and fake news. There is substance, but it’s hard to find.

Time is accelerating. Even the pace of symphonies is accelerating. We are exposed to more media. So, we bound across the surface of information. The only messages that resonate are the ones that reinforce our current beliefs.

This is why, at least in part, the Clinton email scandal would not go away. Clinton kept saying, It’s complicated. Citizens of our great country, who skimmed across the surface of Clinton’s attempts to explain her server, tended to think that complicated is a synonym for lie.

A few days before the election, as I was driving home from my night class, I listened to an NPR story about the Clinton email scandal. The reporters (didn’t catch their names, I was driving at the time) had actually read the FBI report that (more or less) said Clinton had been careless but not criminal. I watch a lot of television news. I read newspaper stories online. I had never heard the information presented in that radio show.

I heard all kinds of interesting little tidbits. Until Colin Powell was Secretary of State, the State Department was basically a scribal institution in a digital age. Powell not only bought computers—as lot of them—but he also checked, personally, to make sure the computers were being used. When he visited embassies around the world, he would sit at computers, login, and make sure someone there, in that embassy, had been done something—anything—on it.

Hillary Clinton might very well be the most qualified person to run for present in a long time, but she is an alien in cyber space. The NPR story claimed that she doesn’t even know how to use a desktop. Colin Powell attempted to move the State Department into the digital age; Hillary Clinton asked her staff to find her a “new” BlackBerry phone that was like her old one. The model was no longer being made, so her staff had to buy a used one on eBay.

Clinton and her staff were basically clueless to the subtleties of the digital age. They didn’t collude to hide emails on a server, which had already been in the basement of the Clinton’s home. They were all, I repeat, clueless. They weren’t smart enough (in terms of technology) to hide anything.

As I was listening to this radio show, I was thinking, The email scandal actually was complicated. Why wasn’t this reported more widely, more substantially? All of the pundits (insert your own dose of irony here) on 24/7 news channels commented at length on Hillary’s email server. How many of them read even a portion of the FBI report? Why wasn’t this kind of information part of our national debate during the election?

It’s because, in our mass media digital society,  complex, subtle, informed analysis (slow analysis) will always be trumped (pun intended) by 140 characters (fast responses).

That’s what has changed since 1787 when John Jay wrote Federalist No. 3. That is why smart, competent, normal people are reluctant to run for office.

So, let’s slow down. Read an FBI report or two. Read a book. Listen to some NPR. Heck, come along with me, let’s read The Federalist Papers together.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers. 

I also invite you to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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