Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Danielle Allen 2.0--The Polis or the Party?

Princeton professor Danielle Allen—see Peter Schramm’s post below--fears that the Founders’ achievement can more readily be overthrown today than at any time in our history: majority faction, Madison’s great enemy in Federalist 10, is more readily attainable now than before, with the Internet “enabling much more effective factional organization than the Founders could have imagined.” But the Internet makes possible the contrary possibility, a kind of best regime. We need to appreciate Allen’s point by noting her reliance on Madison that underlies her speculation about the Internet. Her bold proposal suggests restoring features of the ancient polis and thus give logos, reasoned speech, a greater force in politics than has ever existed.

Even before the Internet a factionalized Congress was behaving in the way Allen fears. Congress has rejected its primary Madisonian role as reconciler (and therefore destroyer) of factions and instead becomes the conduit for each faction getting its own way. If former Speaker Gingrich had been smarter, this is what he would have made his primary object of reform. But he and his predecessors merely attempted to game this system and use it to extend their own majority while using pro-Founding and anti-faction rhetoric. The scheme worked remarkably well for three elections but stalled in 2006 and crashed in 2008.

With Obama’s success in using the Internet (one she contributed to, it should be added), Allen would like “to remake the tools of factional organization as instruments of broad, cross-partisan and respectful public engagement.” However, “the Obama team’s digital network could well become nothing more than an outsized, 21st-century version of a ward machine. If it can be done, it could restore a richer experience of citizenship."

But “ward machine” and patriotic citizen politics are not incompatible (see Plunkitt of Tammany Hall). Whether “team” Obama acts to link both aims is an open question. Like the Republicans in Congress they may well decide to run up the score against hapless Republicans by using their expanded power, thus confirming Madison in his fears.

As many of us who have taught before the Internet age have noted, students today may read a lot of news, but it is news they choose, thus building their own caves around them rather than acquiring means of recognizing their caves for what they are. Human ingenuity turns out to be the basis of a profounder human bondage. Instead of the best of the polis we get a smothering soft despotism, which may be the prelude to a harsher one.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Ward politics contributes to citizenship if there is some way to "refine and enlarge" the views of the ward; e.g., representation for limited terms. Does the internet provide a space for deliberation in the way that a constitutional representative body putatively does?

The Senate encourages such deliberation with its different constituency and terms of office--among other things. The internet with its wiki format provides many points of view from any and every spot--but does it provide different bases for the same power, i.e., different constituencies deliberating about the same ends/laws? Instead, I think it offers a free for all with no end in sight.

So people will choose Huffington Post or Matt Drudge (I didn't realize Drudge was such a right winger since I usually use his site to read the Nation). But why wouldn't they choose ZNet--or for that matter the eminently reasonable No Left Turns! In such a way internet users build a cave--but in actuality they build nothing but what is already there. In this way, they are a simplistic literary critics who have no sense that an image is an image.

Luckily the internet can't prevent its users from having a moment of reflection, and thereby seeing themselves as internet users. One can recognize the inadequacy of what one reads on the internet, but it is true that it is easy and comforting to be able to arrange the images of the internet in the order that one wants to see them.

Political deliberation on the internet is difficult at best. However, in spite of Prof. Allen's claim that left and right have found parity on the internet--her thesis points toward the right making gains during an Obama administration. Internet technolgy will outgrow the Obama administration, and I suspect critics of Obama will be on the forefront of such change--unless there is some sort of glass ceiling to internet communication.

Nonetheless, does any of this this make for soft despotism, or does it make for the beginnings of the confusion, disorder, and injustice in the public offices Federalist no. 10 regards as the danger of faction? I think it is simply techno-euphoro-utopianism to think that Obama can get whatever he wants through text messaging (especially if it is interactive--think of all the kooks who call into C-SPAN talk shows--I'm sure y'all are saying the same of me!).

In other words--I wonder if this situation is not the cause but rather the effect of soft despotism. Or--even worse--is soft despotism what is needed to ameliorate the dangers of faction?

Federalist 10 was incoherent nonsense. In the name of defeating "faction" Madison enouraged increased factionalism. Fast forward to todays America's Tower of Babel to see the very predictable outcome of such thinking. Not reduced power for government, but greatly increased power.

It's not as if "divide and conquer" was an unknown concept in the late 18th century. Madison is the most overrated of the Founders.

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