Tom Friedman and the Founding Fathers

Sandy Levinson lets Thomas Friedman have it:

I don’t always agree with Friedman, but I think he is smart and savvy. But note the tension in the two paragraphs. Paragraph one accurately describes the American system as “unique,” and it may even have been designed by “geniuses” in order to solve the problems they perceived in 1787 America. For example, James Madison loathed the principle of equal representation in the Senate, but he submitted to it as a necessary political compromise at the time. And, by the way, he didn’t really believe that it could be run by “idiots.” The best reading of Federalist 10 is that representative government would serve as a filtration system to select out the most public-spirited (in civic-republican language, “virtuous”) among us. For a variety of reasons, including the inability to predict the rise of the mass-based political party, that vision didn’t survive.

The second paragraph returns to the “broken government” trope that is a feature of this year’s campaign. But Friedman locates the “brokenness” in an almost inexplicable inability to “work together.” Nowhere is there any suggestion that the Constitution, designed by “geniuses” though it may be, may have played some role. It’s not only the multiple checks and balances and ambitions countering ambition; it’s also the fact that not a single member of Congress, except those running for the White House, has an incentive to think in terms of the “national interest” (assuming that term makes any real sense), since each and every one is a local official elected by a necessarily parochial local constituency. Thus the impact of angry constituents and their phone calls.


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