Open letter to Americans about our politics

Dear people who complain:

There was never a golden age in American politics. If you despair at how depressing our politics are, recall that in 1800 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged in some of the nastiest PR campaigns against each other. Elections are about power, bringing the best and worst out of everyone who wants power, regardless of their motivation for wanting it.

While it is true that a singular nasty example doesn’t define the past, or the present, politics in a democracy is inherently frustrating. A government by and for the people includes your stupid neighbor, your weird cousin, the person with the religious beliefs you find absurd, everyone you stare at on the bus (or who stares at you), the people who own the company you work for and the ones begging for change on your way there. There is no way for a government by and for the people to function without forcing these diverse views, needs and desires into a dialog with each other. This is the system as it was intended to function. How much maturity and civility we bring to this inevitability is up to us to decide.

It’s really a miracle it works at all and for as long as it has. Part of why is a collective faith in the process and that everyone should get a chance to participate equally, even those we passionately disagree with. Power changes hands in this country with surprising frequency and civilized grace relative to the history of civilization and for all its horrors and disappointments it is still a wonder to behold.

A common refrain heard during election season is “voting is picking the lesser of two evils”, a jab at the disappointing quality of our candidates. This assumes we’ve historically had good ones, which, once you get past the 5 or 6 great presidents most American’s agree on, is increasingly disappointing the further you study it. And when people who make this complaint are asked personally if they would run for office, of any kind, they generally say “no way”. We know how undesirable life as a politician is, yet simultaneously we’re surprised by the low quality of the candidates we have. Yet these facts are directly related to each other.

We are not promised good candidates in the Constitution. Most of us invest little energy towards the process of picking candidates (which involves participating in a party months before an election), understanding how they’re chosen or even helping decide the winners in races:  58% of American’s voted in 2008. And that was just a vote, which takes only minutes: who knows how much time they invested in considering their choices. Complaints and apathy are dangerous bedfellows and we suffer both in great supply. If we are truly passionate, the system offers us countless local elections where our influence is far greater, and collectively, has far more impact on national elections that we tend to think.

I believe, more or less, we get the government we deserve. Paying close attention twice a decade isn’t paying much attention at all. We are an apathetic and divided nation and its those who are undecided the longest who curiously yield greater influence. And while voting is a right, there is far more to be gained in the long run by voting in the interest of the nation as a whole, which requires inquiring beyond the self serving echo chambers we love to pretend is the entirety of the world.

Sadly it’s only when things hit close enough to home that we start watching our representatives, senators, mayors and governors regularly, and participating at levels of government where our vote carries much more weight, where the kind of change we want is both deserved and possible.

Nothing is learned by throwing wrenches at the engine of an already struggling machine. Revolutions almost never succeed, a fact we deny since we are one of the few nations in history to be born from a successful one. It’s only by getting inside and dirtying our hands, or at least studying the system to see how it was designed to work, and was designed to be changed, that empty frustrations can be replaced by meaningful action. No matter how small those actions are, they have far more value to everyone than grandstanding, complaining or voting in protest.

Churchill wrote:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.


[Updated 10-31-16 – minor edits]

11 Responses to “Open letter to Americans about our politics”

  1. Pie

    Good post. For me, I pay attention year-round to politics, but that is mostly a consequence of living in DC. It is part of life from the people you socialize with to the local job market.

    My biggest issue these days isn’t the politicians. On average they are no worse or better than those before. It is their unwillingness to compromise. I miss Henry Clay, or to be more realistic, I miss Tip O’Neal and Reagan working together.

    To be honest, I blame the media more than anything. While the news has historically been slanted, the 24-hour focus on the politicians means that they can’t work towards compromise without weakening their support. Playing for the camera is becoming the work of the politicians.

    I think if we as a country could just realized that the members of the other party isn’t the enemy, then we have a shot.


    1. Scott Berkun

      Media is a business and they sell what people buy, or watch. I also think we get the media we deserve :) They have comprehensive metrics and know exactly what we are watching and what we don’t – when we stop watching “the bad”, they’ll stop putting it on very quickly.

      The problem with media is our antiquated notion that they have an interest in providing a public service. In the age of Edward R. Murrow, the networks respected that the airwaves were public and that news should be a public service, not a profit center. 60 minutes changed this forever by demonstrating news could be profitable, and the nature of news shifted dramatically towards entertainment, with the pretense of being a public service, which it isn’t.

      The film Network exemplifies this change very well – the core ideas of that movie are just as relevant today.

      1. Pie

        Love that movie. It actually captures my feeling very well. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

        Well aware that it is our fault. We as a populace watch those things which drive ratings which drive more of that content. It is a vicious cycle. It is a cycle we had before and only the negative results of “Yellow Journalism” made some journalists decide to break the cycle.

        The scary thing is that it seems that responsible journalism was a fad.


  2. Vanessa Howell

    Well said Scott. Growing up in South Africa I’m still amazed at little things like the former president stepping down to make way for the new one. There is a lot in the US system that works surprisingly well.

    Even for all the so-called divisiveness, the two parties are really very close. One party is full of old rich white guys who want to stay in power and get richer. The other party is full of mostly old rich white guys who want to stay in power and get richer.

    I believe the most important thing we as citizens can do is learn how to discuss politics with others in a constructive way. It starts when we put aside the rhetoric our favorite news station has fed to us, and explore issues with curiosity – seeking to understand rather than convince.

    It’s not easy, but it’s something everyone can do, and it has a ripple effect. I recently conducted an “experiment in political discourse” on Google+ ( – and was heartened to see that when guided people can put forward cogent and positive arguments for their policy positions without resorting to mud slinging.

  3. Phil Simon

    It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.

    One of my all-time favorite Churchill quotes.

  4. Ted Boren

    Great post — thanks Scott. I also think it’s important not to substitute political rancor for thought. Feeling passionate about your party and posting every day about the evils of the other ones is NOT the same thing as paying attention, considering options, and holding constructive conversations with those of differing viewpoints. I feel like mostly what I see are one-sided shout-fests, generating more heat than light.

  5. Nate Abele

    “As always when such shifts arise in public opinion, they are largely produced and reinforced by the development of myths about prior experience. Someone once wrote […] that a myth is like an air mattress: there’s nothing in it, but it’s wonderfully comfortable, and deflation causes an uncomfortable jolt.” — Milton Friedman

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning the sincerity of what you’ve written, but I do want to point out that about half of it is premised on falsehoods, or popular myths that have grown up around the history and founding of the American form of government. Namely, though it closely resembles one now, this country was founded as a constitutional republic, not a democracy. In fact, not only does the word ‘democracy’ (itself or any derivatives) not appear in any of the founding documents of the federal government or any state, the founding fathers had nothing but disparaging things to say about it, i.e.:

    “[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” — James Madison, Father of the Constitution, Federalist No. 10

    So that’s all well and good as a history lesson, but what does it mean for the above? For one thing, while a democracy basically boils down to majority rule (i.e. including your crazy neighbor, weird cousin, etc., etc.), a republic best represents those in society who have chosen to become educated and active in the political system; not necessarily as politicians, but as state and local party delegates and so forth.

    This is why we have party conventions and the electoral college. This is why senators were originally appointed, rather than directly elected. This, in a nutshell, is why we have (well, had) limited government: because it protects the minority from the whims of the majority; the ultimate minority, of course, being the individual.

    The protections laid out in the original Bill of Rights are things that basically everyone can agree on (well okay, barring slavery; thank you, The South). To this day, it is very, very hard to change the Constitution. It requires a constitutional convention, which is a huge pain in the ass, hasn’t happened since 1787. This is intentional, as the default behavior of the federal government according to the founders should be to do nothing. (For the moment we’ll ignore the fact that the present-day federal government has distorted the meaning of almost every one of these protections, well past the point of recognition).

    This might seem like an awful idea, until you remember how starkly divided this country is on almost everything. Compared to all other societal institutions, government has some unique properties: a legal monopoly on the use of force and violence, the ability to specifically direct vast sums of money and human capital, etc. Most importantly, government is the ultimate shared resource: even people who don’t vote still have skin in the game, because, by virtue of living in the United States, it’s *their* government.

    Now, most things the federal government does today are *flagrantly* unconstitutional. Even if they don’t go directly against the letter of the law, they most certainly pervert the intent of its founders (witness the atrocity that is the General Welfare clause; heck, even the shit they justify under the Commerce clause). We let them get away with it, partially out of apathy, but I believe more so because we engage in Red-Team-vs.-Blue-Team-ism just like we do sports: fanatically and uncritically. However, the Left and the Right really want the same thing: to wield government as a weapon to impose their value system on everyone else; they only differ on the choice of value system.

    The only way to productively move forward is, whenever an issue comes up, start asking, “is there a way we can solve this with more freedom, instead of less?” The marriage issue is a fantastic example: why is the government in the business of deciding who can and can’t get married, when the entire civil institution could easily be handled by private contract? Money in politics? What if, instead of playing funding whack-a-mole with special interests, we instead forced government to live within its constitutional mandates (a pipe dream, I know), such that lobbying and campaign contributions were no longer a profitable proposition?

    Unfortunately, in an era of hyper-politicization, “do less stuff” is not a very popular position, but until we step out of the Right-Left paradigm, until we realize that the defining struggle of American politics is the individual vs. the state, will we ever have a chance of getting back to sane government.

  6. Daldude

    Oh dear little Scotty. This ‘letter’ is so naive I just want to pat you on your head and send you off to play with your action figures. The only people this government is now “by and for” are the leaders of the corporate hegemony. What Mr. Ruddy told Howard Beale in the movie ‘Network’ some 36 years ago, is 10-fold true today: “There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! … It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today…”
    Let me present a metaphor which I think best describes the American political as it stands today: “Good Cop/Bad Cop” I presume everyone is familiar with the origins of the metaphor (a quick net search will enlighten any who aren’t). It’s an age-old scam – 2 entities pretending to be adversarial while actually working in cahoots to con the mark. A dilemma is manufactured and the mark coerced into embracing the “duller” of the 2 horns, but is skewered nonetheless.
    The beauty of the political left/right version of this scam is that the roles of “good/bad” are easily switched based on the ideology of the mark, and doesn’t matter a whit who “wins”. Either way the suspect (the public) gets railroaded, and the cops (politicians) get their easy conviction. Both parties are utterly subservient to their masters, and function only to ensure the rest of us do the same. Nothing aside from a few red-herring cosmetic issues (same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, etc.) change, which affect the elites not at all. Regardless of all the rhetoric and posturing, there’s no daylight to be found in foreign or economic policy between this guy and the last guy, nor will there be for the ones that follow (witness how it is the liberals who cried so fowl during the reign of George (Bush) II, now embrace the policies he introduced – the indefinite Global War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the Great Leader’s right the execute anyone anywhere with due process or even acknowledgement of the act – merely because it is now their master doing it).The only real function of the ‘democratic process’ here is to create an illusion of choice and freedom, to create Uncle Toms who spout tired idioms like “we get the government we deserve” and hurl scorn at those of us who are onto the scam and refuse to choose between owners, or decide which will cop will rape us more gently.
    I have studied the inside of the machine quite thoroughly, thank you, and found its core components looted and smashed beyond repair. Not that that matters to the owners – they’ve just inserted a tape-recorder to make the sounds of gears turning and pistons pumping, and convinced children like yourself that it generates some kind of invisible freedom-making, monster-repelling force field, then sit back and chuckle as they watch you beat down any who question the magic, much less suggest replacement with an actual working device…

    1. M

      You make some good points, but you’re not as smart as you think you are. You don’t have access to any more information than do the rest of us, and your interpretation of that information is no less subjective than that of anyone else. If you were as smart as you think you are, you’d know that even your supposedly-transcendent understanding of a “rigged system” is itself a product that has been sold to you by those whose version of reality you have chosen to believe. It’s easy to throw up your hands and declare that “it’s all a scam” and pretend that your recognition of that scam somehow makes you special. That only you and the “enlightened few” who believe as you do deserve to count themselves amongst the wise and worthy. But the truth is that you have simply taken the easy way out. You’ve given up. You’ve chosen the inertia and laziness of the cynic over the energy and effort of the idealist. You’ve excused yourself from the duty of trying to make the world a better place by declaring that it is impossible to do so. And now you’re patting yourself on the back for it. Congratulating yourself for declaring change impossible and belittling anyone who is “childish” enough to believe that it isn’t. Here’s an idea: How’s about you wipe that smug, cynical, knowing little smirk off your face, get off your ass, and try as hard as you can to make some kind of positive difference in the world, even if you don’t really believe that making such a difference is possible? At least that way you could die knowing you did your best to fight “the system”, instead of allowing yourself to degenerate into a worthless, cynical malcontent. Think about it.

  7. Daldude

    Meant to say “the Great Leader’s right TO execute anyone anywhere WITHOUT due process or even acknowledgement of the act” in the comment above…


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