The System's Not to Blame. We Are
Meacham, Jon, Newsweek
Byline: Jon Meacham
I am generally skeptical about the likelihood of rapid wholesale political or cultural change. Perhaps my reservations that the world can suddenly reform and redeem itself comes from a habit of seeing things historically, a perspective that suggests life improves only after much work and strife. In a self-interview in 1956, Robert Penn Warren asked himself, "Are you a gradualist on the matter of segregation?" To which he answered: "If by gradualist you mean a person who would create delay for the sake of delay, then no. If by gradualist you mean a person who thinks it will take--time for an educational process, preferably a calculated one, then yes--It's a silly question, anyway, to ask if somebody is a gradualist. Gradualism is all you'll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps. Except the jump backward, maybe."
That has always seemed pretty accurate to me. Warren's observation came to mind after a visit last week to the University of Texas at Austin, where a student wondered whether our constitutional system was capable of wise governance given the challenges of our time. My usual reply to such questions runs something like this: It is dangerously self-important for us to believe that our problems are of such unique and compelling complexity that the basic structure and values that saw America through the 19th and 20th centuries (see, for instance, War, Civil, and Age, Atomic) are inadequate to the hour. Yes, the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution as drafted, amended, and practiced can be maddening, but that would not surprise the Founders, men who had a realistic view of the frailty of human nature and the voracity of human appetite. Better to govern creakily than to be victim of passions moving quickly.
That is not to say, however, that we should preemptively foreclose debate about the efficacy of an 18th-century model in the 21st. From the filibuster in the Senate to the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, there is a renewed sense that Washington works only for itself, fighting for narrow partisan advantages while large national and international issues go unresolved. Reforming the Senate to make it more difficult for a single lawmaker to stop the chamber's business cold and restructuring campaign finance in order to tie legislators more directly to small donors rather than corporate interests are among the ideas in circulation. …