ACT

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This is not the moment, it’s the movement

Where all the hungriest brothers wait something to prove went.

Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand.

We roll like Moses, claiming our promised land.

I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashing every expectation

Every action’s on act of creation!

I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow,

For the first time, I’m thinking past tomorrow.

To Act

“Every action’s an act of creation.” To act is to make real what we imagine in our minds. “The play’s the thing,” as Shakespeare says in Hamlet. In a wonderful moment in King Lear Shakespeare has Edgar say of what looks like too old fools cavorting on stage (one the King, the other Edgar’s father), “reason in madness,” and there was reason in the madness, human truths, but only seen through the lens of the play as a whole and made real by our experience of it. The Great Unfinished Symphony of America is such a truth, as told in the play Hamilton. It will never be finished. But the play in our mind makes it evolve by what we do, how we act, as the people of this nation.

An unfinished symphony is not some random collection of notes that wander around in hopes that a final cadence is near. It is a highly organized collection of notes with an underlying structure, but one whose inner creative impulses preclude an ending. It is a high-water mark of creativity, perpetual creativity. For our dark moments the signature capacity within our national narrative has been creating innovative answers to critical problems, beginning with our form of government itself. We are in another dark moment as a nation. We are looking for another answer that forges a renewed America. But we see this time that we are in dark moments, in the plural, and thus in need of creative answers, not some single magic wand like our original Constitution that created our country.

Still, this beginning can be our new beginning:

We the People of the United States, to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do…

This Preamble to our Constitution gives power to the people to act, to “do.” In an important respect, we the people created the country we now inhabit. We the people forced upon our leaders some of our most important political innovations. We the people have grown the blessings of liberty. Our current condition pleads for we the people again. Our Congress feels like a rowboat caught in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without oars. We have not seen a serious innovation on an important topic of policy from Washington this century. The list of serious issues in need of something creative is long and growing, in number, complexity, and difficulty. In the current state of our great unfinished symphony, we need the orchestra now more than ever.

In a rather oblique way, the Federalist Papers provide instructions to a way forward.

We should start with elections. But it is not just electing better people; it is making those we elect earn our vote and respect by offering new ideas on critical issues instead of throwing out fifteen second rounds of rotten eggs at an opponent. But the Papers also insist on means commensurate with ends. Means and ends are now misaligned. Too much depends upon Washington. Too little depends upon us. We have to alter this relation with a renewed wave of civic engagement, to form a still more perfect union, again.

We propose herein seven programs that, if widely adopted, we believe would change our current political trajectory to one with a much more positive feel and effect. They are not instant pills of restoration; they are more like cleaning the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But if accomplished they will rejuvenate our sense of being together in associations and establish firm footings for real policy assessment and change.

  1. One offers new thoughts for civics curricula in high school and college. We will argue that learning about our government in the abstract is less important than cultivating interest in politics and digging into a few critical policy issues, along with active engagement—not just simulations—in the community, which types can be decided within the classroom, but we encourage engagement with elections and the homeless.

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  2. Significantly improve voter registration and actual voting, without regard to party or issues. We provide this program as part of (1) above as an ideal opening for students that requires very little understanding of anything but the importance of voting.
  3. A program to overhaul the way we conduct elections, moving the entire process over time to the Internet, including campaigning and fund raising, that would all but remove the current pressure with its concomitant corruption to raise money. The program would require legislation to govern actual voting security over the Internet, but would otherwise be entirely the people at work. The objective would be candidates actually saying something about how they would attack key problems within a community-wide system of information about the issues and the laws that affect them.

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  4. This section is basically an appeal to get involved somehow, with some discussions of existing organizations that always want additional help. We disallow financial contributions as a means of satisfying this idea on grounds that we believe, with others, that the very fact of radical increases in associative behavior, working with others and being with others, will have substantial political and cultural benefits.

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  5. We conclude with three ideas that will require new organizations. They are by way of examples.
  6. One concerns the digital divide and the universal deployment of fiber optic broadband on grounds that broadband has become as necessary as roads, clean water, and electricity, but is held captive by private carrier interests and lethargy in Washington, which condition not just hangs on to the digital divide, but over time will magnify it.

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  7. A second proposes initiatives to require all government entities to provide Internet access to government budget details, comparisons, and justifications, starting with local governments, then migrating upward, on grounds that we cannot complain about money unless we know what it is used for, and at present we do not have a clue.

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  8. A third revolves around our unwritten Constitution. Where are the unwritten terms written in some composite, accessible place (almost all are written somewhere)? The project will hope to coax academics and members of the legal fraternity to construct, explain, and justify the terms of the present Constitution including those many that have been characterized as “unwritten,” or the Constitution as “living” or “unfinished.” They are the root of our Great Unfinished Symphony. But we will perform this necessary adventure in open air, letting any and all who are interested in the proceedings to watch and join where they see themselves fit to speak, or not.

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We admit that none of these programs address directly many of the key issues we list repeatedly on this web site. Nor do they directly contend with the contentions that obtain today, particularly the out-of-control personal attacks issued hourly now it seems by elected and hopeful members of the Republican Party, once the party of respect and personal responsibility. We argue down a ways in this section the reasons: our governments today govern largely through a massive administrative apparatus that across all governments employs in the order of 30 million people, none of them elected, all of whom perform duties initiated through laws and subsequence regulations. Changing the order of things requires changing the duties and behavior of the administrative state. That must be done through leaders we elect; the apparatus is largely beyond our reach except where we live. Thus our emphasis on elections, participating in existing local organizations, and working on three initiatives that can be developed locally and then migrate upward through the system, a process that has worked wonders in many other areas of American politics. We show in other sections why the Federalist Papers say, truthfully, that our federal government is slow, reactive, and subject to compromise. They must be made to innovate; they cannot do it on their own. We must show them the way, including changing out quite of few of them for others more suited to the task.

Context

We have only hinted at the Federalist Papers so far. This is a web site about the Federalist Papers, right? Well, no, not really. We treat the Federalist Papers herein more like a Gospel or a cathedral, something created at one moment in time that has universal meanings that spread throughout time, but which meanings are more about structure than human behavior, even as the structures are rooted in their assessment of human behavior. The Papers, as we will usually call them, do not solve problems. They do not tell us what to do. They are not the source of salvation, they are a guide to what salvation may mean and the limitations imposed upon us as human beings when seeking salvation. We wander in a dark forest without them; but we must find the way out ourselves. We are the agents of our salvation, or our destruction.

We may take the analogy with religion a step farther. Salvation is personal, dependent upon what we believe and, in some forms of Christianity, by what we do. But every Christian grouping, even those like Quakers who have no formal church, gather together for communal worship. There is an inseparable union of individual and community, of me and we. The Catholic faith insists upon the church as a necessary component of salvation; the Protestant faith does not. But neither leave the individual on an island alone. We will find in the Federalist Papers a similar sentiment about government. The notion of popular sovereignty, power to the people, presumes human organizations and human agency, groups and individuals, as corporate parts of how governments of free people work.

The Papers are quick to illustrate the tensions in such an arrangement. While our two political parties arose after the Papers were written, and they conflict with the Paper’s seeming view of factions, they embody the central tensions between liberty and equality, between individual freedom and the public good. The Republican Party is rooted in the former, the Democratic Party in the latter. Yet both are parties (meaning collectives with a communal goal) promoting individuals (elected leaders). We argue elsewhere on this site that any party ideology, to be coherent, must suppress its opposite valence; Republicans are for individualism, Democrats for community values. But both parties are forced to actualize the tensions between the two to function, hence operate in a context of some incoherence. While this gives each party a lot of wiggle room when attempting the negotiations necessary to govern at all, it also leads to substantial levels of dissonance when our problems escape the easy vocabulary of traditional politics. That is the condition we are in today.

No greater illustration of irrelevance could be found than the nonsense around the debt ceiling enacted in June of 2023. Republicans, who spend money like water when holding the White House and Congress, urge radical reductions in federal spending for things their constituents depend upon to live. Democrats, whose two previous Presidents showed or were forced into “fiscal restraint,” act as if the debt problem is not a problem. There is absolutely no sensible public discussion of how to match our problems with funding, with the most obvious aspect of any solution—taxing the rich, who have been the only beneficiaries of economic growth since Reagan—a meaningful part of the conversation. The “winner” if such a tag could be pinned to any lapel in the fight, was Biden’s team that got a deal with minimal pain, largely one suspects because sensible Republicans (not a complete oxymoron) realized they faced enough awkward questions about the constituents they harmed to risk the next election. The bill they passed a month earlier that limited or closed a myriad of necessary services will still be thrown in their faces.

So, we are going to burden you a bit with some context for our work within this section. We will start with the central tension around our opinions, that different opinions among people are as natural as rain. We will then outline the administrative state, what really runs our government now, outside the immediate reach of elections. This explains in part our descent into dissent over the last fifty years, from a time when 90% of us thought the government was doing a good job to less than 20% now. However, other factors are involved, as we see from studies by scholars into our general attitudes and behaviors. Among these factors is the increasing wage gap and the growing rather than shrinking distance between those of all races in wealth and those of all races with diminishing incomes, with race still a significant factor in the proportions. Anger and distrust are natural outcomes. We argue from these conditions that restoral of a sensible, functioning government requires a renewed faith among us, the people, which will require that we the people act, that acting together is by itself restorative, but that the necessary prelude to acting is interest. Our goal, then, is to inspire a level of interest in our government that will provoke in you a sense of felt need to do something. From that all else springs.

Different Opinions Will Be Formed

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We confess that this web site has a somewhat liberal bias. But we wish to insist here that our objective in this section is promoting just two things: much higher levels of collaborative political activity, and a much higher level of interest in and understanding of the issues we face as a body politic. We believe the combination will produce new ideas, of which we are in desperate need. We will remain deeply puzzled by the support for our last Republican President, whose incompetence in office and beyond transparently disqualifies him from the office. But we are just as certain that our federal government needs our help in general. You will see herein a focus on elections. The Federalist Papers give elections pride of place in adjusting our political trajectory. We believe that elections moving forward can be a vehicle for promoting more vigorous discussion of issues, stimulating new ideas and solutions, and electing leaders who understand the need for both.

But we are just as interested in promoting what has come to be known as deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy promotes decision making through a process of open and inclusive dialogue among citizens. It aims to facilitate civic engagement, enhance the quality of public discourse, and foster trust in democratic institutions. Our deep divisions now are as emotional as they are ideological. Both parties have descended into verbal warfare that disrespects each other, the issues, and the normative roots of their ideologies, the right trashing individualism and human responsibility, the left trashing inclusiveness and equity across ideological boundaries. They arise in part from a prolonged community descent into human isolation, a kind of fragmentation of our society into smaller and smaller pieces. Some call the trend “tribalism.” Scholars who see the trend have diverse explanations but no cures. We have no greater insight. But we know that community action in ever greater degrees will create a greater sense of ourselves as belonging to a community, the benefits of which will be amorphous but salutary in proportion to the degree we can come together, even as “different opinions will be formed.” We need to find a constructive way to agree to disagree, and then move forward in a collaborative way, lest we continue the current downward spiral.

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“Different opinions will be formed” will be repeated often on this web site. It is short for: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” The line comes from Federalist 10, by Madison. He clearly means differences that cannot be resolved or dissolved by rational or deliberative means. Arguments are as natural as mating. But people of common opinions gather into factions for greater political effect. Opposing political parties are also as natural as mating, but last longer. The postage stamp view of this point starts with the cognitive infirmities of man Madison outlines in Federalist 37, moves through some not altogether positive views of the people in Federalists 49 through 51, and lands on Federalist 10 with not only the necessity of different opinions but the equal necessity that man forms parties, the motivations for which arise from diverse inequities in society, or so says Madison.

This is a pregnant principle; it explains a lot. But if we accept it (and we do), we also accept divisiveness, anger, brinkmanship, and petulance as normal patterns when problems become too complex and removed from accessible solutions to be settled through amicable discussions and compromises, through deliberative democracy. We are in such a state today for these reasons. When we add a press wedded to melodrama and one side or the other (as we have today except for, in our view, NPR and PBS, and their British counterpart, the BBC), an oppressive demand for attracting money in elections that favors all the wrong attributes in our elected leaders, and a public either silent or barking like dogs at the moon, with millions supporting a cartoon, we can be forgiven for momentary depressions. But our governments soldier on, like some form of self-propelled machinery. We feel a compulsion to talk about this condition, the administrative state (or states, as the structure is at the level of all states and many cities), as it critically affects what we should expect from we the people.

The Administrative State

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In what may be the most famous paragraph in the Federalist Papers, Madison writes:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

While longer than his trenchant one-liners, this paragraph covers a lot of ground. We hear of three departments of government, an historical first that he just slides over as a given, but no national government before ours separated out three branches and then consciously gave each some power over the other. We see the tensions between duty to the public good and duty to oneself, one expression of the classic tension between personal liberty and the public weal. We see one expression of a principle we will claim is critical to the Federalist Papers and how our country evolved, namely that means must be commensurate with ends. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” settles ambition into the human soul at a deep and inextricable level, but has the strange suggestion that the act of counteraction always ends in a tie, when we know there is usually a winner and a loser. Of course, the very suggestion means that ambition overrides other more noble traits, a sour view of the political soul, one sadly deserved more often than we would like, particularly today. But the last two lines carry the soul of the paragraph: a government over a free people must be constructed to control itself; the people are a necessary part of the process, but not sufficient.

What has happened in this country, and all other developed nations over the last ninety years, is a form of control that would have been fantastical to Madison, Hamilton, and company. In Washington’s first year there were four federal administrative agencies with a few people in each; today there are more than 430, with no one apparently able to specify the exact number. In 1800 the federal government employed 4000 people, most of them tax collectors at shipping points collecting duties; today the federal government employs 2.5 million non-military personnel and uncountable consultants and contractors, 79,000 of whom work for the IRS collecting taxes with a system so complex that it consumes 70,000 pages of regulations and creates jobs for thousands of private accountants. Total government employment in the country gets close to 30 million, almost 20% of the work force. But in the order of 75% of government revenues plus debt in our country flows back to the private sector. It is likely that more than half the work force depends upon government money in one way or another. For example, the largest sum, for health care, is almost all delivered to diverse private health care services, intermingled of course with private funds or insurance payments.

An argument could be made, against neoliberalism and free market systems, that this massive level of redistribution, from private sources to the governments and back out again, forms one backbone of our economy (the other mining the advantages of private investment) that levels out to some degree the wage gap, improves purchasing power over a broad range of consumers, provides a form of stability that weakens the agony of natural downsides in free market systems, and offers avenues for further remediations of the misfortunes free market systems inflict upon those on the lower ranges of education and capacity. In any event, it is now a permanent part of our government apparatus; we might as well honor it and find ways to make it more useful than condemn it with some forlorn hope that we can slide back to the nineteenth century.

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Before moving on, we should explain why the Federalist Papers remain relevant given this undoubted condition, both its existence and alienation from what seems to be the substance of the Papers. We quote Madison again, longer, but with church bells ringing, from the last paragraph of Federalist 14. He is celebrating our new constitution, the one still in effect today.

Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them. If they erred most in the structure of the Union, this was the work most difficult to be executed; this is the work which has been new modeled by the act of your convention, and it is that act on which you are now to deliberate and to decide.

This is a hymn to human innovation. It implies a hymn to change, which implies perpetual change. In our section on Principles we will urge that the Federalist Papers insist on means commensurate with ends and the necessity of experimentation, of adapting to the great unfinished symphony. Yes, the founders would think they arrived on the other side of the moon if resurrected today. But they would replay this hymn in their minds, and smile.

The seed of the Administrative State was planted in 1887 with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), formed by Congress to regulate railroads, in particular, rate structures that favored suppliers owned by railroad companies. The ICC was an “independent” agency, meaning its commissioners were appointed by the President with consent of the Senate but the President could not remove a commissioner except for cause. The commissioners had to blend both parties, giving the agency a bi-partisan head. A few independent agencies followed, but the real birth of the Administrative State as we know it today took place between 1933 and 1938, with new agencies established such as the Social Security Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which survive to this day. While many of Roosevelt’s agencies were later closed by various means, Eisenhower added to the list, and Lyndon Johnson, with a rare level of consent within Congress, built the Great Society Program, with more than 230 laws creating numerous new agencies. Most of them still exist. The last law of the set created NPR and PBS.

About sixty such agencies are independent in the same sense as the ICC (which was closed in 1995 but its functions were distributed elsewhere), including the FCC, the FED, the SEC, and the Post Office. These agencies are sometimes called the “Fourth Branch.” But even within agencies over which the President does have removal power, their number, size, and age testify to an almost permanent, irrevocable state. Our Presidents since Reagan have meddled with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Republican Presidents reducing its range of authority, the Democratic Presidents expanding it range of authority, but it is not going away. The EPA was formed in 1970 under Nixon, hence now has a 53-year life, and a better reason to live today than 1970.

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We can see from the chart above the effects of the administrative state that was thereby created. Regulations started to grow like weeds (although other similies such as flowers in spring or our rising economy would be just as suitable if one can be free of the prejudice the administrative state has acquired). This chart is not about the growth of legislation; it is about the growth of pseudo-legislation created by agencies within the executive branch. We say more about this chart in our Facts section, but we would appeal to you to examine its behavior during periods when Republicans were President. Eisenhower doubled the number, the greatest percentage increase before the Great Society Program. Johnson naturally produced a significant rise, but so did both Bushes. Our last Republican President managed to hold the number at 185,000 pages, but he promised in a melodramatic performance before cameras to reduce the page count to 20,000 again, a piece of theatrical nonsense; his mark was increasing discretionary non-military spending by 30%, almost all of it channeled through these agencies, the highest percentage increase during a four-year term since World War II.

We bring this up now in part to explain, or at least notice some reasons for, the lack of thrilling legislation this century. All four Presidents of this century have anemic lists of signature legislations. Bush got us into Iraq and Afghanistan, a Free Trade agreement with Chile, the USA Patriot Act (repressive), controls on unsolicited pornography, and two or three others of small actual consequence. Obama had but one, the Affordable Care Act that provided insurance to tens of millions, but he was hamstrung by the recession and a Republican Congress for six years dedicated to saying NO, and the ACA touched none of the profound inner troubles with our health care system. Our last Republican President also had just one, the 2017 “tax reform” act that fed billions to the rich and added trillions to the federal debt, with no other visible benefit. (If you remove increasing federal debt from the economy over the succeeding four years, it declined every year, suggesting that the nominal motivation for tax relief is greater investment that leads to greater growth failed.) Biden has done better than the other three in just two years, with signature acts in health care, climate change, infrastructure, Covid relief, and returning to participation in global affairs. But the mark of most of these bills has been the addition of money and tweaking to existing programs. Biden’s climate change initiatives move us forward, but those who accept global warming believe it is still far from enough.

The Administrative State is not going away. It is the elephant in the room. It is so irrepressible that no Republican President since Herbert Hoover has been able to decrease its size and costs even as all of the recent ones have run on platforms claiming the need for just that. If we want to change our political climate, we have to change the administrative state. While modest innovations are possible within regulatory procedures which exist under the umbrella of the executive branch, serious changes require legislation. We elect our legislative leaders. We have to start electing legislative leaders that understand the administrative state, accept it, and can see ways to make it better, to make its means commensurate with rapidly changing, complex ends, that demand innovations in the means. Seeing this, and acting upon it, should be the duty of all Americans regardless of party.

Instead, we are just unhappy.

Context: The Downward Spiral of Trust in the U.S. Government

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We the people are clearly unhappy with our government. It is easy to see the current disenchantment. One political party drowns us with lies and personal attacks with no policy ideas, the other offers bromides that lost traction decades ago or ideas that fail to fit the complexities of our problems. Federal debt soars and our serious problems remain serious, with no solutions even proposed by either party for some of the deep ones—health care, poverty, the wage gap, gun violence, substance abuse, education, homelessness, the police. But why the persistent downward slope from Johnson’s Great Society Program created between 1964 and 1968? Aside from the three upward blips for Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr., each associated with foreign policy (Reagan with Russia, Bush Senior with Iraq, and Bush Jr. with 9/11), and the general increase in approval of Clinton (likely based on steady economic growth), the downward trend is consistent and persistent. Yet during this time the economy grew significantly, poverty dropped significantly, Jim Crow laws died and civil rights improved dramatically, the United States transformed global technologies, women in education, the work force, athletics, and even above the glass ceiling made huge strides, health care was extended to tens of millions, and capitalism and republican systems swept into many countries, including Russia and China, ending the idea of “communism” likely forever. It was the best of times; why does it feel like the worst of times?

In a 2020 book titled Upswing, Harvard’s Robert Putnam argues that this downward slope we see in our popular estimate of our government reflects a much wider range of downward trends, in associations, in church attendance, in cultural cohesion, in economic equality, in equity generally. He further shows the degree to which the many programs established through the New Deal and the Great Society Program stopped making progress about 30 years ago. Some have drifted into decline. However, his central point is that we had an upward slope from 1900 to 1960, the curve over the last 120 years looking like an inverted U. He begins the book with a description of our society that sounds exactly like today in terms of turmoil, divisiveness, self-centeredness, and inequities, but was about 1890. But from 1900 to the 1960’s the Progressive Movement, with its many disparate parts, transformed the country through myriad local and then national efforts, largely from citizens forcing our governments over time to change. By the last act of the Great Society program in 1968, that stage of our development came to an end.

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Putnam argues against any easy or singular explanation for this phenomena. The wage gap, the rise of government bureaucracy, backlash against the Great Society Program and the student movement, the Internet, television, video games, Oxycodone, inherent racism within the nature of human organization (that needs an enemy to function), corporate greed, the loss of critical thinking in education, Fox News and its influence, money in elections, the failure of real and equitable representation in our political system, the spirit of individualism and the competing spirit of the public good and equality buried in the American DNA (as noted first by de Tocqueville) look like candidates. But on examination these among others either just redescribe the condition in different terms or lack enough connective tissue to the complex picture to warrant the role of the cause.

Madison reaches this point, indirectly, in Federalist 10. We cannot eliminate the cause of factions, he says, so we must learn how to deal with their effects. His own explanation for factions includes our division in terms of property (we can say now “wealth”) but he waves his arms at a sea of additional reasons, some of which must go back to his description of our state as human beings in Federalist 37. His short message is that we and the world are too complex to fully understand. As a consequence, “complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” (Federalist 10). Today, the last word would be changed to “the elite,” but the sense of instability and mistrust is the same.

Putnam’s “discovery” was the remarkable degree to which our remediation of problems with racism, equality, social cohesion, and bipartisanship grew through the first half of the century at rates greater than after the Great Society Program was adopted to address these very deficits. He simplifies the trend with the movement of “I” to “we” and back to “I,” concentrating the effect on largely psychological and cultural grounds. He attributes much of the early change, the upswing, to the Progressive Movement, a multi-faceted, largely spontaneous constellation of acts of civic engagement that began locally but grew to national proportions, with the formation of groups like the Rotary Club, the NAACP, and the ACLU creating a national consciousness of the gap between our supposed values, as written two centuries ago, and our practices. The process of liberating our black citizens from Jim Crow and systemic racism began within the black community itself with help from a few dedicated whites, culminating in the March on Washington in 1963 that led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the beginning of the Great Society Program.

The Great Society Program made significant gains for its first twenty to thirty years, in poverty reduction, reducing education and income gaps, school integration, health care coverage, and improved racial and gender equity. But the programs were mechanical, administrative, impersonal, without the life of the people. Indeed, one felt a visceral loss with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the federal government in effect hijacking the Civil Rights Movement, a sense made quite real with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, whose leadership has never been replaced within the black community. King in particular saw the need for economic and educational equity (they are closely connected) regardless of race as the next great challenge, so all segments of our society could realize a sense of selfsufficiency and hope, rather than dependence upon the impersonal, mechanical hand of the government. (Malcolm X of course was dedicated to black self-sufficiency, but in isolation from other racial groups, including whites.) If all parts grew of their own initiative, we would likely see lower levels of racism and gender discrimination as natural outcomes. (This also seems to have been the view of Frederick Douglass at the end of his life.) As education and good jobs within the community must be the anchors for any such program, the program itself must have local leadership and roots. But this is not what the Great Society Program fashioned. (One of its components, the Model Cities Program, specifically targeted the incubation of local leadership with local redevelopment, but it was abandoned in 1974.) Everything flows from Washington.

What materialized after 1968 was more like opening of the alligator jaws of our society, with part making enormous strides in many areas of life, and another part standing still, or losing ground. Consider the story of NPR. National Public Radio began in 1970 with a public mandate to provide information to those unserved by private media. Over its first ten years NPR tried its best to fulfill this need, one of information equity, but found audiences difficult to reach and retain. One can suspect language differences and habits of mind of those in poverty as reasons. They could not make the numbers run with such low audience appeal. So they shifted content to meet the general public instead. Today NPR spends $250 million a year to provide radio, Internet, and Podcast news and information to around 100 million people, most of whom have college degrees and professional lives, with revenues from pledge drives, philanthropic sources, and very annoying advertising. It has by far the largest audience for news in the country. Fox news, an oxymoron, gets 3 million viewers on a good night for its most popular program. The New York Times passes before somewhat more than 10 million eyes a day. Instead of reversing the information gap between the rich and the poor, NPR added to it by improving information resources to the rich.

NPR reflects a trend that has its most uncomfortable manifestation in the wage gap. Average wages have not grown for 40 years (although this is beginning to change now), yet the economy has grown by huge proportions. The benefits have gone to the already or newly minted rich. As we survey the rich, we can see every race and both genders represented. We can see the same thing in health care, with Cadillac and concierge plans providing world-class health care to those with money and high-end jobs, veterans getting our version of socialized medicine, while millions remain without insurance. There are a large number of very wealthy black citizens in America now, but poverty among blacks remains stuck at 20%. Affordable housing needs have grown in part because private speculative construction has moved to the higher end of the market. Perhaps the most glaring economic disparity by race is in household net worth, shown below. Housing ownership must account for much of the disparity, but we, in 2023, have a long ways to go before we can claim equal opportunity regardless of race. In short, the system as a whole has grown remarkably well, but the gaps that created the Great Society Program have also grown over the last thirty years.

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This growing division has created for many a sense of betrayal, leading to anger. Many feel betrayed who were betrayed before—minorities, women, the poor of all races. But we now have a new class of the betrayed, most of whom are white with less than college degrees who have been harmed by the changes in our economy, with outsourcing manufacturing one of the principal contributors. For reasons that are hard to understand, many of these people have drifted into our conservative political party with its energy now radiating from our last Republican President. The reasons are hard to understand because, to the extent that we can attribute our economic changes to political processes, our conservative party has led them. While the trend started before him, Ronald Reagan is generally considered the principal force for neoliberalism that started the wage gap reversal. His trickle-down theory was dumb then, now shown to be absurd. The only signature legislation from our last Republican President gave billions to the rich, harmed many in the middle class with higher rather than lower taxes, and drove federal debt into the trillions of dollars, all hostile to the interests of those feeling disenfranchised and now fueling the Republican Party.

From Anger to Hope through Faith and Action

The Federalist Papers place their ultimate hope with the people. Many have noted over the years the deep Protestant core of this sense, that we control our own salvation, our destiny, without institutional help. It is the consummate expression of human freedom. But the Papers also insist that we do not know enough to save ourselves alone. Instead, we organize into factions (or sects as the Protestant faith) that compete with other factions for the same glory. Episcopalians look like the Catholic faith without the Pope or nearly as much guilt, Quakers don’t even have a church or formal leadership, the ultimate expression of inner faith. Yet for all the focus on sola fide and sola scriptura, all Christians gather together in communal worship, even Quakers. They all read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Lincoln made the same observation in his second inaugural, the paradox strewn then about the battlefields that cost 600,000 American lives, more than we have lost in all other wars together.

Today we are divided again. Yet we all live under the same Constitution and pray to its republican sense. The Capital attack on January 6th was not an attack on our Constitution or most of the institutions it has created; it was an expression of rage and frustration wrought by our general conditions as the attackers see and feel it. If they thought about it (not likely), it was an attack on the electoral college. That instrument is so flawed and opaque that one can almost forgive the insanity if not the action itself. Democrats are just as aggrieved in their way that true popular election of the President would have produced a succession of Democratic Presidents after Bush Sr (who lost to Clinton because of Ross Perot). Had our country enjoyed a truly democratic process for electing our President, either the largest percentage of total votes or the majority if Ranked Choice Voting, there would have been no reason to attack the Capital. The loser would still have claimed election fraud, but finding 7,000,000 votes is very different from finding 11,780 votes in Georgia, 10,457 votes in Arizona, and 20,682 votes in Wisconsin, which, if reversed, would have reversed the election.

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We have named the Federalist Papers a kind of American gospel, a liturgy of faith in our country. Its faith was placed in our form of government and the people who elected those serving us therein, so they might, as Madison asks in Federalist 51, control us, and themselves. We admit the Papers generally seem to leave explicit popular duties to elections, throwing bums out at the next if they misbehave and fail in their duties. But this is not their only view. In keeping with the spirit of tensions found on virtually every page, the Papers clearly suggest that our sense of virtue and good will occupies a fundamental place in the possibilities for liberty, that there is more keeping us together than driving us apart, the only basis on which the kind of government the Papers were defending had any hopes for a durable life. Writers like Gary Wills work to raise virtue to the dominant note of the Papers, a position we do not think can be sustained. But a country of our type without a good measure of virtue, personal responsibility, trust, and let us say it, faith, as the Papers have it, in ourselves, in our country, cannot long endure. Lincoln used these words in calling for a “new birth of freedom.” The drama, the clarity of purpose and issues of which Lincoln spoke do not subsist today, but the call for faith is no less demanding.

Faith in what? The most common answer to this question is “our democracy.” “Democracy” is a troubled word. It has been from the time of Plato’s distaste for the idea of popular sovereignty. Of its many meanings over the years, the one most applicable to America is the combination of individual liberty and power of the people within a republican form, which terms do not sit comfortably with one another. Remember the Papers’ concentration on durable tensions. This word ranks high on the list. Power of the people means among other things majority rule in basic decision making. Majority rule necessarily invites compromises for the liberties of the minority. According to Plato (and the Papers in many ways), majority rule comes from those too ignorant to know what they are voting on. Often the majority rules against itself. The current House majority is a case in point. Those wishing for a return to the White House of our last Republican President is another. His interests are 180 degrees out of phase with the people’s interests, with the interests of those wishing for his return.

Yet it is precisely this word in which we are asked to have faith. It is a kind of faith Martin Luther King describes above—we cannot see the end of the staircase, but we must take the first step.

Democracy in America is not dead, or even dying.

Democracy is not like the end of “The Grinch Stole Christmas,” friend and foe gathered at dinner in harmony and consummate amity. Democracy is perpetual struggle; “different opinions will be formed.” Today it suffers an imbalance among its inherent tensions. We have dedicated too much government power to protecting our liberties, and too little to actually exercising those powers within the political realm. While Putnam is right to discourage simple and singular causes to our current malaise, the administrative state must number among them. The administrative state was created to redress the massive dislocations in money and power arising from an unfettered free market fueled by staggering innovations in technology, and systemic, legalized racism as the worst among many forms of inequity the administrative state addresses. The irony of our popular view that our governments serve the elite is that our governments spend more than 40% of our GDP redistributing money taken largely from the elite and their corporations to hundreds of millions who are definitely not the elite. But the means are outside the reach of common democratic processes; we don’t vote on food stamps, environmental protection, affordable housing, childcare, homeless programs, health care, and social security. We don’t vote on Title 9 enforcement, election enforcement, equal opportunity enforcement, social services, building codes, or speed limits. These programs were set in place long ago and just motor along, growing with each administration, all in service of a public good. But the machinery is detached from we the people. The sense of estrangement can be felt now on both sides of the political aisle, and in the enormous percentage of us who just decide to do other things with our day then enter the ring with our gloves off.

The Power of Just Acting

Robert Putnam’s earlier book, Bowling Alone (1999), focuses on the growth and decline of various forms of associations along the same timeline as his last book. He called it the rise and fall of “social capital.” “Capital” is a form of power, unused power, awaiting. Such power created within working groups of people grows from the association, people learning how to share ideas, grow ideas from discussion, take administrative roles, and most particularly, learn how to lead if one has the native capacities (“management” can be taught, “leadership” is instinctive, a kind of magnetic power that urges others to follow). When such associations include diverse individuals, along many lines of division, and they continue to function well, the divisions among them ease, even dissipate. Putnam argues, and we agree, that many more people committing time to informal or formal associations, of any kind, will promote community health and well-being. If these associations have political targets with non-violent intentions, the community benefits multiply, even if any one political association is likely to have a competing, contrary association. We may take the growth of such associations, either within existing groups or new groups, as a central objective of this web site.

We are not entirely indifferent to the purposes such associations assume. In keeping with King’s admonition about the stairs we cannot see, we would encourage associations with commitments to innovations, not just carrying the same watering can to the same garden. For example, an association devoted to affordable housing would profit mankind more if they built net-zero homes, ones that are airtight (with suitable ventilation) and furnished with solar power that over the year produce enough electricity for the home or into the grid to reduce electric bills to zero and spare the atmosphere the customary supply of carbon dioxide. Advocacy for arming teachers to curtail gun violence, promoting fossil fuels because carbon dioxide does not warm the atmosphere, eliminating police departments to avoid police profiling and unwarranted police violence, or Medicare for all seem like bad ideas, even as each has supporters among our elected leaders. There are other areas were certain remediations are now unacceptable. We are not returning the homeless to asylums. We are not going to prohibit the production of cigarettes or the use of salts, fats, and sugar in processed foods, even though they are harmful, often deadly. We are not going to mandate that no automobile can be sold with the capacity to exceed the speed limit or be started without seatbelts strapped on and a breathalyzer test, even though such rules would save thousands of lives a year. As we discuss below, we see particular needs for significant changes in the treatment our education system gives to civic engagement and politics, significant increases in those voting, an overhaul of our election system that would promote real proposals and remove money from the process, and a far greater proportion of young people involved in political advocacy and programs. But, for all this, we stand by the paragraph just above; good will come from many more people gathered together and many more hours devoted to remediating our current difficulties, even though different opinions will be formed.

The Past is Not Prologue

Putnam ends Upswing on the promise of a second upswing with the hope that the kind of spontaneous civic action that drove the Progressive Movement would repeat. We think that unlikely in the same form. America is dotted now with literally millions of organizations, large and small, some in protest, many more working to turn government or philanthropic money into housing, roads, bridges, hospitals, arts groups, homeless shelters, parks, museums, broadband networks, community centers, big brother centers, green energy initiatives, and animal shelters among others. The NAACP, the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, and the NRA take in millions every year to promote policies in the halls of Congress and before federal courts. We can see large forces today working to reduce racism and large forces working to promote racism; the same can be said for women’s reproductive rights. We have almost 100 think tanks, most of them conservative, grinding away at analysis and policies (with a priori ideologies driving both; only ones like the Brookings Institute hold to a line of relatively independent thinking). Thousands of academic scholars produce articles and books like Upswing that circle a common view but never land on it. Yet the entire combination has made little progress in remediating the deeper difficulties we clearly face today.

We can add four other factors to the difficulty of reproducing the Progressive Movement. Our problems now are much more complex and nuanced. A few can still be reduced to slogans on a picket sign, but most cannot. Polarization, nourished if not actually caused by polarized news media on both sides, is now reinforced by the digital world which has, paradoxically, isolated us from one another more than brought us together, at least so far; the video game market in the United States (and the world) is now significantly larger than the movie and music entertainment markets combined, and “social media” has become painfully productive of separation, loneliness, and at times despair, especially among teenagers. Meanwhile, the digital world has made access to information enormously easier, but without curation, qualification, or critical lenses; the effect is less stored knowledge to chew on, the necessary path to understanding; we could know more, but we actually retain and understand less. Finally, the actual operating gears of government now turn within the administrative state. The administrative state can only be changed by lawmakers; yet it is lawmakers who are in paralysis.

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

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Despite this assessment, we can expect some natural, spontaneous uprisings, winter turning to spring. The form will not be the same as the Progressive Movement, but the forces within us, for justice and public well-being, will bloom as the leaves on tulip magnolias in spring. The energy will not come from the far left or the far right. It will come from the vast unhappy middle. And it will come largely from the young, who are not yet so settled in their minds that nothing new penetrates or emerges therefrom.

In his 2020 book, They Don’t Represent Us, Harvard’s Laurance Lessig reports three recent examples of outraged women who organized successful campaigns in Michigan and New Jersey to legally eliminate gerrymandering over stiff legislative opposition, and a campaign in Maine to impose Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), the only system that assures a real majority votes for the victor if more than two run for an office. The latter ousted a Tea Party governor who never got more than 35% of the vote when he won the seat. The New Jersey effort was a rebuff led by the League of Women Voters of a legislative effort to secure Democratic majorities in both New Jersey Houses by gerrymandering in a state that is solidly blue. One initiative we propose herein is in hope of encouraging similar local action committees to ensure universal broadband, something we are not getting out of our federal or state governments.

But our focus, the one we wish to take an active part in leading, concerns education and elections. Lessig reports astonishment at the degree to which people have supported our last Republican President, a man whose moral compass, competence, capacity for seeing the truth, and maturity are 180 degrees away from any model we might construct for a President, or for that matter, would apply to any other President of this country, even Andrew Johnson and Rutherford B Hayes (these are not Lessig’s examples). He reports his own thinking over a decade of work moving from money in elections as the key problem in our present democracy to the failure of so many of our public institutions to represent us as the key problem to the deeper question of our basic capacities to understand what is happening. As this observation comes at the end of his book, it is not one he explores. It is surely too simple-minded to say that our current malaise, zany partisanship, and legislative dysfunction arise from popular ignorance. The appeal of our last Republican President is not intellectual; he nourishes deep seated anxieties, a sense of disenfranchisement, and correlative anger. Many smart people support him with reasoned justifications, rooted in fantasy, but reasoned. Furthermore, as we argue herein, our problems and our system have moved beyond the comprehension of our elected officials, which suggests that “understanding” the full picture is accessible to no one. But this is in itself a form of understanding, much as we “understand” that the weather, our economy, global warming, and the drift of a cork down a turbulent river are not “understandable” in any fully predictive or descriptive sense.

This Will Require Interest First

All this talk about understanding and action means nothing without interest. We are asking you, a member of the people, to become more active in civic affairs. We are asking that you do this with others. But we are not asking that you do anything in which you do not have a reasonably serious interest. This kind of project only works with sustained attention over a long span of time. Just organizing an effective protest takes months. The process of constructing affordable housing with government money takes years just to secure the money. Reforming police behavior through a collaborative process that includes citizens and elected leaders working with the police (the only way it can be accomplished) could take a decade. Moving the vast apparatus of our health care system that finally, at last, delivers health care as a right, universal and affordable to all, will take longer.

In our experience, one does not have to be an expert on a subject to be an effective participant in a collaborative process that produces good outcomes. Most civic organizations depend upon a few people to lead and do most of the work. One or two of this smaller group have to understand what the group is doing in sufficient detail to lead good decisions. The rest carry the spears. In good groups, the spear carriers contribute to the whole in critical ways—taking minutes, organizing and maintaining a web site, raising money, researching a particular topic, recruiting new members, keeping the books and finances, creating publicity, holding parties, securing the group’s legal status, among others. Many of these tasks can be performed with very little grasp of the target problem. Presuming such groups meet regularly (a key factor in our experience, even if there does not appear much to discuss at some particular moments), knowledge among its members will grow by osmosis. But anyone can help if they are interested.

It is worth noting that working in protest of some government activity or policy gets headlines and has many internal rewards—there is a common cause that unites the group, protests are fun and community building within the group, and the targets are usually relatively simple. However, there are many more groups that actually work with the government to carry out some particular purpose. Some are highly institutionalized, such as volunteer workers in elections and the PTA. Some feel more ad hoc, but still have long lives, such as the many private groups supporting the homeless, building affordable housing, broadband, the arts, renters, specific aspects of life among the poor, local parks, and emergency preparation. Many city neighborhoods have neighborhood associations, usually to defend the neighborhood from over-development as they see it, but as often devoted to things like clean-up days, parks, real estate news, and getting to know each other. We highly recommend working in a political campaign if you have not done so. They also are fun if tiring, mix new people together, offer exposure to issues even if issues are not the driving force of the campaign (more true of national and state campaigns—local campaigns are all issue driven), and are over, after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. In short, there is no shortage of opportunities for political engagement

We ask, beg you really, to choose something that interests you, and put your oar in the water. However, we do have some preferences if you wish our guidance.

Learning and Elections

Here are some of our domestic problems that have so far resisted remediation, with complexity surrounding their inner workings with such strength that they feel like some medieval town with six-foot walls to repel cannon fire: health care, global warming, the wage gap, poverty, homelessness, federal debt, police profiling, gun violence, substance abuse, public transit, and immigration. Here are some problems for which we have attempted remediations and made headway, but find the going now tough, with some suffering recidivism: education, racism, gender discrimination, water and land management, affordable housing, religious intolerance, violent crime, domestic violence, crumbling infrastructure, social services, virus response, food safety, environmental protection, and protection services. In our section on Facts we list almost 100 rights we either do or hope to enjoy as citizens that are always threatened with various forms of compromise. Our current Supreme Court has clearly soured on several key rights; one can see the gleam in the eyes of Clarence Thomas as he contemplates returning same sex congress to its status at the founding, as a capital crime.

Every item on these lists requires new legislation to either cure the problem or contribute to its remediation. A vast majority of these problems can be attacked by local governments and citizen groups, either working in tandem or the latter pressuring the former to do something creative.

The operating word here is “creative.” We are far more likely to get creative ideas at local levels than state or national levels. If they work, they can grow into state and national chambers. The process has been repeated many times in this country. We see it now in climate change, with local initiatives for reducing fossil fuel use growing into state laws dictating when cars must be battery powered and tax rebates for home solar systems.

Creativity generally requires understanding enough to know what would count. Realizing better elected legislators will require election reform. It is to these two ends that we hope to assist with your help, even orchestrate as time marches on. The learning part requires new approaches to civic education in high schools and colleges, ones rooted in issues and actual civic practice (including absorbing this web site of course). Election reform begins with many more people voting, particularly young people, but must migrate to removing money from the process and forcing candidates to actually say something creative that offers directional solutions about serious issues as the price of winning.

We named our intended programs at the beginning of this section. We go into some detail on each in subsections. Most of them will have an interactive component that will allow any reader of this web site to track progress of initiatives taken by local organizations that will allow the new to be accessed and spread over time. Now is the time to get on the move, both individually and collectively, as the preamble of the US Constitution made so clear over 230 years ago with its opening:

“We the People of the United States, to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”