And yet I choose to have faith in our government.
Many of my friends think I'm naive for doing so, and I can't blame them. I suppose faith can never totally be expunged of naivete.
But I have faith in our process, and I believe if we spent more time engaging that process than bemoaning it, our common life would be much improved.
One of the many things that drives me nuts about contemporary American discourse is the way we make saints of the founding fathers. No doubt, they were a remarkable group of men. But they were not perfect, and neither was the system they created.
What frustrates me most about the canonization of Jefferson and Madison and Washington is that it distracts from the work at hand. Rather than putting our shoulders to the work those men would have wanted us to undertake--the hard work of improving our system, of preserving it by adapting it to modern times--we lament that our era is not like theirs, that our leaders are not like they were, and that our citizens are not like the ones they governed.
The result is that we retreat from the laborious work of governing ourselves, withdrawing instead into the comforting bubbles of cynicism ("Politicians, they're all the same") and righteous anger ("Obama/The Tea Party/The Supreme Court is ruining America!"), venting our anger on social media, where we can be just as bitter as we please. It is instantly gratifying to be angry; it is not instantly gratifying to attend a meeting at city hall.
In this climate, a certain kind of techno-utopian-libertarianism has come to vogue. To put it very crudely, this movement often proposes: Why pursue anything through public channels when we can solve things with technology and business? It's a fair question, but one that I think is dangerous for the public institutions that bind our unruly republic together--the institutions that the founding fathers set up for each generation to make its own to the best of its ability. Nathan Heller, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Yorker writers, recently articulated the perils of giving up public processes for dead in an article about San Francisco's tech culture:
"Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? ... The truly radical move in the Bay Area would be a return to the messy business of public debate.
That would be tricky, because public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting. There are many people involved, with disparate ideas, and most big decisions are put to public vote--which means more people and ideas. This is the hell of regulatory blockades and referenda and open meetings to which crazy people come to read bizarre complaints off rumpled notebook paper. ... Getting anything done through public process requires convincing many, many individuals of the rightness of your dream. And it demands that you do that over and over, against a tide of disagreement, settling for half measures rather than no measures. The terms of public process are not personal or romantic but objective; it is language that could have been drawn up, literally, by committee. And yet, because of that, it is a language shared."
One of the great lessons of American history is that just about every major achievement--from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s--took the kind of time, patience, and compromise that Heller so wonderfully describes. To imagine that democracy functions otherwise is to delude oneself; to abandon the methods that have served us so well (albeit imperfectly) for more than 200 years would be a great betrayal of the things we purport to celebrate tomorrow.