More congressional staffers speak up and some stuff about Plato

via ‘People Are Close to Revolt’ by James Fallows (who has been smartly covering this whole Mike Lofgren saga over at the Atlantic)

When challenging Speaker Jim Wright over his book sales and then during the House banking scandal, Newt Gingrich defended his efforts as “We have to destroy the House in order to save it.”  I think you can make a line connecting that approach with Reagan’s “government is the problem” and Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast.” Many Republican leaders somehow believe that they and the country will benefit if they undermine public trust in and support for government — and they see no difference between the national and partisan benefits from such an outcome.

Another, a former staffer still in his 20s:

as Congress gets worse, it becomes harder and harder for anyone less interested in their proximity to power to stay. Idealism is tough to maintain, especially given the examples that Members and Senators are setting, and sweeping out droves of elected officials doesn’t change the underlying population that keeps the Hill ticking (or not ticking).

The same staffer elaborates about an issue he calls the “Tragedy of the Commons”

Those relationships were crucial; they allowed our leaders to see each others humanity, and to trust each other far more than today’s politics allows. Being able to fly home to one’s district may be good for that particular Member, but it’s a Tragedy of the Commons – if no one sticks around in DC, national policy making suffers. And has suffered.

Why don’t we think of Congressional service like a military deployment? Soldiers can’t come home each weekend, and those that spend the money on their wars shouldn’t either.

Its an interesting point and a semi interesting idea.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been musing from time to time about what institutional changes could actually be made to make things “better” in Congress. I keep coming back to one idea Plato discusses in “The Republic” about his theorized “ideal city”.

He argued that the city (city-state, more accurately) should be ruled by a group of beneficent people that would all essentially be anonymous and locked up in a sort of political barracks where they would live and eat and socialize among each other, with no outside influence nor any influence on the outside.

It’s an interesting idea. Not a practical one, but it does get to the root of the civility problem Congress faces (which, again, I believe primarily stems from technological advances more than anything). One does not attempt to destroy a person with whom he (or she) breaks bread each day. A beginning to solving the problem could be as simple as forced mixed dining sessions, at first once a month or week and then gradually becoming more frequent.

It would work for about a week, until one member got onto TV and called the practice elitist and proclaimed themselves to be the god-emporer of populism by choosing to eat among their constituents rather than with the evil corrupt politicians in Washington.

So that was a nice idea while it lasted.

Plato also argued that it is better to be ruled by a bad tyrant than by a bad democracy, for what it’s worth. A bad tyrant can at least be replaced with a better one. A bad democracy is a reflection of a bad citizenry and cannot improve unless a critical amount of citizens do so.

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