Meacham: The System’s Not to Blame. We Are.

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. Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, is proposing passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which would attempt to reduce congressional dependence on big-dollar fundraising, and is also calling for a constitutional convention to weigh other questions of reform. The Framers "imagined a time when the government might be captured. And they created a mechanism to respond to that capture," Lessig writes on callaconvention.org. "If 2/3ds of the legislatures of the states demand it, Congress must call a convention. That convention then must meet and deliberate about amendments to the constitution. If it agrees, it then proposes amendments to the states. 3/4ths of the states must then ratify any amendment before [it] becomes law. Thus, 12 states of 50 have the power to veto any change, meaning no change could happen unless it appealed to a solid group of Red States and a solid group of Blue."

Perhaps it is time to invoke the convention clause and see what happens. It is intellectually inconsistent to defend the Constitution as we know it but then oppose the attempt to use the Constitution's own provisions for reform. But for all the talk of process and of "Washington" in the abstract, the most important obstacle to taking steps on issues of money and power is not procedural but human. The capital is essentially the sum of myriad personal and political passions, not a clinical phenomenon somehow beyond control.

If we are candid about it, we can see that everyone is a special interest. Nobody has diagnosed the situation better than Jonathan Rauch, who defined what he called "demosclerosis" 16 years ago. To Rauch, demosclerosis is "postwar democratic government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt." When too many Americans have personal reasons to keep things the way they are—seniors, farmers, anyone who benefits from the redistribution of wealth through government means—then sacrificing one's own claims becomes difficult, if not impossible. There is, then, no quick—or even deliberate—procedural fix for what truly drives politics: our ambitions and our appetites. And addressing those factors is at best a gradual undertaking.

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