Memories of Futures Past
A brief history of bold new visions of the American order

Junius Brutus Stearns's painting of the first Constitutional convention


Kevin D. Williamson

Alex Seitz-Wald, the poor man’s Hendrik Hertzberg, has in the latest issue of National Journal heaved a Ciceronic sigh and declared that the Constitution “isn’t going to make it,” that it should be replaced by the wise men of our generation, who have “learned what works and what doesn’t.” This sort of essay is practically a genre unto itself. The print version of Mr. Seitz-Wald’s article is headlined “Get Me Rewrite,” as were the Boston Globe’s 2006 essay on the same subject, Lewis Lapham’s 1996 version in the New York Times Book Review, a 1999 San Francisco Chronicle version of the same piece, and a half-dozen other offerings, the main variation being the occasional presence of an exclamation point, as favored by the excitable Mr. Lapham.

Mr. Seitz-Wald’s is not the most intelligent of the selections, but it satisfactorily adheres to the conventions of the genre, which are: (1) the question-begging assertion that our federal government “isn’t working” because it stubbornly refuses to do such things as Mr. Seitz-Wald wishes it to do; (2) the conceit that we have at long last reached the stage in our social evolution at which we can best the work of the founding generation; (3) populist techno-fetishism, which since the first days of radio has been promising to unleash the forces of democracy against the arrayed lines of big business, malefactors of great wealth, vested interests, and the rest of that bunch.

This is mainly a progressive interest, though not exclusively so. Conservatives such as Mark Levin also are interested in making sweeping changes to our constitutional order, though Mr. Levin would work within that order, specifically through the amendment process, to achieve his version of a more perfect union. Mr. Seitz-Wald, on the other hand, writes admiringly of Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth and its fictitious political system, which “asks the public to choose leaders from a preselected pool of candidates who have been algorithmically chosen for leadership potential.” One suspects that the main attraction of that idea is the opportunity to write the word “algorithmically,” and Mr. Seitz-Wald all but squeals with delight as he considers the new possibilities offered by technological development: “These tools are still in their infancy, but scaled up they could change what democracy looks like in ways we’re only just beginning to imagine. At the extreme, we could theoretically have smartphone-enabled direct democracy, where the public could vote directly on legislation and where Congress would almost be irrelevant. At the same time, Lorelei Kelly of the New America Foundation and the Smart Congress project warns against ‘mob sourcing.’ One glance at what’s trending on the White House’s ‘We the People’ petition platform — e.g., ‘Investigate Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table Government Shutdown Show on ABC Network’ — confirms this. Instead, she says, we need something more like Rotten Tomatoes democracy. Unlike typical crowd sourcing, the movie-reviewing site privileges expertise and aggregates reviews for smarter results.” Note the loving use of California business-speak — “scaled up” for “improved,” etc. — and the general undertone of Silicon Valley envy.

Political types are right to suffer from a little Silicon Valley envy. As Balaji Srinivasan noted in his much-discussed Y Combinator talk in October, the tech sector has been putting a serious hurt on what he calls the “Paper Belt,” the traditional centers of power in which nest men such as Mr. Seitz-Wald: New York City’s newspapers, magazines, and book publishers; Boston’s education cartel; Los Angeles’s near monopoly on film and television — and, next up, Washington’s ability to hijack our resources and to tell us how to live. While Mr. Seitz-Wald is dreaming about tapping a referendum app on his iPhone to allow him to sharpen up EPA carbon-dioxide regulations, Mr. Srinivasan notes that innovations such as BitCoin and 3-D printers bring into question whether Washington can effectively regulate us at all.

Mr. Srinivasan — that’s Balaji S. Srinivasan; he uses the middle initial because there are at least a dozen Balaji Srinivasans in the Bay Area, a fact that is itself an interesting indicator — is not entirely immune to the clichés and facile conclusions that mark Mr. Seitz-Wald’s essay. Joking that the United States is the Microsoft of nations, he points to the Constitution and complains that “the code base is 230 years old and written in obfuscated language.” But his ideas are very much in the American tradition, unlike those of Mr. Seitz-Wald, whose “Rotten Tomatoes democracy” is essentially a crude form of might-makes-right majoritarianism with a light complement of technology mostly intended to allow men such as Mr. Seitz-Wald to act as referees. Which is to say, Mr. Seitz-Wald’s political vision is neither new nor fresh, but the oldest vision of all: transferring more power to himself and to men such as himself.