James Madison and How Technology Changed Politics
Let me begin with a disclosure – I am a technologist, a professional with almost 40 years of experience, and multiple degrees in my field. Yet here I am, writing an article to show how technology brought about the ruin of our political system.
To set the stage, we have to go back in time to the very start of our country – a time when we had the Articles of Confederation before the Constitution. A time when there was no centralized national government.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay believed that our country needed a centralized, federal government, and presented their views in a series of publications called “The Federalist Papers.” One of the most famous of these was Federalist Paper 10.
In Paper 10, Madison claimed that given the nature of man, different factions would always appear in our society. Madison believed that factions were the most frequent reason governments fail, caused by having a single faction gaining complete control over a government.
His belief was that danger came from allowing a faction in control to pass laws limiting or removing the liberties of others, instead of providing liberty, freedom, and equality for all – effectively forcing everyone else to comply with their beliefs and views. Madison’s view was that the best way to protect freedom was to have a republic: a form of democracy where elected officials would represent local interests and groups. He further felt that this was a form of government that would be sustainable as the country grew.
Madison was counting on local representation providing a barrier to the sudden spread of a populist concept, creating a faction that could act on that idea, even if it were poor or harmful to others.
Simply put, Madison argued that the geographical growth of our country would lead to natural insulation by providing local representation who would resist ideas not acceptable to their constituents. The growth and spread of any populist ideas would be sufficiently slowed that the country would have time to re-balance itself.
Madison was correct.
In Madison’s day, transportation was limited to foot traffic, horseback, or horse-drawn wagons. A trip from New York to Maryland took approximately a week. This alone created an obstacle to the rapid spread of an idea – a “natural” barrier, in other words.
Madison and our Founding Fathers counted on this barrier to limit the spread of populist demagoguery and passionate ideological beliefs, allowing time for the rest of the country to more calmly assess and react to such things.
As the country physically grew (the Louisiana purchase, Seward’s Folly, the acquisition of Texas, the California Gold Rush), Madison’s vision was proven true repeatedly. A republic with a representative form of government was able to accommodate our growing country, and the distances and time involved did indeed act as insulators to some of the worst populist movements that emerged.
Technology began to erode the barrier that Madison and his peers counted on.
Locomotives began emerging in America during the early 1800s, and the impact was dramatic. Trips taking a week or more on horseback were reduced to days or hours. Mail was transported and arrived days or weeks later, instead of months.
Even while the geography of America continued to physically expand, it also began shrinking in a different manner.
In 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted a telegraph message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, proving that messages could now be sent hundreds of miles in an instant. Distance now became less of an obstacle to communicate ideas, although there were still limitations on how well such things could be communicated and presented.
By 1877, another technology emerged: the telephone. Limited at first, phones became commonplace by the early 1900s, and the barrier eroded further, this time at an accelerated pace because phones were available as an in-house service. This was growing as the preferred method over mail or telegraphs, which required time to craft the message and go out to pay for it to be delivered.
We should pause, and reflect on all of this. From the earliest days, when travel was measured in weeks and months, technology shrank travel time to hours and days. Geography began to mean less by the mid to late 1800s. Messages that could take weeks or months to arrive were now delivered in days or even minutes.
Interestingly enough, during this same period of time in the late 1800s, the first national unions were formed. The Federation of Organized Trade and Labor was formed in 1881, followed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, both of whom had a huge impact on America. This is prime evidence that national factions emerged as technology frayed the Founding Fathers’ insulation.
In 1920, the first commercial radio station broadcast was done by Pittsburgh’s KDKA. For the first time in American history, large groups of geographically dispersed individuals could be spoken to all at once. The importance and impact were not lost on politicians. On December 6, 1923, Calvin Coolidge delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, and it was simultaneously broadcast. Americans suddenly became direct, real-time participants in politics and their government in action.
From here, we have more technology accelerating the erosion of that critical insulation, such as television, cell phones, commercial airline transportation, the emergence of the national highway system, and availability of consumer automobiles.
The final destructor of the insulation of time and space in American politics is, of course, the modern Internet and all the capabilities it brings.
Email, websites, live video, and social media completely eradicated the protections once provided by time and space. Smartphones provide a constant window into the world of the Internet, making it avoidable only by a conscious effort.
Factions, groups, and foreign governments are now able to feed their messages directly to huge numbers of miscellaneous disparate groups. This has allowed them to generate firestorms of widespread populist movements through messages designed to evoke a particular emotional response over and over again.
This direct injection of carefully tailored messages into our lives has allowed our psyches to become constantly bombarded with raw appeals to our emotions in an addictive way.
Worse, since the mechanisms presenting these are self-tuning, the more you view something, the more frequently similar content will appear. Technology has now created an automatic, self-reinforcing echo chamber amplifying people’s fears, anxieties, and doubts. This achieves the message maker’s goal of blunting critical thinking and reason in favor of conditioned emotional reactions. They get us to react the way they want us to.
This is what our founding fathers feared. And now, it’s happened.
How do we fix it?
We obviously can’t put the proverbial genie back into the bottle. However, understanding a problem is the first step toward correcting it. We can all step outside our bubbles, talk to the people we disagree with, and take a deep breath.