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A loyal, time-serving member of Congress could expect easy renomination, financial help, promotion through the ranks of committees and leadership jobs, and a new airport or research center for his district. A turncoat or troublemaker, by contrast, could expect to encounter ostracism, marginalization, and difficulties with fund-raising. The system was hierarchical, but it was not authoritarian. Even the lowliest precinct walker or officeholder had a role and a voice and could expect a reward for loyalty; even the highest party boss had to cater to multiple constituencies and fend off periodic challengers.

Parties, machines, and hacks may not have been pretty, but at their best they did their job so well that the country forgot why it needed them. Politics seemed almost to organize itself, but only because the middlemen recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn those compromises into law.

Though sometimes arrogant, middlemen were not generally elitist. They excelled at organizing and representing unsophisticated voters, as Tammany Hall famously did for the working-class Irish of New York, to the horror of many Progressives who viewed the Irish working class as unfit to govern or even to vote. The old machines were inclusive only by the standards of their day, of course.

They were bad on race—but then, so were Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson. The more intrinsic hazard with middlemen and machines is the ever-present potential for corruption, which is a real problem.


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On the other hand, overreacting to the threat of corruption by stamping out influence-peddling as distinct from bribery and extortion is just as harmful. Political contributions, for example, look unseemly, but they play a vital role as political bonding agents. Such transactions may not have comported with the Platonic ideal of democracy, but in the real world they did much to stabilize the system and discourage selfish behavior. Middlemen have a characteristic that is essential in politics: They stick around.

Because careerists and hacks make their living off the system, they have a stake in assembling durable coalitions, in retaining power over time, and in keeping the government in functioning order. Insurgents and renegades have a role, which is to jolt the system with new energy and ideas; but professionals also have a role, which is to safely absorb the energy that insurgents unleash. Think of them as analogous to antibodies and white blood cells, establishing and patrolling the barriers between the body politic and would-be hijackers on the outside.

As with biology, so with politics: When the immune system works, it is largely invisible. Only when it breaks down do we become aware of its importance. Beginning early in the 20th century, and continuing right up to the present, reformers and the public turned against every aspect of insider politics: professional politicians, closed-door negotiations, personal favors, party bosses, financial ties, all of it. To some extent, the reformers were right.

They had good intentions and valid complaints. Back in the s, as a teenager in the post-Watergate era, I was on their side. Why allow politicians ever to meet behind closed doors? Sunshine is the best disinfectant! Why allow private money to buy favors and distort policy making?

Ban it and use Treasury funds to finance elections! It was easy, in those days, to see that there was dirty water in the tub. What was not so evident was the reason the water was dirty, which was the baby. So we started reforming. We reformed the nominating process. The use of primary elections instead of conventions, caucuses, and other insider-dominated processes dates to the era of Theodore Roosevelt, but primary elections and party influence coexisted through the s; especially in congressional and state races, party leaders had many ways to influence nominations and vet candidates.

According to Jon Meacham, in his biography of George H. Pryor, a top Pan Am executive and a mover in Connecticut politics, called Prescott to ask whether Bush might like to run for Congress. Primary races now tend to be dominated by highly motivated extremists and interest groups, with the perverse result of leaving moderates and broader, less well-organized constituencies underrepresented.

According to the Pew Research Center, in the first 12 presidential-primary contests of , only 17 percent of eligible voters participated in Republican primaries, and only 12 percent in Democratic primaries. In other words, Donald Trump seized the lead in the primary process by winning a mere plurality of a mere fraction of the electorate.

Moreover, recent research by the political scientists Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts finds that party leaders of yore did a better job of encouraging qualified mainstream candidates to challenge incumbents. The paradoxical result is that members of Congress today are simultaneously less responsive to mainstream interests and harder to dislodge. Was the switch to direct public nomination a net benefit or drawback? The answer to that question is subjective. But one effect is not in doubt: Institutionalists have less power than ever before to protect loyalists who play well with other politicians, or who take a tough congressional vote for the team, or who dare to cross single-issue voters and interests; and they have little capacity to fend off insurgents who owe nothing to anybody.

Walled safely inside their gerrymandered districts, incumbents are insulated from general-election challenges that might pull them toward the political center, but they are perpetually vulnerable to primary challenges from extremists who pull them toward the fringes. Everyone worries about being the next Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader who, in a shocking upset, lost to an unknown Tea Partier in his primary.

Legislators are scared of voting for anything that might increase the odds of a primary challenge, which is one reason it is so hard to raise the debt limit or pass a budget. Moran in the August GOP primary. Purist issue groups often have the whip hand now, and unlike the elected bosses of yore, they are accountable only to themselves and are able merely to prevent legislative action, not to organize it.

We reformed political money. Starting in the s, large-dollar donations to candidates and parties were subject to a tightening web of regulations. The idea was to reduce corruption or its appearance and curtail the power of special interests—certainly laudable goals. Campaign-finance rules did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost: Instead of eliminating money from politics which is impossible , the rules diverted much of it to private channels.

Whereas the parties themselves were once largely responsible for raising and spending political money, in their place has arisen a burgeoning ecology of deep-pocketed donors, super pac s, c 4 s, and so-called groups that now spend hundreds of millions of dollars each cycle. Private groups are much harder to regulate, less transparent, and less accountable than are the parties and candidates, who do, at the end of the day, have to face the voters. Because they thrive on purism, protest, and parochialism, the outside groups are driving politics toward polarization, extremism, and short-term gain.

La Raja recently for a Brookings Institution report. Republicans told us the same story. Weakened by regulations and resource constraints, they have been reduced to spectators, while candidates and groups form circular firing squads and alienate voters. At the national level, the situation is even more chaotic—and ripe for exploitation by a savvy demagogue who can make himself heard above the din, as Donald Trump has so shrewdly proved. We reformed Congress.

For a long time, seniority ruled on Capitol Hill. To exercise power, you had to wait for years, and chairs ran their committees like fiefs. It was an arrangement that hardly seemed either meritocratic or democratic. Power on the Hill has flowed both up to a few top leaders and down to individual members.

Unfortunately, the reformers overlooked something important: Seniority and committee spots rewarded teamwork and loyalty, they ensured that people at the top were experienced, and they harnessed hundreds of middle-ranking members of Congress to the tasks of legislating. More than perhaps ever before, Congress today is a collection of individual entrepreneurs and pressure groups. In the House, disintermediation has shifted the balance of power toward a small but cohesive minority of conservative Freedom Caucus members who think nothing of wielding their power against their own leaders.

But Cruz was doing what makes sense in an age of maximal political individualism, and we can safely bet that his success will inspire imitation. We reformed closed-door negotiations. As recently as the early s, congressional committees could easily retreat behind closed doors and members could vote on many bills anonymously, with only the final tallies reported.

Federal advisory committees, too, could meet off the record. Understandably, in the wake of Watergate, those practices came to be viewed as suspect. Today, federal law, congressional rules, and public expectations have placed almost all formal deliberations and many informal ones in full public view. One result is greater transparency, which is good. But another result is that finding space for delicate negotiations and candid deliberations can be difficult. Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled; once gone, they turned out to be difficult to replace.

In public, interest groups and grandstanding politicians can tear apart a compromise before it is halfway settled. Despite promising to televise negotiations over health-care reform, President Obama went behind closed doors with interest groups to put the package together; no sane person would have negotiated in full public view. TV cameras, recorded votes, and public markups do increase transparency, but they come at the cost of complicating candid conversations.

We reformed pork. For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district. Also, because pork was dispensed by powerful appropriations committees with input from senior congressional leaders, it provided a handy way for the leadership to buy votes and reward loyalists. Conservatives and liberals alike attacked pork-barreling as corrupt, culminating in early , when a strange-bedfellows coalition of Tea Partiers and progressives banned earmarking, the practice of dropping goodies into bills as a way to attract votes—including, ironically, votes for politically painful spending reductions.

Routine business such as passing a farm bill or a surface-transportation bill now takes years instead of weeks or months to complete. Today two-thirds of federal-program spending excluding interest on the national debt runs on formula-driven autopilot. The political cost has also been high: Congressional leaders lost one of their last remaining tools to induce followership and team play.

Like campaign contributions and smoke-filled rooms, pork is a tool of democratic governance, not a violation of it. It can be used for corrupt purposes but also, very often, for vital ones. Just last year, Republican Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was asked how his committee managed to pass bipartisan authorization bills year after year, even as the rest of Congress ground to a legislative standstill. Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending—put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business.

But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all. The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation—by favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between.

Other, larger trends, to be sure, have also contributed to political disorganization, but the war on middlemen has amplified and accelerated them. All that was needed was for the right virus to come along and exploit the opening. As it happened, two came along. Tea Partiers shared some of the policy predilections of loyal Republican partisans, but their mind-set was angrily anti-establishment. In a Pew Research poll, more than 70 percent of them disapproved of Republican leaders in Congress.

In a Pew poll, they had rejected compromise by similar margins. They thought nothing of mounting primary challenges against Republican incumbents, and they made a special point of targeting Republicans who compromised with Democrats or even with Republican leaders. Threats from the Tea Party and other purist factions often outweigh any blandishments or protection that leaders can offer. So far the Democrats have been mostly spared the anti-compromise insurrection, but their defenses are not much stronger.

But the Democrats are vulnerable structurally, and the anti-compromise virus is out there.

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Since , the productivity of the average agricultural worker has increased fold. During a recent stay in Sweden, McCloskey visited a Volvo factory. We will adapt to climate change, too, not by scaling back our consumption but by inventing more energy-efficient technologies and methods for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Democracy and free-market capitalism are imperfect, McCloskey acknowledged, but they are vastly preferable to communist, fascist or theocratic systems. Just to be clear: McCloskey is saying that we have already answered the collective version of the mind-body problem, which asks what we are, can be and should be. The answer is that we should be bourgeois.

And just to be really clear: I agree with her. Some of my lefty friends no doubt will react to this chapter by saying: You end your big inquiry into what humanity should be by saying we should be… bourgeois? They will point out that my subjects and I are all white, American academics. Of course we love bourgeois culture! Our pretty good liberal utopia is the inverse of the monomaniacal ones that have gotten us into so much trouble in the past.

Liberalism is a meta-mind-body story, even an anti-story. It rejects the ancient dream of a Supreme Story, a single, final, absolutely true answer to the question of who we are. Far from eliminating identity crises, liberalism enables them, even encourages them, by giving us lots of options. It does not tell us who we are. It gives us the freedom and means to figure that out for ourselves. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or from civilian to soldier or from man to woman.

Do systems superior to democracy-plus-capitalism lurk out there in the multi-dimensional space of possible systems? If humanity went through an annealing process—triggered by a nuclear war, warming-induced surge in sea levels, viral pandemic, or pandemics of fascism or militant fundamentalism—might we crystalize into a better system for promoting self-exploration? Perhaps, but I hope never to see that conjecture tested. After violent disruptions, large societies often collapse into an inferior state, at least for the short-term.

Look at the bloodbaths that followed the French Revolution and communist seizures of Russia and China. Over the next century, developing nations in Africa, South America and elsewhere will catch up to the first world. Listening to McCloskey extoll the bourgeoisie, I kept thinking of my father. He grew up poor during the Depression, but he got a free education from the U. Naval Academy. After serving on a destroyer in World War II, he worked his ass off to create a good life for me and my four siblings, and I reviled him for it.

I showed my contempt for his bourgeois values by decorating my bedroom with communist iconography, brawny, rock-jawed workers gripping hammers and sickles and gazing bravely into the utopian future. Around that time, Soviets troops were crushing democratic uprisings in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Our leaders mouthed platitudes about peace and freedom while bombing Southeast Asia and tolerating racism at home. I fantasized about an apocalyptic war, from the ashes of which would arise an anarchist hippy paradise. I spent years wandering around the country working odd jobs, trying to figure out who I was.

My father and I made up decades ago. I admire him as much as anyone I know, and not just because he helped pay for my education. He is a good, big-hearted man, altruistic toward kin and non-kin alike. My father, also named John Horgan, in the late s with one of the perks of his job. Marx, of all people, helped me appreciate the charm of the bourgeoisie. A decade ago, I started teaching a freshman humanities course, a required text of which is the Communist Manifesto.

Marx and Engels complained that the bourgeoisie tramples all values in its quest for profits. Everything, including humans, becomes a commodity. Capitalism has undermined the authority of religion, nations, aristocracy, even families. Marx and Engels even foresaw how capitalism would liberate women. The rise of literacy and gender equality? Sounds pretty good! Some scholars estimate that communist regimes were responsible for the deaths of more than million people in the 20 th century.

He spoke, no, he preached with the fervor of a prophet who knows who we really are and should be. He has discovered the true, final answer to the collective version of the mind-body problem. His vision inspired devotees into taking action—and turned many into murderous zealots. Ideologies like Christianity, Islam, Social Darwinism, eugenics and free-market economics have also inspired lethal zealotry. The lesson is clear. When we talk about our hopes for humanity, what we can be and should be, we should be humble.

We should heed the advice of Owen Flanagan: Doubt yourself. We should think like engineers. Instead of seeking the final, absolutely true solution to our problems, we should just look for something that works. McCloskey is humble, in her ebullient way. In her book The Rhetoric of Economics , she urges economists to acknowledge the subjectivity of their judgments, and their reliance on rhetoric.

Writing about the Great Enrichment, McCloskey cites plenty of empirical evidence, but she never pretends to be wholly objective. Her affection for the bourgeoisie is clearly a matter of taste as well as truth. I still lean sharply left. In I brought the socialist firebrand Naomi Klein to my school.

She argued, persuasively, that unrestrained capitalism spawned global warming , which has brought us to the brink of disaster. But neither Klein nor any other left-leaning intellectual I know wants to abolish capitalism. They advocate reform, and so does McCloskey. At one point during our conversation, I confessed that in my youth I fantasized about a cataclysm that would sweep everything away, so we could start fresh. She sang, in her hoarse, scratchy voice, an old anarchist song:. Anarchists in garrets, narrow and thin,.

The last one was thrown by Brother Tom. Some day, we might even create a pluralistic utopia like the one Marx envisioned. Communism, Marx wrote, would free us from bondage to a single job or identity. My proposal is simple.

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Everyone, including those who put their faith in science, would accept once and for all that there is no Supreme Story, no single, objectively true answer to the mind-body problem, which tells us who we are. We would recognize that our belief in Supreme Stories has been harmful, the cause of tremendous suffering. Like: God created humans 6, years ago and gave my race, and my gender, dominion over yours. But in a pretty good liberal utopia you can, if you like, believe in a Supreme Story.

You can be a Luddite, survivalist, communist, transhumanist or libertarian. You can even be a fascist, racist, sexist dick. You are free to give up your freedom, but not to take freedom from others. My pretty good utopia is better than yours if mine allows yours and not vice versa. We still face lots of tough questions. How do we protect ourselves from violent apocalyptic cults, or corporations that subvert democracy to boost their power? How can we raise the standard of living for all people without despoiling nature beyond repair? Should we fear or welcome technologies that can enhance our cognitive powers, maybe beyond recognition?

Should those technologies be available for everyone or just those who can afford them? How do we ensure that everyone has a shot at becoming who she wants to be, as McCloskey did? I overflowed with affection for humanity, for the bourgeoisie, for my father, for McCloskey. What a wonderful subject! I jotted down impressions in a notebook. Cowardice compels most of us to accept the destinies thrust upon us by biology and upbringing, nature and nurture, but not McCloskey.

Soldiers dodging bullets and bombs are doing what their culture demands. Listening to her, I kept thinking, What would it feel like to be that brave? McCloskey and her crossing gave me my happy ending. Brave souls like her make it easier for the rest of us to explore ourselves. They expand our freedom, our choices. Her crossing was hard, but the fact that she succeeded is yet more evidence of our moral and material progress. Later Sunday morning, after McCloskey walked Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, we sipped coffee on her big red couch and resumed our conversation.

McCloskey, who was dressed for church, seemed subdued. When I told her how much I admired her courage, she smiled and shook her head. She hates talking over the telephone, because her stutter sometimes grips her. She worries about death and decrepitude. Temperamentally, and as a matter of principle, she tends to be upbeat. She loves artists like Matisse and Chagall, who see the beauty in spite of everything.

His family died in Holocaust. He had every reason to be pessimistic. But you can be too optimistic, McCloskey said. McCloskey, who was baptized at an Episcopalian church in Iowa City shortly after her crossing, views humanity as sinful. She compares her faith in God to her faith in democracy. So we live in a world with disease, aging, earthquakes, tsunamis and infinite varieties of human cruelty.

It was late morning, time for me to head home and for McCloskey to attend mass. We walked out of her apartment together and stopped on the sidewalk outside her building. We shook hands. What many of us want from a mind-body story, above all, is assurance that everything is going to be okay. McCloskey, for all her optimism, shores up her faith in the bourgeoisie with faith in God. Alison Gopnik pointed out that many Americans do not accept basic liberal values, such as tolerance for homosexuality.

Christof Koch, in spite of his cheerful temperament, might have the gloomiest view of the future.

He worried about nuclear terrorism, environmental catastrophes and disruptions triggered by artificial intelligence. Machines might eventually outsmart us and take all our jobs, he said. Rebecca Goldstein said intellectuals have a responsibility to be realistic, not optimistic. But at any given moment, the world offers infinite reasons for feeling good or bad about the future. It comes down to a choice: optimism or pessimism? As a young man, I was profoundly pessimistic. After the Cold War ended and I became a father, I swerved toward optimism.

I like to think my optimism is rational, based on truth more than taste. The first step toward creating a better world, I tell myself, is believing it is possible. But to be honest, my optimism is based on faith, a gut feeling. Robert Trivers and Douglas Hofstadter, who look unflinchingly at the brutality of nature, especially human nature, would no doubt find my optimism sentimental, and perhaps they are right. I might be suffering from gladsadness , delusional happiness. Sometimes I feel like a silly old fool for thinking that things are going to be okay. M cGaugh is a big deal in memory research.

He has written more than papers and books, many on his specialist subject of how we form long-term memories.

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The small plaque sits on a shelf on his desk. McGaugh, who is now 85 and closing in on retirement, first began studying memory in the s. By the time Price contacted him, his research focused on showing that the more emotionally provocative an experience, the more likely the neurobiological systems involved in making memory will ensure that you remember it.

When something even slightly stimulating happens, positive or negative, it causes the release of adrenal stress hormones, which in turn activate the amygdala. The amygdala then projects to other brain regions that the thing that has just happened is important and needs to be remembered. It is through this system, McGaugh explained, that the strength of our memories is controlled.

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McGaugh had spent his professional career studying strongly formed memories, and Price seemed to have the strongest memories he had ever encountered. He hoped that her unique condition could teach us something new about how we make and store memories. Still, he started from a position of scepticism. And even though Price showed that she could, repeatedly, McGaugh was still unmoved. So we did a lot more. After his first meeting with Price, McGaugh assembled a team to determine the depth and breadth of her memory.

Over the next five years, Price was given a battery of standardised memory, IQ and learning tests, as well as a series of specially devised ones. For example, they asked Price, who is Jewish, to write down the date of every Easter from to — she got only one wrong and in that case, she was off by only two days. Price was also able to say what she had done on those days.

Price had begun recording the details of her life in earnest on 24 August , during a high-school romance she wanted to remember. She would make at least one, usually more, entry each day, comprising of short references to the most salient details of the day. Her journals were kept on calendars, on typing paper held together with binder clips, in notebooks, on index cards, even scrawled on the wallpaper in her childhood bedroom. When she dies, she told me, she wants her journals buried with her, or blown up in the desert.

They also functioned as a way to pin down the swirling mess in her head, to organise her thoughts. Price says she does not re-read her journals, and given the random dates the researchers threw at her, there is no reason to assume she could have prepared for their questions. The UCI researchers cross-referenced what she said she did with what was written in her diary; in some cases, they were also able to verify memories with her mother.

But when it came to remembering details that did not relate to her personally, Price proved no better than average. When asked to look at a bank of random numbers and memorise their order in a given period of time, she laughed and said it was impossible. Much of what did exist was about people who had the ability to memorise pi out to 22, decimal places or remember the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards.

The scientific consensus about these abilities was that they were the result of practice and acquired skill — strategy, rather than innate ability. Other people who are able to name the day of the week for any given date are also able to do it for dates outside of their lifetimes, and they tend to be autistic. Two years later, the UCI researchers asked Price to read a draft of the paper they had written about her before they submitted it. I wept while I read it. Someone had finally heard me. In truth, all they had, in Price, was a data point of one, a lot of description, and no clear understanding of the mechanisms behind her memory.

What they were about to get, however, was more people like Jill Price. P rice remembers 12 March as a very important day. A month later, the university was getting so many calls about Price that it asked her to hire a publicist to handle all the requests. Price, who was still known to the public only as AJ, invented a publicist and fielded all the queries herself. One email even pointed out that the scientists at UC Irvine were not the first to find someone with a memory like this — an article in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy described the curious case of Daniel McCartney , then a year-old blind man living in Ohio who could remember the day of the week, the weather, what he was doing, and where he was for any date back to 1 January , when he was nine years and four months old.

The second person verified as having the condition was Brad Williams, a radio announcer in Wisconsin whose brother contacted McGaugh in after coming across an article about the UCI research. Petrella sought out the UCI team after a friend suggested, on 19 June , that he should learn the science behind his memory. He was referred to Elizabeth Parker, the neuropsychologist who had co-written the original paper on hyperthymesia.

They met several times. After testing him, she confirmed that yes, Petrella had it, and sent him to McGaugh for further study. For the scientists, the research was exciting, but there was a concern as well, that it might all be a waste of time: given that such a tiny number of people with the condition had been identified, what could they definitively say about the condition?

And what could this unique group reveal about memory? The only way to move forward was to continue testing the existing subjects and hope for more. By , researchers had only identified six confirmed cases of what had been renamed highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. It was the first time that the HSAM subjects had met anyone like themselves and, watching the show today, the shock and delight in their mutual recognition is evident. When they first met on camera, there was a lot of hugging. Later, when quizzed on the date of a San Francisco earthquake, they give the answer almost in unison, some of them grinning.

The programme aired on 19 December — a Sunday night — and was seen by nearly 19 million people. Graduate and undergraduate students were pressed into service to staff a phone bank, using the public events quiz to screen callers. Most were rejected, but a small group were invited to UCI for more testing.

It is a measure of just how rare HSAM is that by , even after millions of people had heard about it, researchers had identified only 22 people with the condition.

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It was now nearly 12 years since Price first reached out to McGaugh, but researchers were only fractionally closer to finding the answer she was looking for. In order to figure out how HSAM worked, researchers first needed to understand what it was and was not. And the paper was able to offer some clues as to why they could do what they do. For example, most of the HSAM subjects described mental systems that would seemingly improve retrieval, sorting memories chronologically or categorically as in, every 15 April as far back as they could remember.

This date-based structure seemed to help them organise their memories, as though they were tagging them for easy reference.