Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Philadelphia Politics
Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.

Customs, Culture and Traditions
Abundant seafood made it easy to settle here. Agriculture takes longer.

Social Disintermediation

{top quote}
A term borrowed from the banking world seems to explain the recent decline of local government, local clubs, and local news sources. {bottom quote}

The growing speed of communication, especially the electronic sort, exacts its price. Western civilization spent several centuries building up valuable social structures intended to unite citizen opinion with that of their leaders. A lot of that now seems unnecessary. Most people now know how to read, write, type and press enter. A dozen systems attempt to catch up with Google in the art of telling people what they say they want to know. C-span lets us hear our leaders speak, more or less in person, and then answers our phone call, sometimes.

Quite a change from the days when people knew nothing and knew they knew nothing. Benjamin Franklin formed dozens of little clubs and societies for people of like minds to learn what was going on, and to magnify the force of their collective opinion to influence it. That's essentially why Philadelphia remains a city of clubs, but the diminishing need for such megaphones also goes a long way toward explaining the decline of clubs. The Bar Association has less importance for lawyers, the AMA less for doctors. One consequence that is noticeable is an ascension to power within such declining organizations of minority groups, fringe opinions, and other elements still desperately searching for a voice. The power elites now prefer to aspire to befriend and influencing national power centers directly, and in the process unconsciously augment the importance of centralized power. The upper layers of the government bureaucracy have become infiltrated with educated and high-minded graduates of elite schools, and toward them often go the appeals of former classmates with less plausible motivations. Quite rapidly for a social revolution, people are changing political sides, and the consequence is polarization.

Regardless of laments for the systems and institutions of the past, polarization is dissolving the old glue that binds the nation together, heedless of the new glue of electronics and instant communication with like-minded strangers. It's hard to know what people really believe about the polarizing effect of gerrymandering congressional and legislative districts because it brings people of like opinion together and people generally enjoy that. But professional analysts of the political scene focus on the effect of each ten-year census and claim that the elections of the next decade are easily predictable once you know how the revised census was gerrymandered. Contrast the difference in deportment between the scruffy members of the U.S. Congress with those of the U.S. Senate, where gerrymandering is impossible. The consequence often goes unnoticed, because gerrymandering means that people of the same opinion are more likely to find that everyone they know -- agrees with them. It's not entirely a new phenomenon. When Franklin Roosevelt defeated Alfred Landon in the greatest landslide in our history, many voices were raised that the election must have been fixed because everyone they knew voted for Landon. Something like that misperception affects many who voted in the two elections of George W. Bush, differing in these essentially tied elections only that both sides believe they were cheated. The buffering organizations, the clubs, ethnic groups, and even the political parties either no longer survive, or are dominated by die-hards.

How much of all this is just temporary disorientation, how much is a growing trend predicting the future, is unclear. The harsh and thoughtless oaths and demands which have become so disagreeably common may pass away when people get a grip on themselves, or they may escalate into our normal level of public discourse. Negative campaigning, experts say, is effective. Political campaigns get progressively harsher and dirtier as they approach election day. Money talks, and it talks by buying professional assistance to say what the buyer is ashamed to say. A political party wants to win elections above all else; those who lose elections are quickly hounded into oblivion. And yet, and yet. A slogan or two can still turn this sort of thing around. Just tell a loudmouth that he sounds like a junkyard dog, and see how quickly the listeners quiet down. It's a vicious thing to do, but it works, using vile attacks to silence vile remarks.

To a considerable degree it works because it draws attention to how little substance is to be found in these shouting matches. Someone who heard a major general gives a talk may be emboldened to offer a different opinion on combat strategy, but he still knows how little he knows and retreats at the first sound of answering fire. The person who just listened to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve talking about interest rates may claim to disagree but soon looks a fool if asked to document that opinion. The barroom orator, unrestrained by association with local opinion makers in person, is emboldened to rise to combat with the champions of the opposition. Most of us soon learn not to pick fights with the varsity, and there is at least some small hope that civility will eventually return when a few more noses get bloodied.

You can try soft reasoned analysis if you wish, but at the moment it isn't very popular.

Originally published: Monday, October 29, 2007; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019