A techno-history of Congress

June 13, 2011

Earlier this year, the economist Tyler Cowen made waves with a book arguing that the root cause of our economic problems was a decades-long slowdown in life-improving innovations. He called this “the great stagnation,” and ever since, he has been posting cheeky links to his blog that purport to prove or disprove his hypothesis.

Filed under “There is no great stagnation”: a Russian phone booth with a urinal, a BMW-powered twin-rotor hoverbike, a tool that lets you open doors with your feet, and a Japanese box that lets people kiss over the Internet. And under “more evidence for the great stagnation”: a study finding that the economic gains from the Internet have been modest and an essay arguing that a kitchen from the 1950s would produce similar results as a kitchen from 2011.

So where does Anthony Weiner fit in? A generation ago, we couldn’t have had a sex scandal based on Facebook messages, tweets and e-mails. That’s progress, of a sort. Score one for the “no great stagnation” file. On the other hand, it seems a bit frivolous, considering the state of the economy. A generation ago, we would’ve been doing something more productive than looking at Weiner’s Facebook posts, tweets and e-mails. Crushing communism, perhaps. Maybe tuck this into the “evidence for the great stagnation” drawer?

At this point, you probably think we’re taking a roundabout stroll into yet another column about Weiner. We’re not. Rather, this is about how technology has changed Congress, often for the worse, and in ways that mean much more to our democracy than the juvenile congressman’s tweets ever will.

The late, great political scientist Nelson Polsby believed polarization was “the most important thing, probably, that happened to the House of Representatives over the last 50 years.” That’s standard enough. But he also believed it was driven by a technological change that you probably would never associate with politics: air conditioning.

Polarization wasn’t the process of Americans becoming more disagreeable. We were always disagreeable. Polarization was the process by which we sorted our disagreements into the two parties. That happened when the conservative South went to the Republicans and the liberal Northeast swung to the Democrats. And Polsby said that happened because technology made a St. Petersburg living room as cool in the summer as it is in the fall.

Now, you might want to complicate this story a bit. As Isabel Wilkerson explains in her remarkable book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” there was a massive African American migration to the North around this same time, and you might remember some civil rights bills passing, too. Polsby doesn’t disagree. But demographic data and interviews with Republican congressmen who told Polsby their careers were “all about Northerners moving down and making it possible” convinced him that the introduction of air conditioning was a necessary precondition to the Republican flight.

Another techno-driven difference between the Congress of the 1950s and today is the rampant use of the filibuster. In the past three years, we’ve seen more filibusters than in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s put together. Gregory Koger, author of the book “Filibustering,” blames the airplane.

Filibustering, he argues, is about how much the majority party’s senators value their time, as only one or two members of the minority are needed to filibuster, but about 50 members of the majority are needed to hold a quorum. In the 1940s, air travel was too expensive and inconvenient to do routinely, and so senators moved their families to Washington and headed home only during recesses. So long as Congress was in session, they had all the time in the world to sit through the minority party’s talk-a-thon and wait for an opening, or look for a deal.

Now they’re commuters in a rush to get home on the weekend, as they haven’t seen their family all week and they have constituent events and fundraisers scheduled straight through to Monday. According to Brookings scholar Thomas Mann, these travel patterns are also why the congressional workweek has become much shorter.

Today the polarizing technology of choice is the Internet. Members of Congress have always given floor speeches, but now they can be embedded as YouTube clips and viewed worldwide. A politician with a quick tongue, a tech-savvy staff and a feel for the politics of the moment can become a celebrity almost overnight. But you don’t become big on the Internet by speaking to the middle. You get big by building a niche on the left or the right.

Perhaps no one has been better at this than Weiner. “Anthony Weiner rips apart Republicans on 9/11 health bill” has more than 1 million views on YouTube. “Anthony Weiner KILLS at congressional correspondents dinner” has almost 300,000. “Anthony Weiner mocks GOP for Defund NPR bill” racked up 250,000 hits (and, I have to admit, that was a particularly funny riff).

Those videos helped make Weiner a star, and that stardom eventually helped bring him down. Although he’ll be remembered for his digital dalliances, it’s these videos that might quietly prove to be his lasting influence: They’ve shown that the way for modern politicians to “go viral” is to go on the attack. So in the end, Facebook is probably a bad place for horny politicians to pick up women but a good place for polarizing politicians pick up YouTube views. File under “More evidence for the great stagnation” and “There is no great stagnation,” respectively.

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