As July 4 quickly approaches, I’ve been observing that many people feel impatient with the U.S. government—especially this year.
Some of this dissatisfaction, of course, is based on the behavior of our elected officials. But I believe there are several other overarching reasons why there’s so much unease with our government today.
And, as you might expect, I’ve come up with some solutions for that—like how you can actually help rewire your brain and improve your capacity to solve the problems that bedevil both our country and ourselves.
But before we get to that, let’s look back on how history has shaped our government—and our expectations.
Our government system doesn’t account for bureaucrats run amuck
When our founding fathers officially declared independence from Great Britain in July 1776, they had in mind a republic that was modeled on the ancient Roman republic. In 1787, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to form a “more perfect union.”
Now, technically, the U.S. government doesn’t operate as a democracy, with direct popular participation in affairs of government, but rather as a republic, through elected representatives. All of the constitutional offices of our federal government are accountable to the public through the two-, four- or six-year election cycles of our Congressional, Senate, and White House representatives.
But our founders never envisioned millions of unelected, unaccountable, lifetime government bureaucrats in cushy careers who run rings around our elected representatives—and around us. And these bureaucrats are the real problem with big government.
Instant information discourages deep thinking and discourse
To make matters more complicated, modern technology has “democratized” our society through instantaneous access to “information” on the internet, granting previously unheard of freedoms of all kinds. (Although there was never a more fitting use for the ancient Roman republican warning of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.”)
Former Secretary of State John Kerry—a controversial anti-war Vietnam vet, long-serving U.S. senator from my old home state of Massachusetts, and former presidential candidate and Secretary of State—recognized the impact instantaneous communication has on the government.
He once stated that it’s “much harder to govern…much harder to find the common interest” in this high-speed age, pointing to “the internet and the ability of people everywhere to communicate instantaneously.”1
Secretary Kerry and other foreign diplomats reference the Egyptian Revolution and the “Arab Spring” beginning in 2010, which coincided with the rise of the internet and iPhone in the Middle East. There was also a strong popular uprising to depose the theocracy in Iran with a democratic form of government, but the Obama-Kerry Administration did little about it.
A lesson from Adlai Stevenson
Indeed, today’s information technologies deliver on-demand, narrow-cast, light-speed streaming. They condition people for instant gratification, instant answers, and instant solutions.
(There’s certainly been no shortage of this during the coronavirus pandemic. I smiled ruefully at a recent political cartoon drawn by Rick McKee, in which a man sitting at his computer turns to his wife and says: “That’s odd: My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars just a month ago are now infectious disease experts.”2)
But the problem with this on-demand lifestyle is that a republican representative form of government is, as Adlai Stevenson once pointed out, not designed to deliver instant answers or solutions.
Adlai was the grandson of a U.S. vice president, a U.S. senator from Illinois, and the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, running against Dwight D. Eisenhower. Adlai then served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President John F. Kennedy, and famously and forcefully stood up to the USSR during the Cuban missile crisis.
Once during Adlai’s presidential campaign, a gust of wind blew his prepared speech off the podium (before the era of teleprompters). He quipped, “That’s my bad luck; your good luck.” (Sometimes I think about that when preparing my articles for my editors at Insiders’ Cures.)
Adlai also said that our form of government “depends on giving ideas and principles a chance to fight it out.” But that assumes citizens really pay attention beyond the mainstream media sound bites. And recent studies show that’s simply not happening—at least not today.
Attention span shrinks for average American
Microsoft researchers surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also conducted electroencephalograms (EEGs) on 112 people to analyze their brain activities. The researchers found that since the year 2000, the average person’s attention span dropped from 12 seconds to just eight seconds in 2013.3
That’s actually shorter than that of a goldfish, which manages to focus for nine seconds at a time. And one shudders to think about what’s happened in the years since the Microsoft study was conducted.
With the rise of social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, impulsiveness and superficiality are the new social norms. Especially among young people. Twitter has a character limit, which encourages short attention spans and superficial communications in the first place. This alone discourages any deeper analysis, discourse, or thinking.
And there’s scientific evidence to back all of this up. Neuroscientists recently discovered evidence of the human brain’s neuroplasticity, meaning the brain has the ability to adapt and reorganize neurons based on inputs and stimuli.
Tragically, using modern technology appears to rewire the brain so that we have shorter attention spans. We may think about more random topics, but with less depth. And we’re less patient and more impulsive.
Big government isn’t the solution
Back in 2010, critic and cultural historian Neal Gabler wrote about how this kind of technological rewiring impacts politics and governance, “creating expectations that the political system cannot possibly meet.”4 He noted the contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008, prior to the current politically-created “Corona Bust.”
Gabler wrote how during the Depression, “few Americans expected an immediate remedy…and, by and large, demonstrated extraordinary maturity and patience.” (As many big government policies actually prolonged the economic downturn.) But today, Americans expect “instant results…and have become profoundly impatient with the pace of political change.”
Of course, all of these “great expectations” of today are based on the idea that big government even has the solution (as opposed to being the source of the problems, as Mark Twain once wrote).
Everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gerald Ford has warned that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything you have.” And in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously said: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
In the 1990s, even the Clintons declared, “the era of big government is over.” (Although they lied about that, too.)
The solution is up to you
I think the real lesson today is to depend less on government and the mostly mediocre, one-size-fits-all services it forces upon us. I also encourage you to limit the time you spend using smartphones, tablets, and other technologies. After all, Rodin’s “The Thinker” is holding his chin, not an iPhone, in his hand.
You can also take steps to rewire your brain and restore your attention span—starting today—in the comfort of your own home. In fact, studies show that slowing down and engaging in regular mindfulness meditation benefits the brain’s neurons, mass, and memory.
You can learn how to practice mindfulness in the middle of your busy lives by reading my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness. (Just head over to my website and browse the “books” tab to order yourself a copy.)
Finally, although it seems our world has been heading in the opposite direction, we as a nation should actively use our minds to think, strategize, and constructively debate ideas.
When we do, I believe we can still find and create solutions in what is left of the free-enterprise system and the independent sector. (That will just require paying attention and the simple old Roman republican rule of caveat emptor.)