Alas, writing for Vox while claiming to be a “wonk” or pundit doesn’t mean you actually contribute meaningful and worthwhile things to the public discussion. Dylan Matthews is a self-absorbed blogger who, fortunately, has all the wisdom the Founding Fathers lacked and has studied the issues of history and constitutional government so deeply and broadly that he can making sweeping proclamations about the folly of such things as the Constitution and the American Revolution.
While many of the statesmen who litigated these issues in august councils more than two centuries ago spoke Latin, Greek and perhaps one or two other languages besides English, be content that Matthews has earned the title of “wonk” because of his tweets. Further, while the men in wigs labored under the penalty of treason or actually gave up liberty and property, Matthews the millennial has suffered inscrutably for having his opinions taken seriously while he has done nothing to earn esteem.
On July 2, Matthews wrote a piece for Vox declaring, “American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.” Proof of his claim may be found, he says, in the fate of African Americans, Native Americans and in his assertion that the Untied States would have a better form of government if it had stuck by Mother England for a bit longer.
“When a cause [colonial independence] is opposed by the two most vulnerable groups in a society [slaves, Indians], it’s probably a bad idea,” he writes. Matthews, a male, forgets the plight of women – who weren’t universally afforded the franchise until 1920. He also forgets the plight of non-landowners, who were prohibited in some places from voting. As well, unmentioned in his cute counter-history, are those of various religious minorities who suffered persecution at the hand of governments in colonies (and then states) with established religious institutions.
Bottom line: It is cute to forget history, to oversimplify it, to ignore the grandeur of those things known as “facts” and “details” so you can write a controversial piece of click bait and get some web traffic for the digital rag that hosts your ego. However, it also perpetuates a false notion of history that degrades the public discourse at a time when it desperately needs to be raised.
To its credit – perhaps – Vox did publish a refutation of Matthews’ nonsense about the evils of American independence in 1776. The writer makes valid points about the American Revolution being a starting point for better things and notes that racial minorities did play an important role in the nation’s independence. He could have also mentioned that a free United States attracted millions of immigrants from the Old World who otherwise might not have come, and fostered a wonderful, if deeply imperfect, expansion of economic opportunity and moral development that allowed the nation to twice rescue Europe, and once Asia, from the murdering grasps of evil regimes.
This is not the first time Matthews has fancied himself to be a 20-something year-old expert with all the answers history is not looking for. He has built his “wonk” brand by making startling propositions with a serious face, pretending they are weighty ponderings.
In 2013, he claimed at The Washington Post that the government shutdown was “James Madison’s fault.” As he put it:
“This week’s shutdown is only the latest symptom of an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison’s Federalist no. 51.”
In 2009, Matthews claimed, “I want to get rid of the US [sic] Senate.” He again made that goal clear this year, writing in January, “The problem is that the deck is stacked in favor of small states, which receive equal representation in the Senate despite dramatic variance in population. The Senate is a profoundly anti-democratic body and should be abolished.”
Somewhere James Madison muttered “precisely.” In Federalist No. 62, Madison explained that the Senate was equally apportioned to the states and the House was apportioned based on population as part of a grand compromise. “The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion.”
Of course, since he despises Madison, Matthews may not have read his remarks on the topic. Not knowing it was a grand compromise means one doesn’t have to offer an alternative compromise, and arguing that the nation shouldn’t have existed in 1787 further removes the need to even recognize the dysfunction created by the insufficient Articles of Confederation.
Matthews has also written favorably about the nullification of the Electoral College, going so far as to offer various pathways for the plan to become reality (it seems he just doesn’t like states – which the Senate and electoral collage were designed to represent).
Matthew’s arrogance is hardly unique to him, or the only flaw at Vox. But it is indicative of a wider problem with young pundits and so-called wonks: people who have so far achieved nothing in life find it necessary to build their fame attacking the very institutions that have enabled their success. This isn’t to say all young pundits are shallow; but a generation that feels it is the culmination of all that humanity has to offer, and feels justified to cast stones at all who preceded them, is too self-absorbed for its own good.