Editor's note:This article is Part I of a new series by Alex de Ramon looking at the current state of our government and suggesting needed structural reforms to solve the many issues plaguing our democracy. Read the next part II here and part III here.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the US has been downgraded to a “flawed democracy” status for the first time. This ranking means that a country has free and fair elections, as well as basic respect for civil liberties, but it suffers from low levels of participation and other governance problems. While one might be inclined to point the finger towards President Trump, the reason for the downgrade actually reflects a long-term trend: declining trust in governmental institutions, elected representatives, and political parties. Our trust in our government has been declining for decades: some would argue that major events such as Watergate and the Vietnam war were the catalysts for the delegitimization of our government. Today’s parallels (government shutdowns, the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing economic stagnation, and the Iraq War) have only exacerbated this trend.
There is clearly much room to worry here. Record numbers of Americans have little to no faith in our government, and it is doubtful that Trump will be able to provide the kind of dramatic turnaround that would be needed to restore this faith. His campaign, as well as the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders’ efforts, proved that many Americans think that “the system” is broken. If I remember correctly, after all, the pundits all predicted that the 2016 election would be a show-down between the two largest political dynasties in our time; instead, we almost ended up with a “democratic socialist” against a reality-TV star billionaire with an at-best tangential connection to conservatism. In this light, I believe that we should seriously consider that our system of government really is broken.
What would be the causes of this breakdown in our government? While this process has clearly been slow and hard to discern, it is hard to argue that our government is somehow more efficient or works better than it did some decades ago. Increased polarization and partisanship has ground our government, especially Congress, to a halt and tends to frustrate all attempts to get things done. Democrats are now called “obstructionists” in their attempts to placate their electoral bases as members of the opposition party, while Republicans largely refused to work with Obama at all. Scandals and the abundance of rhetoric about how politicians only work for themselves, and most importantly the idea that only an “outsider” can fix what is wrong, have had lasting effects on how we perceive our government. Individually, the average American is dejected about politics and sees elections as “the lesser of two evils”, if they bother to vote at all.
While we can speculate about the causes of these changes in how our government works and how it is thereby perceived, the obvious conclusion is that there is a deep structural rot at the heart of our democracy. We are proud of our Constitution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, but what if the problems we face today could be solved or at least ameliorated by taking a fresh look at our entire governmental structure? After all, Americans by and large hate our government today, but we essentially worship our Founding Fathers as immeasurably wise men who created our core values and a lasting system of government from (essentially) scratch. How long can this paradox continue to exist?
While we can speculate about the causes of these changes in how our government works and how it is thereby perceived, the obvious conclusion is that there is a deep structural rot at the heart of our democracy.
I believe that a number of significant reforms must be done to our system of government in order to fix its underlying problems. We can get the system working again to make better progress on the many issues facing our country today, from healthcare to immigration. As it stands now, our system rarely solves problems and never works quickly. But this governmental structure that we work under was designed to be slow and inefficient in order to always check the political power of each branch and even each individual in the government. While the Founders, in their time, were wise to think this way and place these kinds of limits, they are currently turning our government into a quagmire and creating the exact emotion of dejection that so many Americans have felt for so long.
In other words, the Constitution that we work under today was made in an era that we can scarcely imagine. While the underlying values that the Founders shared and the basic ideas that ended up forming our government still provide a solid foundation, the Founders never could have anticipated the kind of government that we have right now. In fact, I will argue in Part II of my series that our current government bears little resemblance to what the Founders had in mind when setting up our government, and so our Constitution can only have limited relevance in this state. This kind of disconnect is frightening and ultimately dangerous, as the executive branch has gained far more power and authority than it was ever intended to.
In Parts III and IV, I will chart two different approaches to creating the kinds of reforms that I think we need to see. While creating a new Constitution would be an unprecedented step that could cause much political instability, I believe that now might be the time to do so. If not, we need at least a set of constitutional Amendments that will specifically limit the kinds of political abuses that take place today and resolve the underlying issues that lead to a lack of participation in our democracy. This “New Bill of Rights” would include, for example, an Amendment outlawing gerrymandering, as well as an Amendment preventing Senators from stonewalling a nomination for more than a certain period of time. In other words, these Amendments do not necessarily create new rights for the American people, but they solidify the right to a truly representative government that works for the people’s needs over special interests, and one that limits partisan struggles to issues of policy rather than seeing who can take the most grandiose moves to both stick it to the other party and delegitimize our government at the same time.
I hope that my series will help Americans think more critically about their government as a structure or a system. After all, if we are all unsatisfied with how things are going, why not look at why these things are set up the way they are? If we can conclude that some of the rationales are no longer relevant, we can move on to discuss possible solutions and remedies. The mistrust in our government and the increasing chaotic nature of partisan politics will only continue to drag America down as a country unless we consider wide measures of reform. If our leaders continue to refuse to work together, we must incentivize and encourage them to do so through not only people power, but adjusting our system of government for the modern era.
Part 2: The Founders' Alienated Intent
Photo credit Diliff, Creative Commons