Flawed Democracy, Part 2: The Founders' Alienated Intent

Editor's note: This article is Part II of a 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 previous installment here and the next here.

In my last article, I discussed worrying declines in the ability of our government to make compromises, solve problems, and overcome partisanship. I suggest that structural reforms, perhaps in the shape of a new set of amendments, would alleviate many of these problems and begin to restore Americans’ faith in government.

Before I examine what these reforms will look like, I have to address the massive changes between the government that the Founders envisioned and what our government looks like today. Because the differences are so stark, the Constitution that we all know and love is increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful in today’s era of polarization. The Founders lived in a world where monarchies and empires spanned the globe and democracy had been little more than a historical footnote that had primarily been used in small city-states. Today, while dictatorships and autocracies are still widespread, our very conception of the word “democracy” and its implications would be impossible for the Founders to have predicted.

There have been four key changes in the structure of our government since the time of the Founders: the incredible growth of the executive branch and its usurpation of the legislative branch as most important, the sheer complexity of what we expect the government to deal with and its ensuing bloated bureaucracy, the changes made to ensure that our system more closely resembles a democracy, and the increasing influences of partisanship and special interests to frustrate action.

Our Constitution still upholds many of our core values, and it (remarkably) still provides a working blueprint for the basics of our governmental system. But the issues of our time and our changing conceptions of what the government’s role should be have far outpaced our efforts to amend the Constitution or adjust the structures of our system.

Of all of these changes, the increased power of the executive branch has been the most drastic. The Founders intended Congress to be the most important branch of government: only Congress could declare war, make laws, spend, and tax. Of all of these powers, the power to declare war has been almost entirely removed from its original jurisdiction. Today, the President is able to send in troops, special forces, or drones into almost any country in the world secretly or overtly. The half-hearted War Powers Act attempted to correct for this imbalance of power, but it has resulted in little substantive change. The President is also seen as “setting the agenda” for Congress and proposes his own budget, and it is his impetus that decides which legislative priorities are set. Consequently, American citizens focus disproportionately on presidential elections and the candidates’ policies, qualifications, and characters as the most important things to consider for the future of the country, even though checks and balances are alive and well and nothing gets done without Congress.