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.
While the presidency has amassed much more importance, this change has had larger implications besides somewhat upsetting the balance of power: the federal government has taken on many more roles and responsibilities, resulting in a huge bureaucracy and an enormous national security state. In some ways, the government does not truly have three branches anymore, but four or even five. The bureaucracy is technically part of the executive branch, but it is so huge and complex that bureaucrats have much latitude to shape policy, even through just interpreting passed law. After all, Congress often lacks the expertise to get dragged down in the minutiae, and the Presidency may provide guidance but must also set priorities in what it pays attention to. Besides policy making power, possible decisions to either intentionally slow or speed the workings of government serve as an informal check on the other branches. While typical Republican rhetoric slams these “unelected” bureaucrats, they are notoriously hard to get rid of. This is because our conceptions of what government is supposed to do for us have grown immensely over the past two hundred years: social security, Medicare, education, environmental protection, and non-discrimination laws are all major things that we expect the government to make policy on that were essentially non-existent at the time of the founding. So while we may lament the growth of the federal government and its lumbering “ship of state”, it has grown just as much, if not more, from the demands of the people than from government overreach.
The national security state has also become a huge informal branch of government. Massive “defense” budgets for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the myriad number of federal intelligence agencies all serve as examples of the rapid growth in this area. But tasks such as monitoring foreign communications, cracking down on terrorism, and maintaining hundreds of military bases (as well as our nuclear weapons stockpiles) demand this kind of money and leadership to properly be accomplished. Whether or not you agree with Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the “military-industrial complex”, it is clearly too large to be overlooked, and it was unthinkable at the time of our Founding.
Other changes have substantially altered how we perceive our government: while the Founders intentionally limited the democratic aspects of their new system, many citizens see the US as more of a democracy than a republic. Much of this change comes from the slow expansion of the right to vote: from white men with property to everyone above 18 years of age. Other changes, such as the primary system for electing presidential nominees, and the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators, have moved our country in a more democratic direction. But while our government will always have to be a democratic hybrid by necessity (as all Western countries are), I believe that the average citizen has been increasingly ignored in favor of partisan and special interests.
Although the Founders certainly attempted to avoid “mob rule” and created many constitutional safeguards to divide power and limit the influence of the common man, I do not think they anticipated the degree to which partisanship would damage the political system and the power that small interest groups, or factions, could attain. While individual citizens have the ultimate power to vote, and their decisions to call or write their congressmen do have influence, money has undoubtedly corrupted our political system. Interest groups such as the NRA and AIPAC have strong holds over certain aspects of public policy, much more so than a loose group of citizens could ever have. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle can essentially be bought and sold due to their constant need to appeal to donors and worry about reelection. Additionally, party ideology has diverged over the past several decades, and bipartisanship has gone from an ugly word to a kind of mythical status. It is increasingly impossible to imagine Republicans and Democrats agreeing on anything: they have even begun to dispute objective facts. The system as it stands is designed to protect minorities and frustrate action. In other words, it incentivizes obstruction and lack of action as perfectly rational. What we need from the system right now is the opposite. If the parties cannot be trusted to act like adults and work with each other, the system must draw them together, not leave them idle.
Each one of these changes would have been impossible for the Founders to foresee with any certainty, and they reflect huge shifts in how we conceptualize our government and how it works. Put together, they show a much larger and more powerful federal government, one that is nonetheless gridlocked and unresponsive, although it could be considered more democratic. Americans, and especially conservatives, may value concepts such as “limited government”, “checks and balances” and “states’ rights”, but these ideas and their meanings have naturally, but greatly, shifted.
In other words, 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. While I think there are different paths moving forward that we could follow in making change, I think it is clear that our government does not work for most of us. Doing nothing is not an option.
The featured photo is John Trumbull's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."