Flawed Democracy, Part 3: A New Constitution?
Editor's note: This article is part III 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 part I here and part II here.
So far in this series, I have examined the current government dysfunction that is paralyzing our nation and resulting in a “broken system”. I also compared our present situation with the intentions and designs of the Founding Fathers to show how drastically our system of government has changed since our Constitution was written. I believe that the problems with our federal government cannot be fixed by working within the system: the underlying problems are structural in nature and therefore can only be resolved by changing the structure of the system itself.
Trusting parties or politicians to reform “the system” is foolhardy. Even politicians who promise radical changes to the status quo, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, ultimately have legislative priorities that are often more pressing than the kind of radical reforms that they propose in their campaign rhetoric. They also face huge institutional barriers to enacting reforms: for example, it is easy for Sanders to call for a constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United, but it would take an immense amount of effort and take much political capital to actually become an amendment.
Parties, on the other hand, are even less trustworthy to enact reforms. No matter what your individual allegiance, political parties exist to either gain or maintain power. Parties largely benefit from the status quo, especially the party in power. Their strategies for winning elections, creating platforms, passing legislation, etc. all depend upon the system continuing to exist as it currently does. And both Republicans and Democrats benefit hugely from the first-past-the-post electoral system in the US that forces small parties to the extreme fringes and results in a binary choice for voters.
In essence, then, the many reforms that need to be made can only truly happen in one of two ways: a new Constitution, or a new set of Amendments that could be called a new “Bill of Rights”. In either case, the steps taken to ensure these reforms would be fairly drastic. But I would argue that change is necessary. Americans as a whole are dissatisfied with their government and the complete inability of the parties to work together and confront the actual issues. Although it seems like most every area of public policy needs attention, from infrastructure spending to health care, immigration, and the criminal justice system, it seems that we have little to show for the constant election cycles that come and go.
If we cannot trust politicians to act in a mature or bipartisan way, the system must encourage or directly lead to this kind of behavior.
Of course, governing should not be easy. New policies and reforms should only be enacted because they are beneficial to a wide variety of groups and have public approval. But the situation is drastic enough to warrant dramatic change. Increasingly, political leaders from across the spectrum have begun to question the effectiveness of American democracy. Jimmy Carter has stated that the US government now more closely resembles an oligarchy. On the other side, the recent failure of the AHCA prompted Maine Governor Paul LePage to comment that “I think we’re heading into a constitutional crisis…I’m really, really concerned that the federal government is broken and I think probably beyond repair.”
So what might a new Constitution look like? I don’t pretend to have even a fraction of the answers to what a new system of government might resemble. But it is clear to me that certain ideas that formed the basis of our current Constitution could still form a basic structure for a new one: separation of powers, federalism, and checks and balances are fundamentally strong concepts that form a core basis for American government and even American identity.
But it is also clear to me that both parties are happy to break precedent and informal rules of our government in order to obstruct the other side’s agenda or play their actions for political gain. If we cannot trust politicians to act in a mature or bipartisan way, the system must encourage or directly lead to this kind of behavior. Standards that may have been informal (and thus able to be broken) may have to be directly written into the Constitution in order to make them harder to get rid of.
At its core, our current Constitution was designed mostly to prevent abuses of power by creating three distinct branches of government that could check each other: in other words, only policy that could appeal to different factions and classes in society, and that could survive the process of possible challenges from all three branches, would become law. But the changes that I have described in Part II mean that these roadblocks have transformed into a government that is paralyzed by opposing interest groups and a sharply divided public. Instead of dividing power so much that it becomes worthless, we must incentivize working towards the middle and focusing on solutions rather than party-specific political “wins”.
This organizing principle of moderation and co-operation could provide a basis for a new Constitutional Convention that would hash out the specifics and make the compromises needed to set up a new system of government. Many new ideas about how to structure government and elections have arisen in the almost 230 years that the United States has operated under the Constitution: possible election systems such as proportional representation and single transferable vote should be debated and decided upon, as well as reforms such as congressional term limits, new campaign finance regulations, and redrawing congressional districts according to computer algorithms rather than partisan interests.
Even if most of these ideas are discarded or modified in the process of creating a new Constitution, the American people deserve a real debate on the merits and drawbacks of every proposed reform and rule. It is shortsighted to assume that the traditional way of doing things is the best way. Instead of assuming that our Constitution is blameless when lamenting the current state of our government, I believe that Americans should think critically about a wide range of changes to our governmental system, up to and including a new Constitution.