The political system in the United States is broken. It has succumbed to incredible levels of polarization. The Founding Fathers were wrong: it turns out that the American republic is weak, not strong. Setting up the republic the way they did was a mistake, and it should be corrected.
The central problem at the heart of the American system is a combination of the president having too much power whenever Congress is controlled by the president’s party. Congress then is a lapdog, not a guard dog as it is meant to be – to keep the president’s power in check. When the opposition party to the president holds power in Congress, it is neither lapdog nor guard dog, but an attack dog, intent on blocking everything and anything the president wants to do.
Meanwhile, in the states, polarized governors and state Representatives and Senators do their utmost to gerrymander voting districts in such a way that the opposition party is all but certain never to gain a majority vote in those districts.
Finally, polarization affects the courts – ostensibly the last bastion against a majority party running wild. Of course, James Madison and the other Federalists knew something of this sort was possible, as Madison let on in Number 10 of the Federalist Papers.
Back then, Madison argued that direct democracy in the mold of Rousseau would lead a country such as the United States to chaos, precisely because of polarization. A republican system would keep factions and parties in check, Madison believed.
It is by now all too clear that it hasn’t.
Back in 1787, around the time of the publication of the Federalist Papers and when Americans were arguing about what would be the best form of government, the world was quite different from today.
Back then, the general idea was that the office of the president would unite the nation. It is quite clear that it doesn’t.
Back then, as is obvious from Madison’s writings, the general idea was that Congress would be a check on executive power. On a national level on the president; on the state level, local Representatives and Senators would check the power of a governor. Congress no longer fulfills this mission.
Instead, majority leaders in the Senate have come out publicly stating that they will block any move by a president – like Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on president Barack Obama. In states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republican-dominated legislatures haven’t just been a check on legislation, as intended by Madison and his contemporaries. No, they ripped executive powers from the incoming Democratic governors and made no secret of the fact that they will restore these powers to the executive once Republicans have been elected. In Wisconsin, the outgoing Republican governor appointed high-level civil servants; then, the Republican state legislature changed state law to make it impossible for the incoming governor to replace these people. No state government civil servant has ever been offered this kind of job protection by any Republican anywhere. All this to prevent the governor from the other party of the possibility to even propose any legislation.
This is an entirely new level of polarization. It is tempting to call it ‘Kindergarten’, but it’s too serious a subject. This is nothing less than one party – Republican or Democrat, but in recent years predominantly Republicans – hijacking democracy to pursue their own ends. Political corruption, I think, is the term. We are truly in Rome.
A new breed of Democratic legislators wants to fight back against this hijacking by essentially fighting fire with fire. And true, some Democrats in the past have actually done this; gerrymandering, for instance, is not beholden to Republicans and it is dead wrong. It all the more proves that James Madison was naïve when he wrote that things would be alright in a republic. It is time to accept that a mistake was made, turn the page – and look for solutions.
So, enough ranting – what are the solutions? Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of today’s Democratic Congress, proposed curtailing the powers of the office of the president by ensuring that a president can be indicted whenever he (or she) abuses the Constitution. See her proposal here.
It sounds tough and yes, it may close existing loopholes in the Constitution that basically provide any president with a ‘Get out of jail for free’ card. But it’s still fighting symptoms – it’s like applying band-aids to festering wounds without curing the underlying disease that causes them.
Instead, what needs to happen is to understand and accept that the formula for the American republic as envisaged by the Founding Fathers and the Federalists is a failure.
By far the biggest problem is the boundless polarization between the two parties – what Madison called the factions in Federalist Paper Nr 10, but the importance of which he clearly underestimated.
It has now come to the point where family members literally will not talk to each other anymore because of different party affiliations. In fact, people are being killed because of their opinions.
Research in the field of group psychology and sociology has definitively established that having two groups opposed to each other in a closed environment – in one country, say – is a really bad idea. QED.
And we have seen that internecine ideological battles within the parties can pull a party to the hard-right or hard-left, only increasing the levels of polarization.
So, stop the two party system already. In many European countries, there are more than 10 parties represented in parliament. There are hard-left parties, green parties, centrist-left parties, centrist-right parties, religious parties, hard-right parties and yes, sometimes extreme-right parties.
The advantage? No one wing, be it green or hard-left or religious extremists, can ‘hijack’ an entire party, simply because they all have their own parties. There are no ‘big tent’ parties like the Democrats or Republicans. This brings in another advantage: every party is an air valve of sorts which voters can vote for not just to further an agenda, but also to vent.
Thus far, in countries like Germany and The Netherlands, but also Norway, Sweden and Finland this has brought in governments of various parties, which are forced to find compromises on issues before they can agree to govern.
The advantage of compromise politics however does automatically mean the curtailing of the powers of the presidency. The political mandate in a system like this needs to lie in the hands of the legislature. Vesting power in the legislature and having them appoint the executive in the shape of a prime minister and a government cabinet, while having a head of state concerned mainly with ceremonial matters, ensures that political parties have every incentive to compromise.
Lastly, reshaping the electoral system into that of proportionate representation (like in many European countries) instead of a first-past-the-post system, like the United States has now, will severely reduce the usefulness of gerrymandering. There is a lot less point to gerrymandering an electoral district if an election still means that voters in that district get to send a couple of Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Socialists, Neo-Nazis and what have you to Congress, instead of one candidate per district, full stop. It also allows for the abolition of the Electoral College, as there are already a Senate and a Supreme Court for the necessary safeguards.
But all this requires the idea of taking a renewed, critical look at the Founding Fathers, the Federalists and all those other unassailable grand decision makers who are in the pantheon of the collective mind.
That requires the audacity to allow the thought that maybe, just maybe, these demigods were not infallible. Let’s start from there.