Did the Founding Fathers Screw Up?

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," Franklin Roosevelt declared as he campaigned for the presidency in the spring of 1932. "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Most of the experiments Roosevelt tried to rebuild the economy once he took office encountered fierce opposition. But his closing admonition -- try something -- transcends our political particularities. It's an affirmation of a specifically American common sense, a statement of our national inclination to action, an affirmation of the pragmatism that remains the country's signal contribution to philosophy. In times of trouble, try something. Who could be against that?

Yet, three years into the worst recession since Roosevelt's time, a countercurrent, every bit as American as our bias for action, has swept over us. Twenty-five million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed, and the average duration of joblessness stands at record highs. Consumers are too deep in debt to consume; our producers produce and our investors invest abroad. To remedy all this, the federal government today tries ... nothing.

Washington has ground to a halt, paralyzed by a political division deeper than any we have seen since the days when Abraham Lincoln warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand. "Nothing" also isn't doing much to commend the American way to other countries. Much of the developing world now sees China and its model of capitalist authoritarianism as more efficient than the creaky workings of democracy. Nations still marvel at the United States, but today, it's our gridlock that draws the world's wonder.

It shouldn't. The current impasse between the Republican House and the Democratic president and Senate has only highlighted what is a chronic -- indeed, constitutional -- condition: Just as the American people have a bias for action, the American government has a bias for stasis. Governmental gridlock is as American as apple pie.

Those who defend our system concede -- indeed, exult -- that it places roadblocks in the path of major policy shifts. When the nation faces a genuine crisis, they argue, our government invariably rises to the occasion, as it did in Roosevelt's time. Unfortunately, that's a selective reading of our history. One hundred and fifty years ago, our government was not up to the task of holding the union together. Today, as the Great Recession grinds on, the different branches of government cannot agree on a course of action.

The root cause of all this inactivity is our peculiar form of democracy. While most democracies are governed by parliamentary systems, our Founders opted for a presidential system, which they consciously booby-trapped with multiple veto points to impede decisive legislative action and sweeping social change.

In America, for instance, presidents take office, but they don't form a government, as prime ministers do in virtually every other democracy. Presidents can form no more than an executive branch. They appoint cabinet members, sub-cabinet officials, military commanders, ambassadors, and the heads of regulatory agencies. They don't appoint congressional leaders; often as not, their party may not control either or both houses of Congress. Indeed, the White House, the Senate, and the House have been controlled by the same party during just 8 of the past 30 years. Even when the same party holds Congress and the presidency, the system still fragments power.

Presidents and congresses are elected not merely independently but at different times and by different electorates. After a midterm election in the United States, no members of the House and only one-third of the senators hold their seats by virtue of having won them in the same election that brought the president to power. The president and the Congress each have separate but equal claims to power and legitimacy. Thus a government divided between a president of one party and a Congress of another, political scientist Juan Linz observes, can reach an impasse for which "there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved."

That's why nations with presidential systems, not parliamentary ones, Linz continues, have been more prone to military takeovers, which occur most frequently when civilian governments have reached just such an impasse. The United States is the sole presidential-system nation to have avoided this, Linz concludes, chiefly due to "the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties." Were our parties not so diffuse, were they ideological and uncompromising, our normal bouts of gridlock could escalate into a crisis -- which is precisely what's happened since the Republican Party was captured by the Tea Party. In a parliamentary system, though, the Tea Party would likely be a separate party, just one among many, like Le Pen's ultra-nationalists in France, that could be excluded from the governing coalition.

What makes parliamentary democracy more responsive, and more efficient, than presidential democracy is that its executive and legislative branches are unified. A party's legislative candidates all seek office in the same election on the same platform. The winning party's leader becomes prime minister, either because his party has won a majority of the parliamentary seats or because his party forms a bloc with another party or parties that together make up the majority. All power to both pass and administer laws under this system resides with the parliamentary majority.

To be sure, this unification of power can come at a cost. In a presidential system, it's easier for the branches of government to check the misdeeds of other branches, as Congress did during Watergate. In parliamentary systems, the capacity for swift and sweeping mistakes is every bit as great as the ability to do good -- something that the austerity budget of Britain's current Tory-led government demonstrates with each passing day. Parliamentary systems can fragment power, too, especially if, like Israel's Knesset, they are filled with small, factional parties that win seats because the minimum vote threshold for legislative representation is so low. But for all the imperfections of parliamentary democracy, it is the system that nearly all democracies have chosen, including the nations of Eastern Europe that could and did comparison shop once the Soviet empire collapsed.

The reason for such near unanimity becomes clear when we look at America's difficulties in achieving universal health insurance. Writing shortly after President Bill Clinton's failure to secure passage of a national health system, political scientists Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts argued that what made national health insurance so much more difficult to enact in the U.S. than in other democracies wasn't a greater level of opposition but our form of democracy. "Doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, business interests and conservative political forces generally fought bitterly to prevent national health care insurance in every country in which national health care policies eventually emerged," they wrote. But control of the legislature by parties committed to national health guaranteed that the plans were enacted nonetheless. Britain's national health program, Steinmo and Watts noted, emerged from negotiations among the bill's supporters -- cabinet ministers of the Labour Party government, which had been swept into power in 1945. That's a far cry from Harry Reid's agreeing to strip the public option from the 2010 health-reform bill to win Joe Lieberman's vote.

While Labour needed only a majority of Parliament to enact national health insurance, progressive reform in our system requires the alignment of both houses of Congress with the president, the appeasement of committee chairs, and, since the Republicans began insisting upon it, a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. Roosevelt took office with a huge popular mandate and a massive congressional majority. His plan, though, to include national health insurance within Social Security -- a position that commanded widespread support -- fell victim to powerful Southern Democratic congressional committee chairs, who threatened to derail Social Security itself if he insisted on it.

By the time Barack Obama became president, the Dixiecrats had migrated to the Republican Party. Even though Obama's Democrats, purged of Southern reactionaries, had large majorities in both houses of Congress, the Southernized Republican Party invoked the demand for a 60-vote supermajority at every turn, a hurdle that neither the public option in Obama's health-care reform nor stricter bank regulation in the Dodd-Frank bill were able to clear.

Other reform presidents with popular mandates and control of Congress didn't get nearly as far as Roosevelt and Obama. In 1949, Southern Democrats, angered by Harry Truman's desegregation of the armed forces and other moves toward racial egalitarianism, killed his plan for national health insurance, though Truman had just won election -- and the Democrats had retaken both houses of Congress -- running on that issue. During Jimmy Carter's presidency, the Democrats' multiple plans for health insurance were thwarted by the ongoing struggles between Carter and leading congressional Democrats. Bill Clinton's campaign for universal health coverage also fell victim to internal Democratic disputes and the Senate's 60-vote threshold.

Absent a near national consensus on a broad program, wrote Lloyd Cutler, who served as White House counsel for both Carter and Clinton, "it has not been possible for any modern president to 'form a government' that could legislate and carry out his overall program. Yet modern government has to respond promptly to a wide range of new challenges. Its responses cannot be limited to those for which there is a large consensus induced by some great crisis."

The problem, Cutler concluded, was the Constitution. More bluntly, the Founding Fathers got it wrong.

 

***

 

The men who drafted our governing document came to Philadelphia in 1787 to establish an effective national government, something that the Articles of Confederation had plainly failed to do. However, they brought with them two distinct but interconnected fears, which ultimately kept them from achieving their goal. Disproportionately drawn from the de facto aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary America, they feared that a new class of leaders -- the farmers and artisans who were increasingly represented in state and local governments -- was elevating parochial concerns over the general good in the business of lawmaking. Among the delegates, writes historian Sean Wilentz, "fears of a tyrannical demos were pervasive." By entrusting the election of the new Senate to state legislatures and that of the president to an electoral college, they meant to populate the new national government with (and by) men like themselves.

The other fear that suffused the drafters' deliberations was that of faction. By "faction," James Madison, the Constitution's primary author, wrote in Federalist No. 10, "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed [sic] to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

In England, nearly to the end of the 17th century, factions had risen and been put down generally by force. By 1787, however, the factions in England were peaceable, if still embryonic, political parties, whose nonviolent nature had not yet rendered them respectable, and most certainly not to the Constitution's drafters.

Factions naturally arise, Madison wrote, and cannot in a democratic republic rightly be suppressed. The task of government thus became "controlling [their] effects." A minority faction could simply be defeated by majority vote. But when the faction was a majority? That was trickier. For that, Madison and his fellow drafters turned to Montesquieu, the French political philosopher (the "oracle," as Madison termed him in Federalist No. 47).

Montesquieu's remedy for the scourge of majority sovereignty was a separation of governmental powers into competing entities that could check one another. Were the executive power to be chosen by the legislature, he wrote, "there would be an end then of liberty." This was a curious assessment, since in England, which Montesquieu claimed as his model, the emerging executive power, the prime minister, was already a creature of Parliament. (Montesquieu was more interested in reporting on what he thought should be rather than what actually was.) In Montesquieu's vision, the checks were everything, while action was a sometime thing at best. The triumvirate of king, lords, and commons, he wrote, "would naturally form a state of repose or inaction. But as there is a necessity for movement in the course of human affairs, they are forced to move, but still in concert."

But suppose they are forced to move -- say, by the necessity of raising the debt ceiling -- and can't get themselves in concert? What then? Repose? Recriminations?

To the Founders, writing in the shadow of Montesquieu, power -- no matter how democratically won and exercised -- had to be fragmented. "In republican government," Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, "the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions ... will admit." If that slows down the legislative process, so much the better. "In the legislature," wrote Alexander Hamilton, the most important drafter of and advocate for the Constitution after Madison, "promptitude of decision is oftener an evil than a benefit."

Mr. Hamilton, meet Max Baucus.

Just four years after they had co-authored the Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison had become leaders of the new nation's two rival parties -- respectively, the Federalists and the Republicans. From denouncing the evils of faction, they had moved on to heading up America's factions. They had, however, left in their wake a government with so many divisions of and checks to power that they came close to stifling majority rule.

 

***

 

America has paid a price for going first -- for drafting its Constitution a half-century before the commitment to majority rule and the idea of universal suffrage (which meant universal white-male suffrage) became widely accepted. Institutions established to protect both the aristocratic phobias and the slave-holding interests of late 18th-century America -- the Electoral College, the state-based Senate -- have outlived purposes that have long since been forgotten. Yet they govern us still.

No region has been more defined by a fear of majority rule than the South. As the interests of the increasingly industrial North and the Southern slavocracy grew more divergent in the 1830s, the South's political and intellectual leader, John C. Calhoun, put forth the theory of nullification. According to Calhoun, national legislation could not take effect unless it cleared an insuperable hurdle: ratification by legislatures in every one of the states. Majority-rule governments, Calhoun insisted, are inherently oppressive -- a viewpoint that the aged Madison indignantly rejected, writing that it would "overturn the first principle of free Govt."

Calhoun's immediate concern was tariffs that would disadvantage the South, but his deeper concern was slavery, which he feared a Northern majority would one day try to abolish. Anti-majoritarianism came naturally in Calhoun's South Carolina, one of only two states (the other was Mississippi) in which slaves outnumbered the white population. Repressing majorities has long been the linchpin of the white South's politics -- obstructing majority rule through the claim of states' rights, suppression of black (and now Latino) voting, control of congressional committee chairmanships, and the filibuster. It's worth noting that the filibuster emerged as the Republicans' favored tactic only when the Republican Party became centered in the white South. In their efforts to use all the tools of divided government to negate first Bill Clinton's and then Barack Obama's majorities, Republicans have inherited the spirit, if not the theories, of Calhoun.

So what to do? A constitutional convention to rewrite our governing document would unleash every bat in America's political belfry. More modest changes, though, remain in the realm of the possible, and others, while not on anyone's agenda now, might be put there with some proselytizing.

The two reforms with the most support -- ending the filibuster and abolishing the Electoral College -- would do nothing to curtail the fragmentation of power within the federal government, but both would limit minorities' ability to reduce the sway of majorities. Another reform that would create a more representative government would be to change the timing of elections and the terms of congressional office. Presidential contests draw far more votes than midterm congressional ones: From 1984 through 2008, turnout in presidential elections has ranged from 53 percent of eligible adults to 62 percent, while turnout in midterm elections from 1986 through 2010 has ranged from 39 percent to 42 percent. If House members were given four-year terms coterminous with the president's, they would be answerable to the same larger electorate. This, of course, would also be true of senators. These wouldn't be parliamentary elections -- the candidates for president, senator, and representative would still be elected separately -- but at least our elected officials would all derive their power from the identical and most broadly representative electorate.

Although the federal government can't go parliamentary, why can't the states? Maintaining two legislative bodies at the state level has been pointless for the past 50 years, ever since the Supreme Court's one-person, one-vote decisions; those rulings required state Senate districts, once apportioned by geographical unit (such as counties), to be apportioned by population, just as lower-house districts are. Talk about duplication and waste in government! Nebraska has long had a unicameral legislature. There's no good reason why 49 other states shouldn't follow suit. Nor is there a reason why at least a few more compact and homogenous states -- Vermont? Oregon? Utah? -- can't go one step further to a parliamentary system. Two and a quarter centuries after the Philadelphia convention, America should be ready for some small-scale experiments in majority rule.

In the age of globalization, governmental systems are pitted, inescapably and willy-nilly, against one another. Over the past decade, it's grown harder to argue that American democracy has been delivering for its people as well as China's Leninist capitalism has for the Chinese. By the measure of economic growth, a smart authoritarian elite beats a self-negating democratic republic four days out of five. The world looks at us and sees only contentious repose.

Americans angered by the failures of our political system should be angered at the failures of our governmental system as well. The problem isn't that we're too democratic. It's that we're not democratic enough.

Comments

The US form of government worked better than every other govt in history until Obama was elected with his party in the majority.  That was the occasion that advanced socialism in the US.  Now that the other party controls one third of one third of the govt, leftists are unhappy with the founding fathers. 

Now that the US govt is working as intended, so that runaway spending into oblivion is being checked, leftists are unhappy with our constitution.  This article calls for review of the constitution.  The governor of NC called for suspension of elections for two years to let the left continue doing its damage.  A writer for the NYT said America might consider adopting China's form of govt, where no elections are held, where there is representative govt.

Leftiists are impatient with the world as they find it.  Thats at the root of the trouble.

 
 
The ongoing debate between conservatives and liberals, heightened by the election of Barack Obama, is at its core a debate about how to find salvation.  It is a theme central to the writings of ancient to contemporary writers (The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and most recently, David Horowitz’s A Point in Time).  On the one side of the battle resides traditional religion which believes that salvation does not come in this life, but is to be had by faith and in an afterlife.  The other side is as much a religion but believes that personal salvation comes by a process of fundamental transformed of the world to a make it a better place.  Following the teachings of Christ and the Old Testament, conservatives concentrate on personal improvement.  Liberals concentrate on political action.
 
Atheists make their church with social reform the prime directive.  Conservatives believe that if the world is to improve, it will be done by improvement of each person, not by coercion from a central planning authority.  Driven by a need to worship something, which seems to be incorporated in our DNA, perhaps as a product of creation itself, the liberal focus is on salvation by way of good deeds done by social action.  The worshipped entity is the “utopian idea” or the “utopian movement”.  Dostoyevsky wrote that Socialism was a totalitarian religion that sought “nothing other than the compulsory union of humanity”.
 
One fallout of these two approaches to salvation has been a desire by conservatives for economic free market capitalism, where markets are motivated by the free population.  Freedom of worship animates appreciation of every freedom. The conservative desire is driven by intellectual reason, not by a core need for salvation.  Progressives, motivated strongly by a need to find salvation here on earth, cannot leave society as they find it, nor can they tolerate a slow progress hardly measurable over lifetimes, thus they insist on a rapid transformation only possible by central authoritarian control by men who can be neither angels nor wizards, and are as likely to be scoundrels as saints.

Is Meyerson serious when he writes that American democracy isn't "delivering" for its people as well as China’s Leninist economy has been for the Chinese?

Delivering what?  Prison wages and mandatory abortions?

What some describe as signs of  dysfunctional government, I look at  more as salvation from having one segment's ideology totally reform out nation.  I only wish that all who serve in the government were forced to spend some years in the business of operating a business that produced something and make a profit doing it.

Any system that has Harold Myerson grinding his teeth at the inability of his favored aristocracy of Best and Brightest to enact sweeping change over the objections of a stubborn independent-minded minority -- and really make the damn trains run on time! -- is A-OK with me.  Long live gridlock!  Efficiency in pursuing sweeping national change is the hallmark of fascism.  No thank you.

Liberty is the hallmark of American government since day 1. No, we may not be the most efficient at manufacturing cars without a single defect, and some of our citizens may have to suffer painfully for their personal screw-ups -- we do not take care of every sparrow that falls from the tree -- but this is the best place on the planet to live for the ambitious, energetic, peaceful and independent-minded human being who wants to work out his destiny free of some noble-minded interfering sod at a D.C. newspaper or think-tank who wants to define his goals for him.

Our founders were genius in what they attempted to do.  They attempted to create a limited federal government that would be slow to act.  The Constitution only requires Congress to meet one day out of the whole year.  At the same time the founders gave, or retained in, the states broad discretion to act quickly and to experiment.  They saw each state as a labratory to experiment in economic and governmental theories.  Successful theories would be adopted by other states based upon need and success.  In recent years we have become too dependent on the federal government to solve problems and we seemed shocked that it is slow, cumbersome and ineffective...as it was intentionally designed to be.

Okay Harry,

I read your article.  You do not understand how the US Senate works.  Do a google search on "cloture rule".  Democrat Senate established the current rule in 1975...

Thanks for playing, though...

Although the federal government can’t go parliamentary, why can’t the states?

Why on earth can't the federal government "go parliamentary?" Two of the other changes Myerson mentions -- changing the duration of congressional terms and abolishing the Electoral College -- would likewise require amending the constitution. Why not just go all the way and draft an amendment vesting executive authority in Congress (and providing for an office of Prime Minister), and making the presidency a ceremonial post like it is in Israel or Ireland?

Relatedly, I've often thought that one of the features Madison screwed up the most was the arduously difficult amendment process itself. I know what you're thinking -- making it easy to amend the constitution is a scary thought! But what if this were a routine matter (say, a 3/5ths majority of both houses and a presidential signature), and that the constitution were changed an average of several times per administration -- and several hundred times since the republic's founding? In other words, what if tinkering and experimentation with our government arrangements were a constant fact of life? It seems to me such an arrangement would give us the flexibility to fine-tune our polity. Sure, it would be easier to adopt a counter-productive amendment. But it would also be easy to jettison one that has proved less than satisfactory. Just a thought.

Mr. Meyerson knows all too well that the Constitution is being subverted to his liking, even as he expresses his criticism of it.  What right does the 20% that tell Gallup they identify themselves as "liberal" have to "fundamentally transform" the country in a way that's contrary to remaining 80%'s principles?  Obama is planting the seeds in the judiciary system and the regulatory agencies that will nearly permanently alter the function of government...at least making the next president's and congress' jobs very difficult in reversing it (even though the voter hopefully will have expressed desire for reversal through the ballot box).  Surely, this should comfort Mr. Meyerson's discomfort with the Constitution's lack of efficiency.

Mr. Meyerson may believe that simple majority rule would solve all our current problems speedily and without fuss.

Meyerson "may" believe this but he has neither stated nor implied it, so what evidence do you have for this assertion? My reading of his piece is that Meyereson merely believes a parliamentary US government would be superior to the arrangements we have now. That's a very big difference.

It would also mean, however, that the citizens of New York City's 5 boroughs alone -- numbering 8.2 million -- would essentially be in charge of deciding how citizens in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, both Dakotas, and Alaska, with Vermont and Delaware thrown in for good measure (altogether numbering 7 million)...

How so? It's true that New Yorkers would have a greater voice in the national legislature than those small states. But it's also true that New Yorkers would nonetheless elect less than 3% of the legislature. They'd therefore not be in a position to be in charge of anything -- without an additional 132 million Americans' worth of votes in parliament.

The problem is we did try something...and it didn't work.  The stimulus act failed miserably.  Instead of trying something different, Obama wants to give us stimulus junior.  In addition, they passed Obamacare, which is a huge drain on the economy.  We pretty much know that it is already a huge failure (driving up costs and placing extra burdens on employers which is is causing a slowdown in hiring).  The point is that the process is working.  We (the Obama administration and the Democrats) tried something.  The fact is that those things were an abysmal failure.  Now it is time to try something else.  The partisan hacks in the Democrat party won't allow us yet to "let go" and start over.  Once the 2012 elections reaffirm that America sees the failure, then we will be able to move forward to repair the damage caused by their failed ideas.

Yet another would-be dictator complaining that people are stoping them from enforcing their will upon the population.  The road-blocks in congress are there because the election of 2010 sent a message 'stop spending'.  This, of course, is causing grief to those who think that federal spending is the solution to all problems, thus causing gridlock.  Stop spending, really, just stop.

As to FDR, he took a crisis and overran the constitution putting us in the dilemma we find ourselves with an overreaching federal government.  While the Articles of Confederation left us with too weak of a federal goverment, the 'living document' version of the constitution has created one that is too powerful.  States are becoming meaningless.

If the federal government were less all-pervasive, then perhaps, we wouldn't worry as much about it 'getting things done' -- i.e. implimenting more grand programs.   This is what the founders actually had in mind.

In fact, this is a problem in Canada where Ontario can basically rule the rest of the country...
Nonsense. Ontario obviously exerts power in Canadian politics -- but that would be pretty hard to avoid given the fact that nearly 40% of Canada's population resides there. Would it be just if Ontarians held only 30% of the political power in Canada? Only 25%? 20%? In fact Canadian politics are remarkably balanced with respect to population and regions. The Harper government relies on Ontario for just about 40% of its majority.

Mr. Meyerson, you are so wrong about what America needs.  A majority can be tyrannical.  The founders saw the prospect of a fleeting majority that could swing the country to and fro as nightmarish; I couldn't agree more with their wisdom.

The very things that our counter-majoritarian system prevents, for example, universal healthcare (citing the horrendous British NHS as an example of progress -- need I say more?) from being enacted unless a supermajority -- more likely to be a stable consensus of the people -- supports it.  This is salutary, especially given the anti-liberty bent of those who support "progressive" ideas.

The electoral college prevents the steamrolling of the smaller states.  You cannot subjugate the country to the will of effete New Yorkers because the country is designed to give a louder voice to Montana and Wyoming and Idaho.  Now does it need a change?  Yes indeed!  The two electors representing the Senate seats need to go to the winner of the state's election, while the electors representing that states Congressional delegation would have to be apportioned between winner and loser based on the election.  Would this give the smaller states a louder voice?  You bet.  But it would also mean that their concerns cannot simply be ignored, as would be the case with any "one man one vote" system.  Moreover, the apportionment would put every state into play; no party could take any state's results for granted.  

On the other hand, "one man one vote" gives overweening power to urban states and to their leftist populations.  For someone intent on destroying the liberties provided by our Constitution -- against majorities -- this scenario is nirvana.  

Franklin, Adams, Madison and the like were not stupid men.  They invented a governmental system that has enduringly produced the greatest and richest nation the world has ever seen.  Even the concerted effort of a command-and-control leftist in the presidency has been unable to undermine that greatness. 

When asked if the Constitutional Convention had given us a democracy, Benjamin Franklin was avast and answered in the negative, and said that they had given us "a Republic -- if you can keep it."  I pray that the feeling that we must always be doing "something" does not cause us to trash our liberties and our natural rights.

Invariably, when I hear someone bemoaning "gridlock" and "the failure of our political system," he really means:  "*My* side can't get its agenda passed due to opposition."  (I never hear anyone complaining about gridlock that has stopped the opposition party from getting its agenda passed.  For example, Mr. Meyerson wasn't complaining about the gridlock that kept President Bush's proposed reforms of Social Security from being enacted.)

And my response is always the same to such a person:

"If you had to choose, which would you prefer:  Continued gridlock; or both the Executive and Legislative branches controlled by the opposition party?"

One more point.  The litany that "our political system is broken" is usually heard whenever proper leadership to motivate and guide the American people is lacking--and the country has thus gotten itself into one of its periodic bouts of trouble.

I remember the 1970s, when stagflation was worsening every year.  Democrats said that "our system is broken" and a few even called for a new Constitutional Convention.  That enabled them to avoid having to face up to the lack of leadership from President Carter.  But those "system is broken" assertions evaporated after Carter left office--which is no coincidence.  Neither Mondale in 1984 nor Clinton in 1992 claimed that our system is fundamentally broken--just that the Republican administration was at fault.

If our political system is fundamentally broken, then it was just as broken in past decades as it is now.  But we didn't hear claims that it was broken during the 1980s or the 1990s, when economic times were better.

"The system is broken" is an excuse, dragged out of the closet by apologists for the poor performance of elected officials in troubled times.

And so before we make any sweeping claims about how our system is fundamentally flawed, why don't we try something simpler:  Let's use the tools our system provides, and hold a national election.  Maybe the public will replace President Obama with someone else.  Maybe the Dems will take back the House.  Maybe the GOP will take the Senate.

And then let's see if there's any improvement.

If the GOP takes over both the legislative and executive branches, gridlock will be greatly alleviated.  You may not like what they enact into law, but at least the legislative logjam will be greatly eased.

And I strongly suspect that Mr. Meyerson will be right back here, writing screeds denouncing the "tyranny of the majority" and how it's "ramming through one piece of legislation after another".

Consequently, we have the most stable government - and free and open society - in the history of the world.
Well, if you leave out the fact that this stability was shattered by what at the time was one of the bloodiest wars in human history, you're right.

If it is your wish to re-structure the Constitution and our system of governance and representation, then let us part peacefully rather than force a war. 

Under the parliamentary system you imagine to be so much more efficient, those of us who live in small states or in sparsely populated areas would simply have no representation or say in government.  Our system was explicitly designed to prevent this by balancing powers between different branches of government.

This is quite literally the worst article I have ever read. The fact that this guy is allowed to speak freely, espousing the idiocy he does, is testament to the vision of the Founding Fathers. How anyone can look to pissant nations in Europe as a model is quite simply beyond reason.

Would that be a smart, authoritarian, liberal elite Mr. Meyereson?

Meyerson's piece is so silly it's hard to believe that even he really believes it.  Let's take his argument to its logical conclusion: let's imagine we abolish the Presidency and the "state-based Senate," leaving only the House as our "parliament."  Then the House speaker is our Prime Minister (president), being the commander-in-chief, appointing the cabinet and all federal agenices, etc., and there are no checks or balances and no filibusters.  How would this have played out ver just the last year, much less since 1789?  Well, let's see, first Prime Minister Pelosi would have instituted single payer, along with every other harebrained (Dems read that as "wonderful and long overdue") scheme she and her merry band of leftists can dream up, and then Prime Minister Boehner would have repealed all of that and enacted wonderful and long overdue (Dems read that as "harebrained") Tea Party idea they can think of.  regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, can anyone think we'd be better off with that system?

We
are a Constitutional Republic - not a "democracy" of any flavor. As you
note, power was intentionally distributed among many competing and in
some cases adversarial interests - the states, the people, the executive, the
legislature and the Supreme Court. It is a system of veto upon veto.This is because the highest principle for the Founders was preserving individual liberty - not, as you pine for, "action".Of
course, as a progressive socialist you'd love a government structure
that lets the government do whatever it wants, to anyone it wants, any
time it wants. You would love a nation where any majority (which is to
say, a big enough mob) can stick it to any minority.We are all fortunate that James Madison, and not Harold Meyerson, was the Father of the Constitution.

FDR made things worse. So did Obama in his first two years where he had both houses of congress and did all kinds of things. If only there was a few more Republicans in the Senate at the time we would all be better off. Government needs to be rolled back and matter less in our lives.

What you ignore there, Jeannie, is that just as in a world sans the electoral college, those 8 million New Yorkers would project control over the citizens of "Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, both Dakotas, and Alaska," in the world with the electoral college, the citizens of these states exert power over the 8.2 million New Yorkers and tell them how they run their lives. The electoral college quite simply creates massive opportunity for small interest groups in small states to exert significant power over the general population. That is not how democracy should work. It is an outdated system. It should be repealed and replaced with a better approach to representative democracy.

The brilliance of the founders was to slow the process and limit power. 
That was and is the POINT! 


Thi is a great contribution that should be made part of serious college and graduate level seminars.  If you consider deeply the origins and ideologies of the Consitution, it's clear that what drove the writing of the final text, trumping all ideologies, was SUSPICION. 

Suspicion -- that people would use elected office to enrich themselves and their relatives, suspicion -- that unjustifiably high taxes would enervate the prosperity and efforts of the citizens, suspicion -- that Federal power would neutralize the unique attributes that people had CHOSEN for their own state,  was on the mind of EVERY delegate.  The delegates actually envisioned how a state like Mass. could become a vast hackerama of relatives hiring each other.   So the final text was a blend of the suspicions of the various factions and interests.   They really knew what they were doing, didn't they?

Another misinformed piece decrying the state of our  "democracy," holding up parliamentary systems as superior. We ARE NOT A DEMOCRACY--OF ANY SORT! We ARE  a REPRESENTATIVE REPUBLIC. If parliamentary systems are so superior, how do you explain the fact that Europe is on the verge of a collapse far more likely than our own. If parliamentary systems are so much better, does that mean you will support Israel and their parliamentary social democracy as they continue to build what the left characterizes as "illegal" settlements?
The American Experiment and our government cannot be compared on an equal basis with any other in all the world. It--and we--are unique. And that, Mr. Meyerson, is what's right about it.

Gentle readers,

Mr. Meyerson writes well; I enjoyed reading his article. But, even with his gift for words, does he REALLY mean it when he states, "Over the past decade, it’s grown harder to argue that American democracy has been delivering for its people as well as China’s Leninist capitalism has for the Chinese?"

With all due respect, please tell that to estimated 70 million killed by Mao, the untold multitudes of current political prisoners held without due process, Chinese Christians who have to worship secretly in order to avoid the authorities, and Chinese citizens who currently use Google.

I feel certain they would disagree. I know I do.

Jack G.

This writer needs to do his research, we are not a democracy; we’re a Constitutional Republic. The Constitution is our guide, unfortunately for us, every year with drift further and further away from the Constitution.
 
Our founding fathers never intend for our government to operate this way. If you don’t believe me, I’ll let their own words speak for them.
 
George Washington said, “Government is not reason, Government is not eloquence--- It is force. … (government) is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”Thomas Jefferson said, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”Obviously they were warning us to remain vigilant when it comes to government.
 
Government should be the referee, to prevent cheating (and they can’t even do that). Once the referee starts playing the game, the game becomes tainted. And the idea that government can control outcomes is insane; our society and our market is too variable and complex.
 
I would love to place all the blame on the politicians, the media, and the bureaucrats, but I can’t. Certainly they’re part of the problem, but they can only abuse the powers they have been given (i.e. the freedoms we have surrendered).
 
Right now our biggest problem, bar none, is the ever increasing size and scope of the federal government.  Make sure you vote for those individuals in favor of reducing government. That should be the focal point.
 
With about 50% of the people dependent on government it won’t be easy, but for the freedom of generations to come, we must.
 
We are the only ones that can fix this, and it can be done, as long as we all pitch in.

Critics of our presidential system is not new.  Europeans thought we got it wrong in the 1700s.  Efficiency seems great when you are in power but is rather unattractive when you are out of it.  If Rick Perry wins the presidency will you still be arguing that the executive should have more power to do what he wants?  The Founders didn't get it wrong, they chose a form of government that sadly prevented the end of slavery until long after much of the world, but gladly prevented problems like Hitler, Mussalini, or Mubarek happening on a domestic level.  The founders were action averse, and much of the U.S. is as well.  They got it just right.

Or, better still, first do not harm.

Can someone explain to me how the anti-authoritarian hippies turned into the power-lusting control freak New Left?

HM lays out a striking case, complete with examples, of why we should keep our current system. Afterall, the parliamentary system he so admires is what  has gotten Europe so drowned in the ditch- reflex socialists able to implement society daming policies with little to no checks. Up the division of power!

The fact that the author cites the Chinese government as an equally good one gives me great pause in listening to any of his other arguments, though something may be said of remaking the filibuster into the old function (requiring actual speech on the floor of the Senate)

Another lefty nitwit who's come out of the closet with a belief our government needs to be radically changed.

Just this week we saw two lefties, one the Governor of S.C and the other a former Obama budget director, call for radical change.  The Governor wants to suspend congressional elections and the former budget director feels we have too many freedoms.

This is why the Tea Party is gaining ground.  It's a movement of people who are ticked off with progressives and their idiotic notions of governing.

But it did work 150 years ago.  The Republic endures.

Quelle morone?

How do fools like the author get published?

Imagine unitary government in the hands of your opponents and think again.

The Founding Fathers rightly worried more about what the federal government would do to us than what it would do for us.

Perry might frequently stick his foot in his mouth, but he correctly identifies the sources of our ills in the amendments providing for direct election of Senators and the income tax, which swung the balance of power to the federal government.

Mr. Meyerson,

Please feel free to take up residence in one of your preferred "more democratic" countries at your earliest convenience.  Be sure not to leave your money here, because you will need all of it to pay the taxes in those "mommy" countries.  Then, when you have had your experience with a more congenial type of government, and you have no more money, you may apply for immigration status to return here.

I'm not sure who is worst....the people who seek to destroy the country by force, or those who seek to destroy it....internally....by stupidity.

What an assinine suggestion.  What has prevented tyranny in this country is precisely what this ding-bat author dislikes.  Keep the electoral college.  We have no desire to become a mob-ocracy.  It was such a mob-ocracy which demanded that Sokrates be sentenced to death -- for his IDEAS, for God's sake !   We will overturn Obamacare is the Supremes don't do it first.

Mr. Meyerson most likely think like the governor that proposed to get rid of elections and with the former member of Obama's cabinet that said we need less democracy.  He will be cured by these ideas if he will live a few years in a socialist country (not as a visitor using US money to live, but as a full member of that country society) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think our problems arise when federal politicians are not grid-locked.  No doubt the 2008 financial crisis had its seeds in unfettered government policies.  The anti-federalists had it right, the founder's constitution of limited federal government would be corrupted and lead to a statist national government unfettered by the once sovereign states.

Sure China has it right, the United States doesn't.  Unless you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls in China that criticizes the government.  Because when you do that in China you might disappear into a prison.

But the Founding Founders had it wrong and China has it right.

What an idiotic article.

Sure China as it right and the Founding Founders had it wrong.  Unless you are one of those unfortunate souls in China that criticizes the government.  Because when you do that in China you might disappear into a prison.

Great system those Chinese have.  And life certainly stinks here.

You are such an arrogant fuckhead, Harold. If Madison and Montesquieu peed on your grave, the only significance of your grave would be that Madison and Montesquieu peed on it.

"Over the past decade, it’s grown harder to argue that American democracy has been delivering for its people as well as China’s Leninist capitalism has for the Chinese. By the measure of economic growth, a smart authoritarian elite beats a self-negating democratic republic four days out of five."

Wow.  How can one argue with someone who thinks like this?

I was going to type out my opinion, but it appears that it would only be repetitious, since so many others have basically already said it (i.e. They defended the current Constitution).

One area of reform I would support though, and would agree with Mr. Meyerson on is that of eliminating the filibuster. It is in no way based in either republican or democratic values, and is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. It is an irrelevant and unnecessary check that the Founders never intended. In the Senate, a majority is supposed to be a majority. 

Also, I agree with him on the states moving to a unicameral legislature. On the federal level it makes sense, but on the state level it is completely useless. It is a mere vestige of the Federal system, but in no way practical. Both state chambers are based on proportional representation, so why have two of the same thing (the only difference being one has more members than the other)? It makes no sense and is a waste of money and political capital.

"Try something!" "Etwas tun."  The progressives' harmony with their German soulmates of the thirties defies decsription.

The history of military coups in Latin America is explained by political culture, not the machinery of government.  We Americans learned our political principles of limited government and toleration from a country whose politics were deeply influenced by the classical liberalism of Locke and dissenting Protestants, such as the Puritans and Quakers, while Spain and Portugal at the time were dominated by the Thomism that justified the Inquisition.  I can go on about the effects of concentrated land ownership, the rule of unchecked  and unelected viceroys in colonial Latin America, etc. but the larger point is that the seeds of democracy don't thrive in just any kind of cultural soil. In short, the correlation between political instability and presidential-congressional government is spurious.

It's true that our system of government makes change difficult, but that is a good thing.  Although we have many economic problems, Europe is in much worse shape because unhibited majority rule leads to spending programs that offer short term gains for the poor and middle class as the expense of those who would otherwise have capital for investment.  Unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher reminds us, the trouble with socialism is you run out of other people's money.   

The Founders wanted to protect liberty, not promote democracy.  As John Adams noted, "Democracy is the worst form of government."  A democratic branch (The House) was established to protect the majority from being exploited by the wealther minority, but the supreme end was the protection of  life, liberty, and the pursuit of hapiness that comes from (among other things) acquiring and  improving  property.  Unfortunately, unchecked majority rule is incompatible with this Jeffersonian principle.

Let me get this straight, you are arguing for a European style government at a time when Europe is rushing toward financial meltdown faster than we are? You may have the single worst sense of timing ever.

Founders: 1
Harold Meyerson: 0

Pure tripe.

As you claim the Republican party has been hi-jacked by the Tea party....I have news for you...the Dem party has been hi-jacked by radical leftists.  The Dem party i belonged to 30 years ago is not the same party it is today.

Pelosi, Reid, Waters, Obama.....They embarass me to be called a Dem.

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