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

So what to do?

The usual suggestion for making the US system of government less dysfunctional is to re-engineer the Constitution so that the US becomes more like a parliamentary democracy. The consensus appears to be that this is impossible. However, there is one change which would be likely to produce a movement in that direction: a constitutional amendment to remove the US President’s power to veto bills sent to him for ratification by Congress. Power would immediately transfer to Congress and away from the President.

Seriously worth considering? In The Federalist number 73 Hamilton wrote that without the veto the Executive “might gradually be stripped of his authorities …. the legislative and executive powers might speedily come to be blended in the same hands.” If Hamilton was right in this, he was pointing the way for the evolution of the US system into an effective parliamentary democracy.

It's nice to see some rational commentary on the Constitution to balance out the Tea Party's irrational commentary.

I don't want to be accused of monopolizing the conversation, and will say only this:It's interesting, to me, that the influence of Montesquieu was based on a mistake of fact! Referring to the separation of powers as the supposed basis of the British constitution, Isaiah Berlin wrote of “the famous misjudgement of Montesquieu". The presidential veto was inserted into the Constitution as an acknowledged – though modified – version of the power of the veto which was represented as supposedly belonging to the British monarch. “The disuse of that power [by the British crown] for a considerable time past does not affect the reality of its existence” - Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist number 69.At the time when he wrote those words, in 1778, there had been no instance of a British king or queen having exercised the veto prerogative for 70 years, from which it might reasonably have been deduced that the veto had in reality fallen into permanent disuse in the British model. Hamilton wrote that it had been replaced by the crown’s exercise of “influence” or political “art”. Hamilton was plausibly yet speciously arguing for the merits of what was a decision already agreed by the Framers: to install a “qualified negative” to allow the Executive the power of veto over the two houses of Congress.Taking away the power to veto Congress (a measure relatively easy to achieve, in that it has obvious attractions to members of Congress generally, and can be done without requiring presidential consent) immediately removes the President’s ability to affect legislation. That is now the British monarch's position as it has evolved in the last 300 years - without once exercising the veto.

No worries, starting in January 2013, all gridlock will disappear from Washington as Republicans take the Presidency, Senate and House.

What Meyerson describes as a screw-up I see as enduring proof of the Founders' genius.

The Constitution established a government of limited, enumerated powers, operating within a system of divided authority, not only laterally among the branches of the federal government, but vertically as well, in the relationship of the federal government to the states.  Among many other positives, this has made possible the enormous diversity, richness and individuality of organic cultures, communities and states across an entire continent and beyond. 

For a group of people who had just fought for and secured their own independence from an all-powerful, faraway monolith capable of controlling every aspect of their lives, it would have been quite anomalous for the Constitutional Congress to institute an all-powerful centralized monolith capable of controlling every aspect of American citizens' lives because a simple majority so decrees. Because they chose not to, the American people and polity have, in the main -- and certainly with fits and starts along the way -- grown and prospered with the ingrained expectation of personal freedom and regional independence.  

The problem is not that the federal government today is incapable of doing anything; it is that the federal government continually tries to do too much, and invariably, of late (certainly since the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1998), does a miserable job of it.

Mr. Meyerson may believe that simple majority rule would solve all our current problems speedily and without fuss.  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), should live their lives and run their communities.  Perhaps some New Yorkers believe that should be their prerogative; the citizens of those other 8, mostly farflung states certainly disagree.  I, for one, stand with the latter.

I'm afraid you misunderstand how Congress works.  If the new Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, continues to support the filibuster, only 41 Democratic Senators will be able to continue the gridlock.  Given McConnell's principled and enthusiastic support for and use of the filibuster over the past Congresses, I wouldn't get my hopes up.

God spare us the mushy thinking of  "... smart, authoritarian elites."

Freedom and individual liberty is what our Founding Fathers wanted for this country.  Long live the Constitution of the United States of America!

I figured it was only a matter of time when the Obamabots, instead of looking at the failure of their president and his policies, would start blaming the constitution and it's "failings". I mean, if Obama can't fix it, they reason, then it must mean the system can't be fixed, thus a new Constitutional Convention needs to be convened and a new government formed.

Sorry, I'll take the old government of Washington, Jefferson and Adams, thank you.

Totally misdiagnoses the problem.  The problem here is that Obama's policies are totally wrong and making things worse.  His solutions are the same policies that landed us where we are today.... only more of it.  I will stay on the side of the 'party of no' as long as they do precisely that- keep saying 'no' to the terrible, backwards policies the Dems just keep pushing... and pushing.

And anyone who truly understands the US Constitution and our history knows that so-called 'grid lock' is basically by design.  It was meant to make sure we did not replace an all-powerful king with an all-powerful federal government.

Why is it that the first instinct of progressives who don't get what they want is to immediately begin daydreaming about the day they can just make the rules and force all the rubes to do as their intellectual betters demand?

As if conservatives have no desire to change the rules? Eliminate birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment? Eliminate federal income tax? Senators selected by state legislatures? Prohibit same sex marriage?

There are so many issues in play right now, it really doesn't seem right to paint progressives as the only ones wanting to impose sweeping changes.

Meyerson says "above all, try something".  Noooooo!
Wise people, including the Framers, say "Don't just do something, stand there!"

You are spot on with your observation.  In fact, this is a problem in Canada where Ontario can basically rule the rest of the country, and in the UK, London's population elects a substantial number of MPs.  In addition, I think that another issue that worses the problem you note is our government's failure to enforce our borders--in effect, were we in a parlimentary system, the influx of illegal aliens from one part of the country into a few states, in effect would give CA, NY, IL, TX, and a few other states absolute control of the nation's government nearly forever--do Americans want Mexico and the rest of Latin America dictating to American citizens via the unregulated influx of their nationals into our nation who controls our Federal Government?

"above all, try something".  The antithesis of Star Trek's "Prime Directive", which protects the galaxy from the Federation's GOOD intentions!  Just like the Constitution protects us from each others' good intentions.

"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."

Please, make it stop!  I hardly know what to say anymore ... the left used to love the Soviet Union, too.  I do not want what China is "delivering."

There is a disease with progressive thinkers going back to Plato - they seem to prefer systems of government in which they themselves could not exist.

Amen to JeannieBinVA's post a few posts below!  What a wonderfully concise rebuttal to the author's argue.  She is spot on here.

We WANT our Federal Gov't to be slow and inefficient, taking action only when there's a general agreement among a substantial number of 'factions'.  You want nimble, responsive gov't?  Go build it at the STATE level.  The needs (and desired solutions) for the folks in Indiana are different from those in Georgia, which in turn are different from those in Vermont, or Nevada, or Texas.  Let each State build solutions to its own problems in a way that is tailored to the people in each State.  There is no reason for the federal gov't to be involved in areas (education, public safety, retirement planning to name a few) where the States have the power to act.  The Federal Gov't has enough to do managing it Article I, Section 8 duties.

The founding fathers got it right, and the universal health care got it wrong.

The Governor of NC said that we suspend all elections for two seasons so that the Congress could figure out how to save our country...

Sorry... but exactly WHO is the irrational one?...

"that we should suspend"... sorry...

So basically your problem with our system is that a lot of people don't agree with you (i.e. the majority of Americans) and you can't steamroll the opposition under your leftist agenda as easily as you could in the UK or France? 

I hate to break it to all you statists in the audience but you were wiped out in the House last November, it was because the American people wanted your agenda stopped. All of the current polling data points to an ever bigger wipeout for you in next year's election. Your agenda is not happening because the majority does not want it.

The American people don't want your agenda, they voted a congress in to stop it, and it has been stopped. The system works.

Perhaps instead of constantly bitching about the rules you should rethink your gameplan?

I disagree with the assertion that parliamentary systems are functionally superior to the the US system.

Living in Canada, the influence of 300+ individual parliamentarians is almost nil unless they are in cabinet. The Prime Minister cow-tows all MPs to tow the PMs policy and vote as directed by the Prime Minister's Office or they are kicked out of the party and thus kicked out of the governing majority.

The US system empowers the individual legislators by making them collectively equal to the executive. This is a superior approach as it provides each riding / district with a voice that is not beholden to the executive in how it votes and their voting is more in line to what their constituents want vs. the party leader (else they are not re-elected).

In our province, we had an MP that disagreed with a government bill and chose, based on his riding's intense feedback, to dissent on the vote. His reward for doing what his constituents wanted was the PM kicked him out of the caucus and out of the party, forcing him to sit as a powerless, mute independent for the remainder of their term.

The US system has its flaws, but it is much more balanced and responsive to its voters by better empowering the individual legislators as opposed to giving all the power to the Prime Minister.

No... Don't want it... I like it the way it is...

I am at a loss as to why Mr. Meyerson things the Founders may have made a mistake, after all, for better or worse our Constitution is the oldest written one in the world, clearly our founders knew something.

So let us then turn our attention to what they may have known.  Is it possible, just possible that they knew how easy the Congress would be to deadlock and they believed that doing nothing might actually be better than doing something posthaste and without thought? 

Mr. Meyerson quotes FDR as if he were a wellspring of knowledge, but let us consider of the issues that are draining our economy, how many of them had their roots in Roosevelt's great experiments?  Further, when he implies that Chinese communism delivers better than our republican democracy, all I can suggest is that if it does, then it would certainly be in Mr. Meyerson's best interests to immediately pack his bags and go there.

I believe that our founders understood the darkness of a politician's soul, and realized that anytime a politician can buy a vote he or she will.  So perhaps, in the fullness of time, we should all just take a deep breath and realize that the only things we need to roll back is the federal role being taken in our daily lives.

Totally moronic - all the European parliamentary governments are in deeper deficits than we are, and are proposing the same bail-out-the-banker problems we are.   

Plato got it right:  Pure Democracy is a failure.  We created a Senate with APPOINTED senators just to avoid the problems of democracies.  Then the Wilson era started electing senators.   Poof, pure Democracy.

Typical. Liberals always complain about gridlock and Constitutional restraints on government when their policies prove toxic and repellent to the public. How many times over the past 31 months have we heard luminaries such as Tom Friedman and even President Zero wish we could have a system more like China's, to make it easier to "get things done". Progressives pretend to call for power to the people to make gullible fools vote for them. Their real aims, as amply demonstrated by their actions, and increasingly their words, are quite the opposite.

I could not disagree with you more sir. What you term as a "screw up" by our forefathers was their "intuition" about certain factions having complete control (perhaps for a great deal of time and thereby deal such a blow to democracy that we could NEVER recover). Please let me explain-You have disdain for the Tea Party; this is evident even though I had to cut through all of your other bulls---. The reason our system was set up like this is precisely to PREVENT what just happened to our country--ELECTING THE FIRST COMMUNIST EVER!! yes sir, Obama is that communist. The Tea Party rose to take him down and hopefully this will be done next year. We have to ensure that never again will someone like Obama who wants to FUNDAMENTALLY change the very best system in the world, get the power to begin to do just that.  I say, "God Bless" the Tea Party. From the UNCONSTITUTIONALITY of the "Individual Mandate" which even Obama KNEW was unconstitutional as he drafted and included a clause wherein the IRS has no power (either to criminally or civilly) go after ANYONE WHO DOESN'T HAVE INSURANCE. Did you know that??? Well, it's true.  If someone were to tell the IRS or Obama or Sebellius to "go to hell" I'm not paying any fee, the IRS HAS NO POWER TO GET THAT MONEY FROM THEM. IT IS BURIED IN THIS LAW (OBAMACARE).

Mr. Meyerson,
 
Founding Father James Wilson wrote that Charles Pinckney, not James Madison is the Constitution's primary author. Pinckney's draft is almost identical to the original, yet Madison gets all the ink. Thank God for the electoral college.

These conversations bring out such powerful prejudices. I applaud Mr. Meyerson for the wisdom to treat the founders as something other than a monolith. While people have always used their shallow and shockingly presentist conceptions of history to make their point (See commenter JeannieBin), it's important to remember that there were no "founding fathers." There were a group of very complex, argumentative, disparate, and varied men who agreed on very little (both in letter and spirit). To claim to understand them as a unit is nonsense.

wow... we are all now dumber for having read that

The Founders designed a system of governance (federalism, dividing power between the national government and the states, and checks and balances between the legislative, the executive and the judicial branches of the national government) to impede the inevitable tendency of all in power to aggregate power increasingly to the determent of individual liberty.  The article is quite right that the result of this design often is governmental gridlock, and I say God bless the Founders for their wisdom in their creation of a structure of government that protects individual liberty through countervailing governmental institutions.  Before we curse the inaction of government, it is wise, I think, to recall that in Hitler's Germany and in Stalin's Soviet Union there was no governmental gridlock.  Governmental gridlock is the price we pay to defeat totalitarianism and  to secure individual liberty.

There is a good reason for having the inefficiencies in the US system.  It keeps a temporary electoral minority from enacting major, structural changes to our government and our society.

Progressives don't like this. They see change as a ratchet....once you make a change, you can never go back.  So they just want to keep the change coming.

"Above all, try something."  That is a prescription for disaster.  Try solution one. If that does not work, try solution two.  Politicians will promote potential solutions and assert that once the law is past, the problem is solved. Then they can go home and campaign about their success.  But their solutions don't always work and we end up stuck with the consequences (and the cost).

Our founding fathers fought and died to liberate themselves and us from oppressive central government and wrote a Constitution in such a way as to impede the resurrection of that form of central government.  What we are faced with today is the same kind of oppressive taxation without representation that we felt as a set of colonies under king George.  Today we have Congress and pharaoh obama in place of the former.  But the oppression and tyranny are just as bad.

Before you knock the founding fathers' approach to government, you must admit that we really haven't tried it in the past 100 years. It is true that our system of government is much more prone to grid-lock than is the British system, but that does not mean that our founding fathers baked our present breakdown into our constitutional cake. In fact, the authors of our Constitution were very concerned about the rise of special interests, which is what they meant by "faction." They designed a many layered government to thwart special interests. It is because their design has been allowed to unravel over the years that our government no longer works. In 1788, the Congress chose the President through a caucus of the Senate and the House; thus there was no ingrained conflict between the Congress and the Presidency. The Senate was indirectly elected and therefore the Senators, at least, did not have to go hat in hand to special interests for funding for their political campaigns. Congressmen represented districts of only 30,000 constituents, well below a number requiring an expensive advertising campaign to reach their voters. They were limited to only two years because it was thought that they would be ordinary citizens and not permanent professional politicians as they are today. Therefore they would find it necessary to return to their careers after two years. The debate during ratification of the Constitution was that perhaps two years was too long a term of office, not too short. 
        We have made our elected representatives even more dependent on special interests by destroying every mechanism upon which parliamentary discipline might be established. The President has no power to impound funds or to veto line items in bills. The parties are limited in their power to make contributions to political campaigns, driving candidates to create their own coalitions, i.e., to sell out to special interests. The parties must hold primaries and thus have lost control over their nominees. We have created this mess ourselves. Don't blame the founding fathers.

Excellent post. America delivered a filibuster proof Senate and a strong majority in the House to the Obama administration. Gridlock between the parties did not stopped the government from acting to salvage the economy. 
Instead of working on the economy the administration concentrated on dubious or secondary goals such as green jobs, protecting the UAW, and increasing government control of the health care and financial sectors. Maybe those were worthy tasks (though I doubt it). Either way, the failure to address more pressing needs at the time of crises cannot be blamed on gridlock.

It's funny how we're now seeing such a panic among the left as Obama's prospects for remaining in power diminish. The consternation has reached such a fever pitch that dems are openly calling for suspension of elections and dismantling the greatest system of governance ever created. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We've seen that played out with the dems and now as a people we are dissolving that power...deservedly so.

Very well written, Jeannie! You eloquently and succinctly summarized the intent of the Founders and the real genius of the Constitution. Well done!

Your final paragraph, while a general discussion of majority rule, also talks directly to the reason the Electoral College was created;  to, as Madison, de Toqueville, and others professed, protect the people from "the tyranny of the majority." The EC was, in my opinion, the most brilliant inclusion by the Founders into the Constitution. Those who wish to eliminate it for a simple "popular vote" would bring on that tyranny Madison feared so much.

Everything you hate about the American system of government is what makes it great. Every time the government has "risen to the occasion" and trampled the limited powers enumerated in the constitution we have ended up worse off. Yes, some bills take a long time to come due... but they always come due (hello Social Security, hello Medicare, hello phony money, hello ultra regulatory state).

Fact is that "do something" should NOT be the philosophy of government, and it is a brilliant testament to the genius of the founding fathers that this country has lasted this long with some semblance of freedom - after a century in the hands of well meaning but misguided people who think like you do.

We have, however, come to the end of that rope. Either we restore our founding principles and put the government back into it's enumerated powers box, or we become just another stagnant and fading western power.

Definition of a Parliamentary System: Every so often you get to vote for who your dictators will be until the next election.

No thanks.

Maybe a few Democrats will vote for cloture, or maybe there won't be 41 Democratics Senators.  Or maybe there will be a President who can work the legislattion through, making appropriate compromises.

Maybe the Founders constructed the system the way it is to prevent the enactment of sweeping socialist legislation  like national health insurance. They were learned men who studied history and knew all about socialism in the Roman Empire. It is a feature not a bug.

And abolishing the Electoral College would be a practical disaster. The problem is that vote counting and election management is a State function.  If an extra 10000 votes in Philadelphia or Chicago can throw the whole presidential election and not just the electoral votes of their States, the temptation for city machines to engage in organized fraud will be monumental. Yet the power to count the votes and order recounts must constitutionally remain with the States.  There is no way Mississippi  can order a recount in Illinois.  Since city machines are invariably Democratic, it is not surprising that the Democrats want to abolish the Electoral College.

"Above all, try something"

Ironic, since this the exact thing that extreme leftists are trying to stop.  Harold Meyerson tries to make the claim the system was set up to NOT be able to try something.  That is simply untrue.  In our system, it's the states that are supposed to do the experimentation. 

Limited Federal powers are the very reason why we survived so long.  We are simply the longest lived Presidential system in the world.  We are the longest lasting form of government in all of recorded history. 

The fairly significant amendments he is calling for would change the system to a point that everything else we have would have to be adjusted to fit it.  This is essentially a complete rewrite of the Constitution, even though he is trying to deny that's what he wants.

" before the commitment to majority rule "
There is no such commitment.  Majority rule is very , very bad thing.  This has been proven over and over again history.  many of these examples are the military takeovers he refers to in this article.

The North Carolina governor just gave a speech where she suggested suspending elections (and No, it wasn't a "joke.")  Now we have this article right on the heels of that, calling for the abolition of the Constitution.  Two is a coincendence.  I'll now be keeping my eye out for the third.

“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.”

Exactly right, and our Constitution gives almost 100% authority to the government to do just that...the State governments, that is. Which is absolutely brilliant. IF the Federal govt would decide to respect the Constitution's limits on its power.

Every State can try something a trifle different...or hugely different...from the next State. We can observe how these experiments work and duplicate the successful ones in our State. Citizens can vote two ways, at the ballot box and with their feet, for governments that rule the way that makes sense to them. If their State is too liberal, or too conservative, or too moderate, they can just move to another.

Right now, the combat between big-tax-big-govt and small-tax-small-govt is tearing the Union apart. This battle could be ended with a little bit of respect on both sides. Agree to disagree. Agree to let some States be big govt and some be small govt. Let's see which works best, which results in the most prosperity, the most happiness. See which States people flock to. We might actually find out which is best, rather than just having an ideological opinion about it.

No Harold, governemnts are not pitted against each other. Only if you leave out our private sector. I will pit our private sector (uninhibbited by our own governemnt) against ANY government in the world. WE WILL WIN! It is you, and the current government, that are holding us back. It may be trite...but...please...get a clue! It is the private sector that made this Country Great....NOT THE GOVERNMENT! The Founding Fathers gave us the means to be great...and fair...it is the government that has been hacking away at this for years.

what's missing from the piece is that the american system has never been a democracy.  we've become marginally more democratic over the years (e.g. senators are now elected by popular vote) but we're still a republic.  else, we wouldn't have a senate, the electoral college, the supreme court; i'm glad this is so...  i am not glad, though, that the term 'democracy' has become such a misnomer.  our system is a republican one. just because the dems managed to get BHO into office doesn't mean all, or any, of his policies should be put in place. and thank god they haven't

The undercurrent here is that the only changes wanted are those that favor Democrats - since Gore won the popular vote the electoral college is bad, since Republicans have been able to filibuster, the filibuster is bad.

In short, the frustration here is because it is Republicans who are frustrating Democratic plans.

You sure didn't see articles like this when the Republicans held the reins - back then it wasn't gridlock, it was the "loyal opposition." Now that the shoe is on the other foot the hypocrites are in full swing.

Be careful what you wish for though - the Republicans may end up with it all in 2012. If that happens we won't see many articles like this!

What Mr. Meyerson proposes is a banana republic democracy replace the US Government.  Our government is a REPUBLIC, not a democracy, and it should stay that way.

Our government is designed for gridlock, so that ideas and changes come from reasoned debate rather than and ideological takeover by a mob.

The first mistake was changing the constitution to move from State appointed Senators to elected candidates.  That moved the republic from a republic to a democracy.  That should be reversed.  The House is supposed to represent the PEOPLE, and the Senate was designed to represent the STATES.  The entire character of the government was changed for the worse when this happened. 

The article presents healthcare as a "good" idea.  Austerity as a "bad" idea in the UK, etc.

 I chuckled when I read '“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,”'

Yes, they won the debate! That's the way it is supposed to work. Instead the author says we should make wide sweeping changes without great debate. 

I wonder what would happen if someone that you didn't approve of was in charge and we we decided to just change the Constitution the same way Hugo Chavez has.

Let's keep the government the way it is, thanks.

He mentions in the article that if the parliamentary threshold is too low (Israel) that you get a fragmented parliament incapable of action, however Turkey sets the threshold at 10% and consequently AKP was able to win almost 60% of the seats with only 40% of the vote.  So they had a strong majority despite receiving a minority of the vote.  Our system is designed to ensure that a party wins 2 elections in a row to have a large enough majority to make major changes.  this has produced a more stable environment than many parliaments (see Italy).  Most of the angst expressed in this article could be relieved by reforming the filibuster, it doesn't require ditching the constitution.  If the republicans win the presidency next year I am willing to bet Mr Meyerson will appreciate the checks and balances of our form of democracy better.

By design, and unlike parliamentary systems, the Constitutional Convention gave us an exceptionally strong head of state, an exceptionally weak head of government, and gave just one person both roles. It is the head of government part that seems to be the problem. Unless the president and both houses of congress are all of the same party, very little can be accomplished, and even then it is like herding cats.

A big part of the problem is that the other two people who are members of the triumvirate that effectively functions as our head of government - i.e., the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House - are not really accountable to the general public, and thus have little incentive to pursue what is in the general public interest. Maybe the answer is not to further strengthen the presidency, but instead to modify these offices so they are both more powerful and also more answerable to the general public.

The founders of our nation created a governing system resulting in the most dynamic, wealthy, powerful nation in the history of mankind. All the while giving great freedoms and opportunity to the most common amongst us. I know, I am one of them. We now have academics and pundits, many, if not most, who are cuddled by our current entitlement mentality based system, wanting to change to a new approach.  Could anything be more ridiculous than taking these folks seriously?

Couldn't agree more.  The current state of the American Government is "working as intended."  We have a ponderous, inertial, and inefficient government by design.  Consequently, we have the most stable government - and free and open society - in the history of the world.

It's tempting to imagine an efficient, speedy, and resolute government - but the danger is self-evident: such a government could efficiently, speedily, and resolutely impose its will upon every aspect of our lives.  As we've seen throughout the world, other such governments do exactly this with frightening - and too often brutal - frequency.

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