America—regarded by many (especially Americans) as the world’s greatest democracy—is rightly proud of its Constitution. Forged at a time, before either the French or the Russians did away with them, when monarchs ruled the world it was a clarion call to the rights of individuals and the restriction of the power of rulers.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” —The Declaration of Independence
Pretty heady stuff at a time when Louis XIV was scalping his people to sustain the opulence of Versailles and the British were busy building an empire policed by conscription and press-gangs on class and slavery.
Something to be proud of, then—especially when it took thirteen struggling colonies of barely two million, clinging to the edge of am unknown continent, and turned them the world’s richest country of 350 million people. The concept of “rights” continues to this day, with states fiercely defending theirs against federal authorities and cities fiercely defending theirs against state authorities. As a result, enthusiasm for and participation in especially local democracy has remained strong, as evidenced by state propositions and healthy public attendance at city council meetings.
As part of all this, the American system of government, hinging on a deliberate three-way balance among the Executive (President), Legislature (Congress) and Judiciary served the country well for a quarter of a millennium. Things were not always noble (as when McKinley was bounced into the Spanish=American War and colonialism, after having championed the cause of oppressed peoples) or above board (as when Johnson got the country entangled in a major war in Vietnam, without ever admitting it was). Until recently, despite the electoral system having been invented when candidates rode horses around a trackless countryside the country on horseback and handbills wee the only medium. Developments like the telephone, newspapers, radio, automobiles, aviation, television and now the internet have revolutionised campaigns in ways the Founding Fathers could never have envisaged. But the biggest influence has been money; lots of it.
Spending on political campaigns in America dwarfs anywhere else. The 2016 Presidential election cost $2bn. The 2018 Mid-term (i.e. Congressional ) election cost twice that. That’s $43.64 for each actual voter in an electoral cycle, and far more than any other country. Efforts to set limits on spend have been quashed by the Supreme Court as it would “curtail freedom of speech”. As a result, these days, only rich people get elected, with billionaire Donald Trump the latest exemplar.
It’s democracy, Jim—but not as we know it.
There are strong arguments against the institutionalised US two-party system that dominates American politics (see The Hill and OSU Origins), which discourages reason and co-operation (known as “bipartisanship”).
So, now that this electoral jalopy has creaked down the road for over 240 years, is it long overdue to trade her in for a modern model? At the risk of a verbal lynching by outraged Americans civic purists, here are proposals to provide a democracy fit for the 21st century, and which would cost them (as they might say) “a whole bunch of money.
- Take the President out of politics. France, Germany, Ireland, etc. have Presidents who are above politics and can represent the while country, much as the Monarch does in Britain. His/her election thereby becomes less partisan and the bizarre Electoral College consigned to history.
- Re-think Congressional Districts. In all but the six states entitled to only one representative (AK, DE, MT, ND, VT, WY), introduce STV proportional representation. All states entitled to single-digit representation would be a single Congressional District. The 13 states with double-digit representation would be split into a minimum number of districts. This would increase state awareness and minimise gerrymandering.
- Introduce severe caps on campaign spending, in part by outlawing use of broadcast media (TV, radio, internet) advertising. Possible free distribution of one election address and limited Party Political Broadcasts in proportion to poll standing.
- Revamp Senate to mirror representation: States with 1-9 representatives receive one senator (elected by FPTP); States with 10-19 representatives receive two senators (elected by STV);States with 20-29 representatives receive three, and so on. (75 senators in all).
- House Majority Leader forms a government and chooses a Cabinet; most Presidential powers transferred here. House Minority Leaders leads the Opposition ad selects a Shadow Cabinet.
- Elections for all seats would be held once every four years.
- Consideration should be given to pursuing the 100-year-old idea of dividing California into two states around the latitude of San Luis Obispo.
Outrageous as such proposals may seem, consider other examples of counties with executive presidents—Maduro in Venezuela, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Putin in Russia—and consider if this is the kind of political company the USA wants to keep. Then consider that just about every other pillar of democracy—from Western Europe to Canada to South Korea, to India to Australia—practices some variant on the above. And, finally, consider the advantages that would accrue to the American people, whom the system is supposed to benefit:
- No more interminable (and expensive) Primaries
- Ability for a broadly popular candidate to win over narrow partisanship
- Opportunity for smaller parties to break REP/DEM hegemony
- Opportunity for minorities to break the ‘white hair in a suit’ older male cabal
- Demise of PACs, millionaire funding and ‘Beltway Bandits’ influential cliques
- Obligation on Congress to actually DO something ad not bicker & filibuster
- Enhanced representation of State, as opposed to business interests
- Increased focus on the candidate and undermining of incumbent strangleholds
This may be much too heady for traditionalists/purists. But, with Trump behaving like a bull in a china shop with the niceties of convention that once made the present system seem fit for purpose, popular anger among the huge non-political majority may require change. For, as the Declaration of Independence also says:
“…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”