“… 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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”—US Declaration of Independence
It is hard for anyone who believes in democracy to fault this fine statement of principle. Americans are justly proud of both the spirit and the letter of it, having had it dinned into them at school.
While I commend and support its sentiment, even as an outsider with many friends and 16 years of residence in the States, I am compelled to make comment on how far Americans have drifted from its core premise, while they still believe their democratic credentials remain the envy of the world.
The prime flaw is simply the document’s age and that of the Constitution founded upon it. Brilliant as both were, the context in which they were formulated was late 18th century colonial America, where 13 states with barely a million inhabitants, occupying a barely civilised strip of land between the forested Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean communicated by horse and wagon. Other than that, they differed considerably—from the puritan North, the slave-owning South, with nascent metropolises of Philadelphia and New York in between.
This week, Republicans in the Senate blocked Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill and vetoed a Democrat attempt to raise the debt ceiling. Together, this may shut down the US government by mid-November. This would not be the first time, as similar tactics blocked both Clinton and Obama and paralysed the federal government. This is just one, albeit massive, example of how the US political system, for all its meritorious origins and high regard in which many Americans hold it, is no longer fit for purpose. Trump’s antics have brought it to breaking point. And if it does break, it is not just the USA that will come down with a crash. Here are some thoughts on salient issues:
- “All men are created equal”. This sounds great and, in freeing them from the shackles of a class system, omce served its purpose. But it did not apply to non-whites or females, and certainly not to slaves. Women had to wait until 1919 and Native Americans until 1924 to become full citizens African Americans made progress in 1865 but it was a century later that those in Southern States gained equality. Though it tool two centuries, US society did catch up with its founding principles in the end.
- Office of the President Trump played fast and loose with this, showing how weak the “separation of powers” clause had become. The office was made powerful when the country was small. The powers available were little abused by 43 presidents who respected the office. Trump, with no such morals, showed how far they could be abused. Hamilton’s clause about impeachment is a bent reed, when the Senate colluded in running any such effort into the sane. A solution to this is too complex for a blog, but this imbalance and potential for abuse must be addressed.
- Congress has become a plutocracy and doesn’t even hide this fact. Whereas Congress was once a collection of landowners and farmers with a smattering of industrialist and intellectuals, nobody gets elected to the House or Senate without serious funding of a professional campaign. Current estimates are that it takes $19.4 million to win a Senate seat. A House seat comes in relatively cheap at $1.6 million. This means nobody but billionaires get elected without being obliged to people and organisations, some of whom want the favour returned. (see: https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2016/11/the-price-of-winning-just-got-higher-especially-in-the-senate/)
- The Senate is a gross anachronism and affront to democracy. Both House and Senate must agree to legislation. While the number of Representatives elected to the House is regularly revised to reflect the population in each state, only two Senators are elected per state. When there were only 13 roughly equal-sized states, this worked fine. However, these days, it takes the population of the 22 smallest states to equal the population of California. They get 44 Senators; California gets 2. In fact 51 Senators from the least populous states form a majority, having been elected by just 18% of the US population. The reason this outrage to democracy has not been corrected is that they are nearly all Republicans—turkeys reluctant to vote for Christmas.
- Procedure in both House and Senate are arcane and archaic. The Speaker is powerful but partisan because they do not relinquish party loyalties when selected. Anyone can attach anything to any bill; it need not be relevant—even the threat of doing this is a bargaining chip. And the filibuster lives on as a nuclear option to block the passage of legislation. The place alienates and confuses those it should serve
- The two-party system is institutionalised. Although it is legally possible for a third party to emerge, even populist Ralph Nader in the 1970s and billionaire Ross Perot in the 1980s failed. Voters must register as one or the other and the massive funding is controlled by the parties, so inertia is huge. Since the 1990s, both parties have been locked in barren hostility that has gone as far as closing down the government.
- The Judiciary, the third leg of the “separation of powers” is political. All nine members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President for life. Replacements are chosen for sympathies to those of the President and, by interpreting federal law, have impact long after the President who appointed them is long gone. Decisions momentous to ordinary lives, such as “Roe v. Wade” which legalised abortion, last for decades.
- Checks and balances outside are almost non-existent, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Because of shared conviction that American democracy cannot be improved on, its actions and influence in the world must ipso facto be benign. Quite apart from the subsuming of the plains indians, the Mexican War of 1848 that stole most of the West from them and the Spanish War of 1898 that garnered Puerto Rico, Guam & the Philippines and made Cuba a vassal state, there was the Monroe Doctrine that forbade any other power to interfere in the Americas and the convenient hiving off of Panama from Colombia to exercise sovereignty over the canal that was then built. There was no challenge to any of this.
- Anti-colonialism. Having sought freedom from colonial masters, American folklore is that it is a beacon for those seeking independence. For years, various presidents lectured the British and French on this. Yet their own record is poor, if not hypocritical. The US annexed Hawaii, ignoring a kingdom already there. They fought a brutal war against an independence movement in the Philippines. Puerto Rico is still a colony without democratic representation 123 years after being “liberated” from Spain. If given statehood, it would be bigger than 18 of the existing states, and entitled to at least five representatives in the House and two Senators.
This is not meant to disparage the United States. It is a fine, modern country—still offering the highest level of prosperity to its 330 million citizens. But its politics are neither modern, nor fit for purpose in an advanced society facing the 21st century. Any constitution, no matter how well conceived and crafted cannot still be 100% relevant 232 years later. The anachronistic 2nd Amendment about bearing arms is just the tip of the iceberg.
Influential Americans must start recognising just how far their country has drifted from the ideals of the founding fathers. Commentators and politicians seem unable to acknowledge this fact. The otherwise disastrous Trump presidency may actually have done thoughtful Americans a favour by demonstrating how fragile a system devised for a million ex-colonists could be abused by an unprincipled egotist with money two centuries later.