“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
I’m not about to dispute Churchill’s observation, but the truth is that America’s great experiment in republican democracy has reached a point of self-destruction. It can’t be fixed. It needs to be junked.
The country’s constitution drafters did a fine job putting together a document that could gain the acceptance of all thirteen of the original states back in 1786. They had to contend with the divergence of interests between the big states and the small states and with the differing perspectives of the northern states and the southern states; they had to find a way to finesse the slavery issue; and they had to reach an accord on the degree of authority to be granted to the federal government.
And with all of those conundrums to deal with (not to mention the nearly bankrupt economy the Articles of Confederation had brought about and the continuing threat of foreign invasion from the likes of Britain, France and Spain), they did strike a sufficiently satisfactory balance on all matters before them to gain the necessary ratification in each of the original states.
But Benjamin Franklin may have been most prescient when he replied to a concerned citizen who asked what form of government they had created, that it was “a Republic, if you can keep it.”
We haven’t kept it, not recently, at least. Or maybe the model just isn’t workable anymore. Whatever the reasons, the reality is that the system of government that the founders devised for the country no longer works. We are a nation suffering from incurable government gridlock and have become impotent to solve our problems, assuming we can even achieve consensus on identifying what those problems are, itself an increasingly rare phenomenon.
The three branch idea (executive, legislative, judicial) isn’t necessarily faulty. Every functioning democracy needs a separation of the three functions that governments perform. But the way in which we choose two of those three branches is hopelessly antiquated and inefficient.
The basic problem starts with the outmoded two-party system. We are far too diverse in our makeup for two national political parties to represent the interests of all 300 million of us. The advent of the Tea Party, which is on the verge of inhabiting and dispossessing the Republican Party, lock, stock and barrel, is clear evidence of this fact.
The ideologies that are supposed to be represented in both parties are, in fact, only identified by habit, not by reality.
Consider the makeup of the Republican Party. In it are fiscal conservatives (traditional Friedman economists and their disciples), deficit hawks (many of the Tea Party rank and file), libertarians (the Ron Paul crowd), evangelicals (for whom abortion is murder and homosexuality is sinful), and the war hawks (the profiteers from the military-industrial complex). Republican candidates try to speak to all of these positions, but they don’t believe them all, because they are inherently inconsistent.
The Democrats are hardly more homogenous. Their ranks consist of the unions (representing the rank-and-file working class), the environmentalists (the Green Party descendants), the peaceniks (the remnants of McGovern’s children), seniors (the AARP crowd), civil libertarians (the ACLU gang), minorities (principally the African-American community), feminists (the right-to-choose advocates), and the gay and lesbian coalition (to include everyone who isn’t straight). Democratic candidates get all tied up in knots when they try to speak to all of these constituencies, many of which would not support the interests of others were they not in the same political party.
In short, the country has outgrown its political parties. Or, put another way, they have outlived their usefulness. Party leaders are now immobilized more often than they are energized by the need to accommodate all of the interest groups in their “tent.” And, since those interest groups with the biggest cache (read cash) tend to get the most attention, a slide towards an oligarchy that serves the few at the expense of the many is entirely plausible, if it hasn’t begun already.
In place of the Republican and Democratic parties, we need a multi-party system, akin to many European democracies, with each significant interest group (see above) represented by candidates who speak specifically to their interests.
And to provide a forum for all of those new political parties, we need a new system of government, one that is still a representative democracy, but that is much more susceptible of compromise and accommodation.
What the country needs is a parliamentary form of government. A unicameral legislature would work best. The Senate, the most undemocratic of all of the founders’ compromise-motivated devices, is beyond repair. It only made sense as a way to get the approval of the smaller states to the original Constitution. It has never made sense that a state with a population no greater than that of Brooklyn, New York, should have the same number of representatives as the entire state of California.
Adding to the insult to democratic principles that the Senate promotes, its rules, as developed over the years, have given ridiculous amounts of power to the minority party (and even to individual members of that party, when they can singularly “blackball” a judicial nominee or tie up important legislation by denying even a debate on the bill).
The Senate must go. In its place, the House of Representatives can be modified to meet the new multi-party political field, but it must be organized to reflect the accumulation of voting blocs (coalitions) that will then lead to the designation of the head of the executive branch. (The title of president can still work, but he or she will now be the leader of the House, instead of the winner of the quadrennial popularity contest that our presidential elections have become of late.)
This proposal is not the only one that should be considered. Others might also be fixes for the broken system we now have.
But radical change is really the country’s only hope. It’s one thing to elect a president who promises it. It’s quite another to make it happen.
So how would it work, this new unicameral governmental system? Would the country be any less divided with a multi-party political framework? Would the executive branch be any less efficient without a popularly elected president? Would the legislative branch be any less functional with only one house that enacted the laws of the land?
The answer to those last three questions is a resounding NO. The country would not be any less divided, because we are absolutely divided on lots of issues. And in many instances, the divides are not even along the lines of two clearly distinguishable alternatives. In fact, on most issues of importance, any number of alternative views can be identified.
Take government spending as an example. A sizeable percentage of Americans think it is too high, but they hardly agree on what should be cut. Some favor reductions in entitlements, but many (especially the vast majority of Americans who benefit from them) do not. Many favor reductions in welfare benefits, but a significant number of those who consider those benefits a safety net keeping the poor from absolute destitution do not. There are strong proponents for reductions in military spending, but a healthy number of Americans support a strong defense, especially with the memory of the 9/11 attacks still ever-present, even if Osama bin Ladin is no longer among the living.
And so it goes. The same kind of splintered perspectives can be identified with respect to just about every issue that commands the attention of the voters. Abortion? It isn’t just absolutely or absolutely not. When? Why? With or without parental consent? Taxes? Hammer the rich? Cut everyone’s? Single rate? Heavily graduated?
The point is not that a new system will reduce the amount of discord in the country or make it easier to resolve the many differences that divide us. Rather, it’s that a multi-party system will give everyone a way to identify with candidates who truly represent what they (the voters) separately and collectively want.
With a single legislative house (let it be the House of Representatives), the elected members of the many parties would elect a leader who most aligned him- or herself with the majority of the elected members’ views. If 20 different parties were represented with elected members in the House, they would select the leader of the executive branch by forming a ruling coalition.
That coalition might be a combination of those parties representing the big tent of the current Republican Party or the big tent of the Democratic Party or it might be something entirely different than what either of those two parties currently resemble. It might be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. Or it might be hard right conservative or hard left liberal.
But whatever its ideological appearance, it would be able to govern because the current barriers to effective governance would be gone. The governing coalition would be empowered to chart the course of the nation for better or worse, and it would then account for itself in the next election cycle.
If this arrangement sounds entirely unworkable, it isn’t. It is simply a version of the European parliamentary system that exists in all the other true democracies currently in existence. Some may argue that those countries are no better off than we are, but it would be hard to argue that they are any less representative.
The other question that might be of concern would be how the executive branch of government would work without a popularly elected president with his (or her) own separately selected administration. But too much emphasis is placed on that election in the U.S.
The four-year term forces the political parties to work against the public good by seeking to make the president either look good or look bad, while the president does everything he (or she) can to avoid seriously offending anyone.
The Obama presidency is a perfect example of this conundrum. Many Republicans have continuously declared that they want Obama to fail. And much of the loyal opposition has been demagogic rather than principled in its attacks on anything Obama proposes.
The Democrats have hardly been any better at being committed to the nation’s welfare. Instead, following their president’s inherent timidity, they have taken one step backward for every step and a half forward, often moving so cautiously as to end up with little progress at all.
The question isn’t whether a better president would be preferable, but whether a better system would allow a good leader to be more effective.
And a system that focused less on a popularity contest (complete with a two-year campaign and massive fund-raising machines that corrupt everyone in the political arena) would hardly be blow to a truly representative democracy.
In the new parliamentary system, the House would select the president, who would be the leader of the party that headed the newly formed ruling coalition. That leader would then effectuate the policies and programs that the coalition promulgated. If it worked to the public’s satisfaction, the coalition would stay in power.
Regular elections could still be held every two or four years, but without all the media hype and phony political rhetoric. Instead, candidates would speak to the issues their party truly represents, and voters would elect those representatives who truly speak to their values and aspirations.
I have no clear vision of what the ruling coalition would look like if this new system were in place for the elections in 2012. My guess is that it would have a right of center gloss, primarily because the country has moved to the right since the Obama election. But with the abolition of the Electoral College and the Senate, with every House seat being contested by multiple candidates representing multiple perspectives, and with no direct election of the president, the result would be far more likely to represent the true will of the people.
And then, unlike the current mess we find ourselves in, we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.