Reassessing the Structure of American Government

I think it’s fair to say that we’re long overdue for another constitutional convention. Of course, the odds of one actually occurring are extremely slim, and even if we got one I can’t confidently say we wouldn’t be worse off for it. Not that everyone at the last one was a great statesman or anything, but they did have their Franklins, Hamiltons and Madisons, and those are in pretty short supply these days.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our own hypothetical convention. And I think there’s value to the exercise, particularly since structural issues like the filibuster are gaining greater prominence. At this point, everyone knows that something’s not working–the question is what would work. And in order to figure that out, we need to envision the ideal American political system.

Note that I said the ideal American system. That means that if your wondrous ideal political system were to assume power tomorrow, the people being governed would still be Americans, in their various unique positions, on this unique landmass with its unique natural resources and meteorological features. The exercise is constrained, just as a real constitutional convention would be, by the weight of our history and competing interests. No perfectly ordered utopia of thoroughly indoctrinated subjects here.

Obviously, that’s not to say that discussion of purely ideal systems is irrelevant. They can be a useful guide, although one with limited applicability. The point of this exercise is to figure out what, if anything, can be done for this country in the foreseeable future.

You can probably guess where this is headed by now. All of these conditions strongly suggest that for better or for worse–and on balance I’d argue that it’s for better, which I’m guessing is a pretty uncontroversial statement–we’re preserving the basic structure of the federal government. Meaning three independent branches: a democratically elected executive, a democratically elected legislature, and an appointed judiciary.

Within that frame, there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement; the electoral college should go, for example, and it would be nice if Supreme Court justices didn’t get lifetime appointments. But the institution in most immediate need of reform–which was, of course, the impetus for this post–is the United States Senate.

Dylan was pretty ahead of the curve here, calling for the total abolishment of the Senate as early as April. And a unicameral legislature has a certain appeal to it, although I don’t think it passes the conceivability test as far as results from our hypothetical convention go.

Besides, I’m interested to see if a philosophical argument can be made for the Senate. Not in its present form, but overall. And once that’s argument made–once we figure out what the Senate’s good for–then we’ll be able to imagine it in its ideal form. And hopefully that will point the way for how best to reform it.

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16 Responses

  1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

    The bill is currently endorsed by over 1,659 state legislators (in 48 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. This national result is similar to recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, New York — 79%, and Washington — 77%. Support is strong in every partisan and demographic group surveyed.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 29 state legislative chambers, in 19 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes — 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  2. We have a constitutional right to an Article V convention, which the Founders believed we would need to use when the public lost confidence in the federal government. Moreover, the one and only requirement for a convention has long been satisfied, with some 750 applications from all 50 states; these can be seen on foavc.org. Congress has refused to obey the Constitution and gotten away with it. Time to stop this. Become a member of Friends of the Article V Convention, the nonpartisan group with the sole mission of making Congress obey Article V.

  3. What you begin to lay out here is a recipe for the kind of political instability that exists in most places around the world and systematically interferes with the protection of minority rights, not to mention technological development and general prosperity.

    The Electoral College, for example, requires a kind of national majority and provides both unifying and moderating incentives to candidates and parties in the process. I’ve written more about that at http://www.SaveOurStates.com.

  4. You don’t want to actually hear some of the other proposals before you insist that I’m destroying minority rights and political stability?

  5. Generally, when someone says “the Electoral College should go,” they are suggesting a direct national election. If that’s what you’re suggesting, than yes, your proposal threatens minority rights and our political stability. If not, it’s your blog, offer your proposals.

  6. Actually, I do favor a direct popular vote. I just thought it was odd that you leaped to offer up a critique of all of my proposals once I had named exactly one of them.

    I’m curious though, how would eliminating the electoral college threaten minority rights and political stability?

  7. Part of the answer to your question is captured in the Grover Cleveland series of elections. He lost reelection even while winning the most popular votes because he received such intense support in the Deep South. Because the Electoral College prevents a candidate from winning that way (based on intense regional support), it forces candidates and campaigns and political parties to be authentically national (or if that’s too strong, at least to be far more national than would otherwise be the case). I think this also forces them to be more inclusive and diverse than they would be otherwise.

    One easy response to the Cleveland analysis is that our politics are no longer regional. But, of course, the question then is: why not? The Electoral College is a significant part of the answer.

    I believe the overarching question is: what are the incentives created by an election system? How has the Electoral College effected the ordering of our current political system, particularly its outputs as regards individual rights, and how would the system reorder itself and these outputs change if the Electoral College was modified or replaced. This is a very serious question; nations end, civil wars happen, poverty is the average human condition, freedom is a rare thing even today.

  8. I guess I’m just intensely skeptical that a purely regional party could ever win the presidency. This map’s a pretty good example of why:

    That and my own admittedly anecdotal experiences traveling around the country have convinced me that, broadly considered, “regions” of America are too politically and ideologically fractured for the kind of threat you’re talking about to emerge in the present day.

  9. Yes, but isn’t it likely that the way things are today may be the result of the way things have worked up until today? That is, the Electoral College has operated from the very beginning as an incentive against regional parties and an incentive toward a more national politics.

  10. Even granting that, the argument could then just as easily be made that it has served its purpose and it’s time to move on to a more representative system.

  11. Only if you can show that the Electoral College has worked some permanent change.

    And the idea that a direct election would be “more representative” I think is an unsubstantiated assumption. The effects of the Electoral College on campaign strategy and coalition building make our current system more representative in its effects.

    Anti-Electoral College arguments seem always to fixate upon the process, sort of the user interface, rather than the results. But it’s the results that matter, that we either enjoy or suffer. Mathematical perfection may be political ruin. The important inquiry is about practical results and, as Washington said in his Farewell Address, there we are best guided by experience rather than postulation.

  12. And that’s where we hit a philosophical brick wall. I can’t endorse the end result of a process that, to me, seems completely illegitimate.

    Besides, if you want to talk about ends, I can just point to the 2000 election. You can argue that it was an isolated circumstance, but it still revealed a major flaw in the electoral system; namely, how it can be gamed to produce a desired (but not, if we’re talking about the welfare of the country, desirable) result.

  13. So, philosophically speaking, 50%+1 of raw votes is the only legitimate way to choose a president? Why? Do you know how many other countries choose their executive through some form of electoral college or with a parliamentary system?

    If Bush had gotten a relative few more popular votes, would he have been a better president? You would have liked him if he won a raw vote majority?

    2000 was virtually a tie according to both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Both candidates had substantial and national support, enough to be the legitimate president. Our opinions about who we preferred in the election have no bearing on the process. Or to put it another way, Bush wasn’t Bush because of how he was elected.

    I often suspect that animus for the last administration lies behind much of the opposition to the Electoral College. Frankly, that’s a lousy bias to bring to the debate about systemic election reform. I suppose it’s to be expected since that is when many people first came to understand the system.

  14. You’re missing my point. The result of the 2000 election was bad, but my point is that the process, because the entire election came down to Florida, was particularly susceptible to corruption.

  15. A national recount, or dueling state recounts, would not be better.

    And a true national election would call for national administration, that is, presidential appointees running the presidential election process. You think that is less fraught with risk than our current dispersed system?

    We should be amazed every four years when a new president is elected without riots, bloodshed, or the possibility of our regime disintegrating instead of running around trying to fix systems that work in practice remarkably well.

  16. If national administration were done by a bipartisan panel subject to a rigorous confirmation process, then I’d have a little more confidence in their oversight than, say, Katherine Harris.

    Meanwhile, this makes no sense to me:

    We should be amazed every four years when a new president is elected without riots, bloodshed, or the possibility of our regime disintegrating instead of running around trying to fix systems that work in practice remarkably well.

    I’d prefer not to have to be amazed, and given the systemic problems I’ve already noted, I fail to see how you can grade this process as working “remarkably well.”

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