Tag Archives: New Constitution

Weekend Links: the Problems of American Democracy

  • Comparing the United States with Canada: first, CityLabs sees what would happen if the United States had single-payer healthcare, like Canada. Not only would we save over a trillion dollars, we would save 56,000 human beings and 5400 babies.
  • Speaking of openDemocracy, they also had a piece on sortition, or the selection of public officials by lottery instead of election.

The Problems of Salon’s Constitution

In America, we treat the Constitution like holy scripture. No other country even approaches the US Constitution’s 231 years. The average of constitutions is 18 years. This is because constitutions are not holy scripture, but human instruments for the organization of their society and applying principles of justice. Our constitution does not do that very well. The citizenry has enormous difficulty getting what it wants from its national government (unless the ruling class wants it as well). The Founders designed the constitution to be undemocratic, yet we continue with the illusion that we live in “the greatest democracy on earth”. The government itself has lifted that illusion in recent years. A drone-murdering president, police riots in Ferguson, waterless Detroit, torture, the prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, et cetera, show us that existing state institutions provide no way for the people to have what they want. We need a new constitution. Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg have offered their ideas for a new constitution at Salon. This is a conversation that needs to begin. Fortunately, Burstein and Isenberg aren’t cowed by the apathy and nihilism of the critics of this pursuit. Unfortunately, they do more to reveal the limitations of the centrist-liberal imagination than they do to offer a constitution for a democratic republic.

Burstein and Isenberg present plenty of good ideas for reforming the current structure of government. They want to remove private money from campaigning and preventing legislators from seeking jobs in the businesses they benefit while in Congress. They want to limit the term of Supreme Court Justices to ten years instead of a life term. The two historians want electoral redistricting by algorithm to remove human bias.

What I found most surprising was that two clearly liberal people would also advocate congressional term limits. I had thought that Republican demand for term limits in the 1990s meant that liberals could not want them as well.

Burstein and Isenberg also recognize the need for reversing the enormous economic inequality in the United States. They advocate distributive taxation to do so. However, they are also under the impression that education is a solution to inequality. Others have more than adequately dealt with this myth. Moreover, Burstein and Isenberg embrace the goal of “social mobility”, or transferring from one class to another, usually “up”. They say they want to increase social mobility while also wanting to end the myth of the American Dream. Somewhere in that muddle, there is a contradiction. Upward social mobility through hard work was the American Dream. But it is just a dream. We should focus on the more human desire to live purposeful lives, to free people from low-wage drudgery and economic insecurity.

Burstein and Isenberg’s two-part article has several problems. First, it is more of a centrist-liberal policy wish list than a genuine constitutional manifesto. In fact, the whole “new constitution” angle seems more like a framing device for a list of liberal grievances. They write extensively on gun nuts and the Second Amendment. They focus on upward social mobility and economic opportunity. Their political fixes are about removing private money from elections, with nothing about the many undemocratic features of our government.

Second, they spend a long time discussing what the Founding Fathers intended, in a positive light. This is odd for an article about a new constitution. First, the Founding Fathers lived in an entirely different, slave-plantation-and-small-artisan society. Who cares what they think anymore? Why are we still talking about them? Madison was the keenest mind among them, but his political philosophy still wasn’t very good.

Finally, all of these recommendations are the most tepid and lukewarm ideas possible. Burstein and Isenberg think that appropriate penance for polluters is to make them “pay for TV ads that aggressively promote a clean-energy economy”. Granted, they also demand government regulate for a clean environment, but it’s already supposed to be doing that. What about other antiquated vestiges: the Senate, judicial review, the executive veto? All intact!

Achieving a new constitution for the United States means a lot of work. It means convincing political organizations to form coalitions, extensive community organizing, strategic alliances with elites, and persevering over a long-term national campaign. Liberal pundits always write like the ruling class will see reason and adopt a good proposal. But the ruling class is bound together by their common interests in the existing structure of society, and will not give that up without conflict.

Changing the constitution, or adopting a new one, will be a long struggle. The benefits of change must always be greater than the costs of forcing the change. To pick up Frederick Douglass’ metaphor, the crops must be worth the plowing. The minor tweaks proposed by Burstein and Isenberg aren’t worth photocopying petitions, much less working over the course of a decade.

Here are just a few political innovations enshrined in the constitutions of other nations:

  • Abolition of the military (Costa Rica);
  • Limits on military spending (Japan);
  • Participatory democracy, including at the at the national level (Brazil and Venezuela);
  • Recognition for the ‘rights of nature’ (Ecuador);
  • Social directives that mandate goals for the state to meet (India).

Also, most constitutions have provisions for popular referenda and initiatives, protection of the rights of women, of labor, of ethnic and linguistic minorities, and of the disadvantaged. Nations across the globe march into the future, while America waddles towards the Weimar republic.

“This is not a call to revolution…,” they write.

Well, I will call for revolution! Throw out the tepid tongue of “constitutional conventions” and images of bewigged and august white men. We demand a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for a democratic republic! The people are sovereign, and the state is their prerogative!

The United States is Not a Democracy

We do not think of our Constitution as something that we can alter to improve its procedures, to meet our own needs, or to assert our rights.  Americans, alone in the world, declare our constitution to be sacred and unchangeable, with only a handful of amendments in 223 years.  When someone brings up democracy in the United States, somebody will pull out that tired cliché, “the [slider title = “Founders”]The Founders were the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States. They included future presidents like James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and less well-remembered statesmen like Gouverneur Morris.[/slider] established a republic, not a democracy.”  And they would be right – the United States has claimed the mantle of democracy without actually achieving it, but this is not the whole story.  The Founders did talk about founding a “republic,” even though they did not have any good idea what that meant, besides not being a democracy.  They wanted an [slider title = “oligarchy”]An oligarchy is a government ruled by a small class of people, usually the wealthy.[/slider]; they didn’t want YOU to govern yourself. These Founders, we have been repeatedly told, sat down in Philadelphia, in 1787, with august wisdom and omnipotent foresight, to draft the Constitution of the United States that would last forever.  But, in fact, this was not predetermined, and the eleven years that passed between the Revolution and writing of the Constitution was one in which our democratic forefathers and the aristocrats we call the Founders struggled for supremacy. read more »