America’s governmental system could be said to be doing pretty badly. 1% of the population is in prison, inequality is growing which is arguably leading to lagging life expectancy (33rd in the world) among other things.
An article by Alex Seitz-Wald appeared in The Atlantic a couple of days ago entitled “The U.S. Needs a New Constitution—Here’s How to Write It”.
An outdated model
Alex argues that a growing number of experts believe that the constitution is no longer fit for purpose - an argument lent credibility by the recent government shutdown.
“It gets close to a failing grade in terms of 21st-century notions on democratic theory,” says University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, part of the growing cadre of legal scholars who say the time has come for a new constitutional convention.
There are apparently myriad examples of modern constitutions, highlighting the age of the U.S’s, which is 226 years old.
More than 700 constitutions have been composed since World War II alone, and other countries have solved the very problems that cripple us today.
As Alex mentions, possibly the most notable post-war constitutions are those of Japan and Germany - which have both proved to be relatively successful in many ways.
What doesn’t work
“There are about 30 countries, mostly in Latin America, that have adopted American-style systems. All of them, without exception, have succumbed to the Linzian nightmare at one time or another, often repeatedly,” according to Yale constitutional law professor Bruce Ackerman
Alex points out two key problems with the U.S model:
- The two houses both have a similar amount of power, allowing for the possibility of deadlock
- In the event of a deadlock, there aren’t sufficient checks and balances to ensure government remains functional
“No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people,” Linz wrote
The article suggests that a Westminster-like parliamentary system has proved superior:
How would a parliamentary system handle a shutdown? It wouldn’t have one. … If a budget or other must-pass bill can’t get passed then funding levels are placed on autopilot and new elections are called to resolve things. The people decide.
He quotes Arend Lijphart in promoting parlimentary systems and Proportional Representation (the opposite of the U.S) as encouraging consensus:
“Democracies work best if they are consensus instead of majoritarian democracies.” [Arend Lijphart]
Changes to make
Helpfully, the article does contain some speculative suggestions of steps to take to reform the U.S system:
- Expand the Senate, providing greater representation to more populous states, and adding “national senators”
- Expand the House to be more representative
- Have a non-partisan redestricting process
- Make presidents serve a single, 6-year term - so they aren’t distracted from governing so much
- Fund politial elections through tax vouchers
- Make the constitution easier to amend
More radical ideas are included, such as instant-runoff voting with multiple choices, or even the German Pirate Party’s “liquid democracy” (something I’m going to be looking into more).
So this is all very well, but how likely is this to actually happen? How could we possibly get to the point where the American people and leadership would consider seriously changing their constitution?
The article does suggest at one point:
A convention to propose amendments to the Constitution
where the parties could propose suggestions and then the most popular get through, although this would be a fairly safe and peacemeal way to change the constitution.
The main thing the article advocates, though, is starting a national conversation about the constitution, which is exactly what this article is doing.