“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. … [They] must advance … and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago on July 4. Today, we often congratulate ourselves for serving as the model of democracy for the rest of the world, yet our country has perhaps never been so polarized, so divided and so dysfunctional. More and more Americans have a vague and increasing sense that our government is simply incapable of addressing basic challenges like immigration, guns, entitlements, trade, climate and environment, privacy and security, the federal budget, spiraling inequality, money in politics … or even a health emergency like the Zika virus. It is no longer hyperbole to say that American democracy is broken.
So as we look forward to our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026, perhaps the time has come to launch a decade-long conversation about our election procedures, our governing mechanisms and the 18th-century constitutional structures bequeathed to us by our founders.
What kind of political system would we create if we were designing the American system from scratch today?
We take great pride in the “checks and balances” that James Madison incorporated into our Constitution and see them as our greatest bulwark against tyranny. But many other countries use parliamentary rather than presidential systems — and they seem quite safe from the danger of dictatorship. In many other countries, voters select a political party to form a national government. And then, it governs. It passes laws, and it appoints executive branch officials to carry out those laws. With policy imperfections and political battles, to be sure, but without the perpetual condition that defines our own system more and more with each passing year: gridlock.
Much of that gridlock in American politics comes from legislative practices like the filibuster, the seniority system and the “Hastert Rule,” which prevents the minority party from even bringing bills to the floor for discussion — practices which appear nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps we should reconsider the provision in the Constitution that says that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings. … ”
The United States Senate was invented not because of any inherent legitimacy but as a means to persuade the smaller colonies to sign on to the new federal project. The result today is vast overrepresentation for people from states like Vermont, Alaska and Delaware, and profound underrepresentation for every residents of great American cities like Dallas, Miami and New York. Wyoming, with a population of 585,000, is represented by a pair of senators. The San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles alone is home to three times that many people … but no pair of senators for them. Must this preposterously undemocratic feature of “American democracy” persist forever simply because of compromises that had to be made in the 1780s?
All 535 members of the U.S. Congress represent a geographical region. Your political community is determined exclusively by your address. But most of us consider ourselves members of multiple communities, and many have nothing to do with where we live. Several American cities, recognizing this reality, provide both geographic and “at large” representation. Some council members represent particular neighborhoods, while “at large” members give voice to issues, identities and ideas — as well as the welfare of the community as a whole. Why can’t we do this in our national legislature as well?
Gerrymandering has made so many congressional districts so completely uncompetitive — especially with sophisticated computer modeling — that by some estimates more than 80 percent of Americans are never presented with a meaningful choice for the House of Representatives. Why then should citizens participate? Why should they bother to vote?
Should our Supreme Court justices hold lifetime tenure? Should nine unelected individuals maintain the absolute final say over all American laws, a role not given to them by the U.S. Constitution? Sometimes it boils down to a single “swing” justice, a role often played by Anthony Kennedy today. However impartial or wise Kennedy may be, how can we let our nation’s ability to make any kind of legal and societal progress subject to the whim of a single individual?
Wait, before you go…
The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Graysick / CC SA-BY 3.0)
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