Sunday, September 13, 2015

About the Constitution: It IS a Feature, It IS a Bug In the System, It ISN'T Fatal

One of the blogger/editors you need to read often (and who doesn't publish often enough) is The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum.  When he publishes something, it's a well-researched, citation-backed article delving into a particular issue and breaking down the arguments in a concise, readable way.

Appelbaum's current article is on a topic I hold dear: our nation's history and the founding of the Constitution that makes the United States of America (and its three branches of federal government) what it is.

To Appelbaum, it's a flawed and fragile jewel of sorts, one that the Founding Fathers failed to design as a durable foundation:

The system isn’t working. But even as the two parties agree on little else, both still venerate the Constitution. Politicians sing its praises. Public officials and military officers swear their allegiance. Members of Congress keep miniature copies in their pockets. The growing dysfunction of the government seems only to have increased reverence for the document; leading figures on both sides of the aisle routinely call for a return to constitutional principles.
What if this gridlock is not the result of abandoning the Constitution, but the product of flaws inherent in its design?

He's getting into the Checks And Balances aspect of our government, and primarily into the splitting of power between a President (executive) and Congress (legislative).  (The Judiciary's role as Judge/Arbitrator between the other two branches in this matter is limited)  He focuses on the Presidency in particular, a game-breaking political force that could (and has) wield remarkable unilateral authority when needed.

When, in 1985, a Yale political scientist named Juan Linz compared the records of presidential and parliamentary democracies, the results were decisive. Not every parliamentary system endured, but hardly any presidential ones proved stable. “The only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States,” Linz wrote in 1990. This is quite an uncomfortable form of American exceptionalism.
Linz’s findings suggest that presidential systems suffer from a large, potentially fatal flaw. In parliamentary systems, governmental deadlock is relatively rare; when prime ministers can no longer command legislative support, the impasse is generally resolved by new elections. In presidential systems, however, contending parties must eventually strike a deal. Except sometimes, they don’t. Latin America’s presidential democracies have tended to oscillate between authoritarianism and dysfunction...
To Appelbaum, the flaw is that there exists the possibility of deadlock.  The Founders did intend, from what we've read of their arguments on the matter, to use deadlocks as a means of putting the brakes on reckless legislation or executive actions that would otherwise occur in a parliamentary system.  Also, to use the threat (or reality) of deadlocks to enforce compromise between the sides to ensure enough people are satisfied (or dissatisfied, which also works) with the results.

The flaw for Appelbaum is allowing those deadlocks to evolve into outright obstructionism.  Something we're seeing today as one branch of government - the Legislative - collapses in on itself in a wave of obstruction over partisan rancor.

Until recently, American politicians have generally made the compromises necessary to govern. The trouble is that cultures evolve. As American politics grows increasingly polarized, the goodwill that oiled the system and helped it function smoothly disappears. In 2013, fights over the debt ceiling and funding for the Affordable Care Act very nearly produced a constitutional crisis. Congress and the president each refused to yield, and the government shut down for 16 days. In November 2014, claiming that he was “acting where Congress has failed,” President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration. House Republicans denounced him as “threatening to unravel our system of checks and balances” and warned that they would cut off funding for the Department of Homeland Security unless Obama’s actions were rolled back. For months, the two sides faced off, pledging fealty to the Constitution even as they exposed its flaws. Only at the 11th hour did the House pull back from the edge.
Strikingly, in these and other recent crises, public opinion has tended to favor the president. As governments deadlock, executives are inclined to act unilaterally, thereby deepening crises...
Appelbaum is correct in that our current political malaise is based on the structural flaws of our Constitution: there are no emergency powers to override one branch of government when one party driven by reactionary dogma controls that branch and abuses the rules into a paralyzing gridlock.

As a side note: It's interesting that Appelbaum is arguing about the disproportionate powers of the Executive branch in times of deadlock, but that the causes of our current deadlock woes are all on a one-party-rule Congress refusing - including excessive vacationing as outright job avoidance - to do its job.  I can see where he's concerned that the President in these circumstances could say "to hell with it" and go into Full Dictator mode like a Caesar of old, but the core problem is still with a lazy and broken Congress... Again, I digress.

However, I disagree with Appelbaum on one point: the flaw in our government's Constitution isn't fatal.  It's a serious weakness, granted, but it's one that can be fixed.

It can be fixed because as much as things change, there is always (except for one exception, hello 1860) some moment or some twist in the ongoing historical narrative that is the present day that breaks the gridlock.  I'm not talking some kind of Deus Ex Machina, but about an external or internal shift of events that "wakes up" the political elites - the patrician class that holds the real power in the nation - into making the necessary reforms to end that crisis and ensure future crises do not return.  I'm thinking back to such moments as the Progressive Era at the start of the 20th Century which was a response to the decades of Gilded Age greed and social inaction on women's rights; back to the New Deal era reforming federal government into a regulator of our fiscal and business needs; back to the Civil Rights reforms in the 1960s to end a century of Jim Crow segregation.

It can be fixed because when this happened before - when the system broke down enough during the Civil War - the majority of Americans still worked for repairing and rebinding the nation back to what it was.  Partly to rub the salt in the wounds of the secessionists who lost, but mostly because Americans saw (still see) America as a whole and unified nation despite the disagreements.

And it can be fixed because our nation's Founders were smart enough and hopeful enough to establish the means to Amend the Constitution itself.  That is a step of Last Resort, of course, and difficult to manage.  However, if the crisis becomes that obvious, our nation has shown in the past it is capable of making the effort to amend the flaw and get government working again.  That the amendment process even exists is an example of faith: the men of power 200-plus years ago trusted future generations to see to making repairs when they were needed.

There will come a moment when the gridlock ends.  The causes of this current crisis - the unresponsive House designed by rampant gerrymandering, a Republican Party consumed by hardening Far Right ideologies against women's health rights and immigration - can't last forever: simple demographics will see to part of that by 2020, and a growing state-level push for election reforms will see an end to gerrymandered "safe" districts sooner rather than later.  The restrictive limits of an obstructionist faction historically have a habit of collapsing on themselves (the purity purges), and we are getting signs of the Far Right Republicans about to implode over their inability to compromise even among themselves.

There is going to come a point when the need for reform is so obvious that every level of society from rich to poor will agree to its passage.  And the ones who refuse to see it either remove themselves from the equation to ensure its passage or else pursue a destructive course that ends up hurting themselves (although others can get hurt in the process).

A lot of this doesn't even involve the Amendment process, although once reformers gain power in Congress and the White House (and enough states) they are likely to codify their reforms with an appropriately-worded amendment to ensure the safety of our nation's well-being to future generations.

Future generations who will likely complain about the deadlocks in government they're facing when it's their turn to question what's broken in the Constitution and what needs to be done about it.  Heh.

I'm not being flippant about what Appelbaum writes: he is correct in that our current political woes are due to failings in the Constitution and that there's a possibility these failings can get worse.  I'm noting we've been able to fix and reform the Constitution before and that we're able to do so again.

I'm just saying there are alternatives to letting it all fail: I'm just saying we need to start fighting to get those fixes in place, and removing the blockage of obstructionism causing damage to our nation.

I am, again, saying we need to stop voting into office the party responsible for all this obstruction in the first place.  Yup.  Please please please, stop voting Republican.

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

I blame some of it on boredom. Conspiracy theories and forecasts of doom (which do include those who want the whole system to fail so it can be rebuilt in a manner they think they would support more than the current iteration) are far more exciting than the actual workings of government, which are for the most part, tedious and boring.
And I do really hope that you are right and there is a breaking point after which something will be done about the destruction of our government.
It is exceedingly difficult to convince people to simply stop making it worse when the definition of worse can't be agreed upon.
We can fix it, though. We may not know how just yet, but we can. Kind of like the way we managed (so far) not to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, when doing so was looked upon as a near certainty while I was growing up. We may have to actually get up and, you know, do stuff about it...

-Doug in Oakland