It’s morning in America, as it is every morning, and despite the glow many of us are feeling due to the outcome of yesterday’s elections, the systemic problems, many of which were recognized by the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, remain. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of focusing solely on trying to stimulate the economy and balance our budget, some immediate legislative attention was given to reflecting on and cleaning up the political system itself? Let me throw out a few issues for us to discuss here that were raised or alluded to on our podcast episode:
1. The Electoral College. Just like the appointment of Senators by state governments, the Electoral College is a remnant of the framers’ elitism: a specific part of the scheme was that electors could overrule the voters if they chose foolishly. Now that we’ve abandoned this line of thought, is there any legitimate states’-rights reason to keep it?
2. Partisan gerrymandering. The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to figure out their own Congressional districts, and the result is that whichever party sets the boundaries in effect gets to put its thumb on the scale of its party’s Congressional representation, not to mention consolidating their hold on the state legislature itself. While we do have some legal mechanism for federal intervention in cases where the redistricting is overtly racially motivated, this is hardly an efficient way of making legislatures more representative. Unless, again, that’s not the goal, because we want to give states more power.
3. Partisan control of voting apparatus and procedures. Even if #1 and #2 have legitimate states’ rights arguments behind them, this whole business of partisan state officials trying to game the system to minimize votes for the other party is unquestionably sordid. On the other hand, state governments, again, are voted in democratically, so does that legitimate the actions of state legislatures and officials in determining how easy it is to vote, how transparent the process is, what the ballot looks like, etc.? If state officials don’t perform these tasks, what hypothetically less partisan group should?
4. Minimizing the impact of money on elections. With unlimited organizational (mostly corporate) donations for superPACs and the like, there’s certainly the “appearance of corruption” at the very least in our political system, but what mechanisms do we now have to address this, and does it really even need addressing? If we address #1 and #2, and with the continued dispersion of media, it’s possible that even enormous amounts of campaign cash won’t be sufficient to effectively shove a candidate’s message down the throats of enough of the electorate to have a substantial effect. Local officials, of course, will always be cheaper to buy off, but I don’t know enough about how that works to say whether, say, national transparency and ethics standards are something that would help here.
5. Encourage third parties. Personally, I like the idea of a coalition government. I’ve argued that we already have one, to some degree, but it’s still not the ideal solution to the problem of factionalism. The seeming advantage of the current system, and the test by which alternatives need to be gauged is its ability to reduce the likelihood of a Hitler coming to power. If you have 10 candidates, and 9 reasonable ones split the vote, then some nutjob might get a plurality. Instant-runoff voting is one alternative, but could still result in the Hitler scenario if it’s not structured to specifically prevent this. Addressing #2 would likely help here.
6. Fix Congressional rules. The houses of Congress set their own procedural rules. When this results, as in the current Senate approach to the filibuster, should it not be part of the separation of powers for some other entity (even just a Congressionally-created non-partisan committee) to be able to have some ability to address the issue?
Have I missed anything? These are the sorts of issues that should in themselves be non-partisan. Since any change in the status quo will result in some redistribution of power, then addressing them either requires that legislators let the common good overwhelm their political self-interest (though the nice thing here is that they can brag about their fairness and so maybe make up some of the political ground lost by the change itself) or that the political system already have enough separation of powers to prevent the need for a self-interested body to exert the will to reform itself. This encapsulates the basic problem the framers were trying to cope with: if people are basically selfish and power-grabbing, and so incapable of really acting objectively toward the common good, then separating powers will not in itself add virtue into the process. If all the separated powers conspire to perpetuate corruption out of political self-interest (and note that one of these “powers” could itself be the majority of the electorate, voting to keep minorities down), then no structural features of our political system can address this. The best we can do is to erect as firm walls between them as possible so that checks and balances, coupled with what virtue there is, will sort things out eventually. Luckily, we as individuals and our elected officials really are capable from time to time of voting in favor of fairness, and less idealistically, I can point out that de-escalation of a destructive conflict really is quite often in both sides’ interest so long as the measure is bilateral.