Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: 2. The Framework

Americans credit the men who wrote the Constitution—the framers--with great wisdom and foresight. Supreme Court Justices have started a cult that worships the Constitution as a perfect document. They pore over its text and the opinions of its creators as though they were religious texts and revelations of the true word. Some also claim that the framers were inspired by God, usually by a Christian fundamentalist God.

None of these beliefs is true. The framers were neither godlike nor exceptionally wise. The document is not based on religious ideas. The Constitution is deeply flawed and becomes more so with each passing year. The framers made it hard to change. Amendments require passage by both houses of congress with a two thirds majority, then ratification by three fourths of the state legislatures. Most amendments also specify that they must be ratified within seven years.

The framers have recently been considered by some the infallible source for American law. This assumption implies that they were always right, at least about law and government. This assumption was very far from the truth.

The framers invented the electoral college, ostensibly to prevent the voters from making a mistake when electing a president. Instead, it was the electoral college that made the mistake, in 1800, when it gave the same number of electoral votes to both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives elected the president that year. The Constitution created a crisis where none existed.

The framers decided that each state should have only two senators. This compromise gave more power to the less populous states at the expense of the states with larger populations. In 1787 the most populous state, Virginia, had 20 times the population of the smallest, Delaware. In 2010, the most populous state, California, had 65 times the population of the smallest, Wyoming.

History tells us that states vote in regional blocs, with relative size having little to do with their decisions. Neighboring states New York (a large state) and Rhode Island (a small state), for example, voted for the same presidential candidate in the last seven elections. Neighboring states Louisiana(small) and Texas(large) voted for the same presidential candidate in the last seven elections as well. Louisiana and Rhode Island, both small states, voted for different candidates in all seven elections.

Since small states no longer vote in a bloc--if they ever did--the election of two senators from each state, regardless of population, does not serve the purpose intended by the framers. Instead of balancing the interests of different sized states, California's two senators represent a disenfranchisement of 36 million voters in relationship with Wyoming. The framers may have been right in 1787, but their judgment on this matter, at least reflected by presidential choices, is wrong today.

The framers made no provision for political parties in their Constitution. This oversight has become a serious problem in recent years. The British Parliamentary System recognizes that there will always be more than one party. The leader of the majorityThis arrangement gives the leader of parliament, the prime minister, the ability to govern if he can unite his own party behind his platform, a relatively easy proposition, given that all members of his party stood for election on the same platform.

The American system divides government between political parties. This division makes legislation more difficult to pass and slows down the process of government. James Madison argued that representative democracy rather than direct democracy because he claimed that direct democracy gave rise to factions. Madison defined a faction as a group of citizens united in some passion or common interest against the interest of others. He singled out the factions that arise from inequality of wealth and argued that a representative democracy would protect the minority from the majority.

Madison believed the best way to guard against factions was to create a representative democracy. Direct democracies, he claimed, always failed within a short time. The difficulty that arises here, which is a major difficulty with all opinions expressed by the framers, is that these conclusions are drawn on examples with almost no data. The number of direct democracies documented by history in Madison's day was precisely one, the direct democracy of Athens during the fifth century BCE. Any argument based on such limited data must be questioned.

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