Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: When Congress Goes Wrong

In many ways, the US Constitution is like an operating system that tells a computer how to run. The Constitution tells the government how to run. Its task is far more important than an operating system, like Microsoft Windows. If Windows fails, it usually causes no more than a minor inconvenience. When the Constitution fails, it affects people's lives dramatically.

The Framers, the colonial Americans who wrote the Constitution, had some experience writing similar documents. Both James Madison and George Mason helped write the Virginia Constitution of 1776. The Framers understood how Constitutional law worked. They did not understand how Constitutional law could fail.

Software operating systems make the computer work. The authors frequently do not consider what will make the computer fail or how to escape from a failure. The Constitution shows the same kind of blindness. The Framers believed the government would work. They did not see how it could fail. They all belonged to a class of well-off gentry. Many in the South held large estates that were run by slaves. The northern framers were professionals—doctors and lawyers and businessmen. These men tended to think alike. All alike believed that they were the elite who should govern the new country.

The framers wrote a document that is particularly ill-suited for our country today. We have numerous contending classes. Each class believes it has a right to participate in government. In the past few years, the former ruling class has been pushed aside and its members are having difficulty accepting their new role. In 2012, Mitt Romney, whose father ran for president in 1960, believed that he would win because he belonged to the governing class.

The governing class, composed primarily of white males, has grown accustomed to receiving preference, in political office, in jobs, in salary, and in a whole host of other ways. This class is recipient of many government programs, including the farm subsidies that go almost exclusively to them. The class never received food stamp benefits, which accounts for its support for the former and hostility to the latter.

The old ruling class viewed the election of Barack Obama as symbolic of their loss of prestige and power. They regarded the presidency as rightfully theirs. The class considered anything that was not traditional—such as African-Americans owning homes and receiving medical care—as a threat to them. For these people, conservatism means preserving their status and prerogatives.

For the ruling class, conservatism also means moral prerogatives. They vehemently oppose legalization of abortion, legalization of marijuana, and gay rights. They see the laws governing these things as the end products of moral struggles that they fought hard to win. They are appalled to watch their America fade away.

But the old America is fading away, and faster than anyone predicted a few years ago. The Republican party has become the party of old, white men. The younger generation today grew up in an integrated society. The young are much more in touch with what is going on throughout the world, and the world is coming to our doorstep.

Past waves of immigrants took at least a generation before they integrated into white American society. The society of those days forced them to conform through discrimination and a tightly knit ruling class. The ruling class is faltering. The new Americans are demanding their rights even before they become citizens. Groups of Americans who never participated in politics before are learning that their votes make a difference.

What we are watching is the last flare-up of a dying system and the birth of a new one. Birth pangs are always painful. Let us hope most of our troubles are behind us.

No comments: