The founding document of the United States is wholly unsuited for a modern democracy—and a potential danger to its survivalby William Howell , Terry Moe / February 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
For more than a year, Donald Trump warned Americans that their political system was rigged to subvert the will of the people. When the votes were counted on Election Day, the outcome did indeed subvert the will of the people—but hardly in the way Trump envisioned. Hillary Clinton won almost three million more votes than Trump did, beating him by a margin of some 2.1 per cent. Yet Trump was elected president.
How could such a thing happen? The answer lies in the Electoral College, a grossly undemocratic provision of the American Constitution. Writing in 1787, the founders wanted to avoid mob rule—and give extra voting power to small states and the slave-holding South—by putting the selection of presidents in the hands of state-chosen electors rather than ordinary people. Although voters now choose the electors, the battle for the presidency turns on who wins each state, and on winning a majority of state electors—not a plurality of the popular vote. No one today would design such an oddball electoral system. It makes no sense. It offends the most basic of democratic norms. Yet we are stuck with it—a relic of the past that degrades American democracy.
The Electoral College is not the only thing we are stuck with. In fact, the Constitution imposes an entire structure of government that is wholly unsuited to modern times, and that operates like a straitjacket on us today. America’s greatest and most consequential challenge, long term, is that it is burdened by a government that just doesn’t work very well, and indeed is dysfunctional. Even if the nation could somehow free itself from the Electoral College and arrive at a more democratic way of electing its presidents, those presidents would still assume office and inherit a government that is ungovernable.
In our recent book, Relic, we explain how the Constitution undermines the prospects for effective government in America. The real problem rests with the core components of government that, as the Constitution designed them, are responsible for making the nation’s laws. The US Congress is right at the center of the lawmaking process—and right at the center of the dysfunction. As a decision-maker, it is inexcusably bad and utterly incapable of taking effective action on behalf of the nation. Most observers point the finger at partisan polarisation and the accompanying vitriol between the Democratic and Republican parties. They say that, if we could just move to a more moderate brand of politics, Congress could get back to the good old days when it did a fine job of making public policy, and all would be well. This conventional wisdom is partially correct: polarisation is indeed a serious problem. But any notion that American government functioned wonderfully in the good old days is pure fantasy. The fact is, the good old days were not good.