Monday, October 27, 2008

Phyrric Elections

As it now stands, Barack Obama will be the next president. It also appears likely that the Democrats will be given effective majorities in both Houses of Congress. As a result, a president Obama should be able to govern as effectively as the prime minister of Fenwick. However, it has taken near two years of non-stop campaigning coupled with economic collapse to produce such a result. Americans might justifiably exclaim, “Another such election and we are undone!”

If politics is the art of the practicable, we are certainly not going about it in anything resembling a practical way. As Aristotle would say, political elections are about political choices. The idea, in a democracy, is to vote for those candidates who best represent the choices each of us favors. Contrary to ballyhoo, voters should not be presented with a baffling array of legislative“specifics” but rather with a list of general policy choices -- as distinct from bromides which are something else altogether. Thus, by any rational measure, a general election should not require more than four months of filtering and selection.

Instead we have been subjected to two years of exhausting, mind-consuming ego driven electoral warfare that has wasted time, talent and treasure. Worse still it has left the electorate psychologically depleted and disgusted. It is not possible to argue generalities for two years. As a result, simply to fill the void, generalities turn into “niche marketing” slogans and the campaigning degenerates into and endless droning over personality, tactics and scandals. It was hardly surprising that toward the end of the current cycle, the debates ended up being packaged and presented with about as much sobriety as a World Wrestling Federation match. On the occasion of Obama’s inauguration we will no doubt be feted on a lot of hortatory about going forward to meet the Challenges of Change and blah, blah, blah. In truth, the election’s wash will leave us with a cynical sense of good riddance.

The root cause of this sorry state of affairs is that the U.S. Government was designed not to work. This may come as a surprise to those who have been weaned on the usual civics propaganda, but the fact is that Madison and his fellow framers did not want the government to work. They truly believed that government was a necessary evil and that the best government was the one that governed least.

The difficulties that confronted the Framers were vexing to say the least. The Articles of Confederation had provided for very effective government. The problem was that there were too many of them. Each State had full sovereign power to do whatever it wanted; and whatever it wanted was usually what some oligarchical cabal or mobocracy wanted. It is comical to go back and read how the vaingloriously the kingfish in these small state ponds styled themselves. But precisely because these state governments were fully potent and sovereign, they were easy prey for the more sovereign and even more potent nations of Europe. The emergent dis-united states were headed for the tin pot destiny of the later South American republics.

It is not generally taught or known that a major impetus for the reform of the Articles was the decision of the Spanish Crown to close the Mississippi to Anglo American shipping. Spain’s foreign minister, the Conde de Aranda, rightly foresaw the threat from the emerging English colonies and the consequent need to strangle the monster in its crib. From Madison’s perspective, the task was to put together a “more perfect Union” that would present a solid phalanx against the European powers, keep the States in check and, yet, not run the risk of consolidated tyranny. Ever since the ill-fated Andrus Plan a century before, the English-Americans had always distrusted “efficient, central” government.

Madison’s Marvel was the perfect paradigm of disfunctionality. This was not a mere question of the so-called “checks and balances” -- a principle of divided government understood since Roman times. The division of government into Montesquieu’s “three branches” was only the starting point. Take for example, the original non-party system for electing what was in fact a duumvirate: The candidate with most votes became president and his strongest opponent (the runner up) became Vice President and (this was really cute) President of the Senate. It was much like giving one man a handful of bullets and his mortal enemy the gun.

The Senate itself was rendered impervious to short-term change by providing for staggered six year terms. The Senate was even further removed from anything like popular consensus by being indirectly elected by the State Legislatures. As a result the Senate was so perfectly deadlocked between rival state interests that it took a Civil War to bust up the logjam.

As if these embarrassments were not enough, government was rendered even more impossible by providing for a dual legislature with the requirement that any law or appropriation be approved by both houses. All in all, this was clearly a system engineered to deadlock and designed to be impervious to the ever feared “popular will”.

Two major amendments allowed this government some modicum of functionality. The first was the provision for a single presidential ticket coupled with Jefferson’s party system. That change (more or less) got the country through its first century but was not enough to cope with the complexities of a mass industrial society. For that, Franklin Roosevelt, established the Agency System -- in fact a shadow government -- efficient, but unelected.

The essential pre-requisite of the Agency System was to disempower Congress. Prior to FDR’s “overhaul,” Congress was constitutionally responsible for virtually all acts of government over and beyond mere execution and implementation of its decisions. But no congress could possibly keep up with all the day to day work handled by FDR’s agencies and ultimately the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution so as to allow Congress to delegate its authority to theses agencies so long as it maintained some vague and amorphous “oversight”.

The ultimate historical result has been to remove government in both its effective day to day operations and in its formal policy decision-making from anything resembling responsiveness to popular will. Concomitantly, day to day governance has been removed from the Congress and concentrated in what the Romans called the Imperial Household -- a bureaucracy of greeklings and courtiers forming around a “unitary executive” and beholden to or bribeable by corporate or foreign interests.

Both the Party System and the Agency System are here to stay. But without entirely restructuring the Union, what can and must be done is to move government toward a ministerial-parliamentary system.

This could be accomplished in a variety of different ways. But bearing in mind that, even at present, the president is not directly elected, perhaps the simplest way of accomplishing the change would be to require the president to be elected by a majority of the House of Representatives in tandem with a requirement that ordinary elections for all members of both Houses be held once every four years.

Such a system would allow a direct line of authority to flow from the electorate through a coordinated executive/legislature to the implementing agencies. It would allow the People to retain actual and effective control over the general direction of government. The contra-mantra we have all heard ad nauseam is that such a parliamentary system would “lack stability” and be subject to “the emotion of the mob.” But to say as much is to confuse “stability” with the current system of bureaucratic stasis coupled with electoral hysteria

To say as much is also to confuse the principle of a popular oligarchy (which is what Madison provided for) with a rabble rousing cabal (which is what we have had). The Framers' fear of an efficient centralized power being abused by a passionate demos has been realized in the inverse. In the end, it is simply intolerable that an Administration which had lost virtually all popular credibility and support by its fifth year could still exert its strangling mortmain on government mortgaging our future for generations to come.

After two years of exhausting and debased ego-driven hoopla, we might finally get an effective change of government. But the damage confronting Barack Obama is four to six years the worse; and, by now, no one could think that even several months of additional damage was small beans. How much better off we would have been had both Congress and the Executive been directly tied to what the public wanted years ago. It’s time for a change and that includes a change in the way we elect our government.

©WCG, 2008

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