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Re-inventing American Democracy

Thursday, August 02, 2007
A grandiose title for a very simple post. Basically I think people are getting a little too loose when it comes to recreating American politics. We need to slow down. Way down.

My main area of interest in studying politics is political institutions, both of the formal variety (like Congress), and the informal (like Political Parties). My research has generally been directed to the effect of those institutions on egalitarian politics. (I'd say more, but then I'd be easy to find!)

As a consequence, I view with alarm the remarkably swift change in our fundamental political structure over the last few years. The obvious examples would be the concentration of power in the executive branch and the creation of a nation-wide Republican patronage machine. But it's not limited to such recent events, and certainly isn't restricted to the scary side of the aisle.

In the last week we've seen serious attempts to alter the Electoral College, a suggestion that we allow for direct voting on legislation, and a proposal to revamp the Presidential Primary System. These are fundamental alterations in the way we practice politics, and I am horrified to see such ill-thought-out ideas presented by supposedly responsible civic leaders and supported by activists on the left and right. It's not that the presidential election process doesn't need reform - it most certainly does. What is crucial is to carefully think out the consequences of every idea, which the advocates of these two plans have most manifestly not done (unless they're out for personal advantage, which just makes them jerks).

The gerrymandering of congressional districts makes the Maine-Nebraska a non-starter - it's trying to solve one problem by grafting it onto an entirely different problem. Think trying to kick a liquor habit by picking up cocaine. For some reason people are referring to it as a "proportional" plan, when it is most clearly not. A proportional plan would allocate electoral college votes based on the share of the popular vote. The Maine-Nebraska plan doesn't do that at all - it's just moving the winner-take-all feature to the sub-state level, and in the process making it more likely that the electoral vote winner received fewer popular votes.

I could spend days burnishing up my intellectual credentials by bashing the idea of popular referenda on federal legislation. Let me just leave the subject with a single word: California. Can anyone with the slightest familiarity with that state's politics believe that the state is well-served by its initiative & referendum process? I didn't think so.

The rotating regional primary plan offered up in the Senate is an equally bad idea. It would leave Iowa and New Hampshire in their early status, while creating 4 regional primaries that would alternate in order every 4 years. While I have no principled objection to keeping Iowa and New Hampshire, the latter feature is just absurd. It does nothing to mute the impact of big money on the process, and its schedule would be just as arbitrary as any other.

It's frustrating that these hare-brained proposals are getting any attention, because there are much better ideas to solve these problems (which I won't get into today). My point is that a lot of people are acting in a very cavalier fashion towards changing America's political structure. There is nothing that should be done with more caution than (small-"c") constitutional change. There are far, far too many examples of unintended and disastrous consequences to approach regime questions with a light heart.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:34 PM
  • Great points. The first two ideas - on the electoral college and federal initiative-and-referendum - are particularly bad ones. Your response on the referendum issue ("California") is spot-on. Thank God Californians are finally starting to default to a "no" vote on initiatives, but man that system has done a lot of damage to the public interest.

    I wonder if this is really as unusual as all that, though? Seems to me that Americans are constantly proposing political innovations - just that they're very often bad ones, generated for crass political purposes.

    By Blogger Paul Curtis, at 5:57 PM  
  • Well actually we're a pretty conservative country, institutionally speaking. We tend to have only very incremental changes over long periods. Sure there are always crazy ideas floating around, but I get the sense that they have a much better chance of getting implemented these days. The Bush Administration's radicalism has really opened the floodgates.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 2:23 PM  
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