It is time to talk about the elephant in the room. The harsh reality is that the Constitution no longer functions. Our government is as broken and dysfunctional now as it must have been under the Articles of Confederation. In a rational world, serious people would be talking about the obvious solution: a series of constitutional amendments to overhaul and modernize our political system.
We live in a country where the president lost the popular vote by a full 2 percent, and yet won the election. We live in a country in which one party’s candidates for the Senate received over 17 million fewer votes than the others in the most recent election, yet increased their majority by a mere two seats. A majority of Americans did not support the election of this president or the majority party in the Senate, and they do not support the policies advanced by that president and party.
We live in a country in which the president can profit from his public office, spend money not appropriated by Congress, block every investigation of himself, use the Justice Department to protect those who serve him, and get away with it all by stalling in court and using his party’s Senate majority to prevent impeachment.
And we live in a country where the national legislature cannot pass a budget or address any major problems due to crippling partisan gridlock.
Democracy is a simple concept. Candidates and parties present their ideas and qualifications to the voters. The winners then can govern and enact their policies, consistent with the rule of law. But our system of disproportionate representation in the Senate, the indirect election of the chief executive, and gridlock-producing layers of checks and balances now prevent the United States from being a functional democracy.
There’s a well-known but specious argument that the founders created this nation as a republic, not a democracy. It’s true that our Constitution requires a republican form of government. But anyone who took Political Science 101 in college should know the definitions of these terms. A republic is a state without a monarchy. A democracy is a state in which the people elect the government. The U.S. is both a republic and a democracy. Great Britain is a democracy but not a republic. China is a republic but not a democracy.
Our democracy is broken. There are more Democrats than Republicans in America, yet the minority party controls the presidency and Senate. And in the present state of polarization and hyper-partisanship, our elections do not produce governments that can govern unless one party can elect the president, a solid majority in the House, and over 60 seats in the Senate (enough to overcome a filibuster). Gridlock encourages the president to assume more and more authority to govern by executive orders. A rogue president cannot be constrained in a timely fashion by either the courts or the Congress, so long as his party controls one-third of the seats in the Senate.
The solutions are obvious. The electoral college must be abolished, or at least substantially altered to make it proportional to the population. The same is true of the U.S. Senate. The Senate should reflect the will of the American people. In what rational world does Alaska have as much power in the upper house of the legislative branch as does California?
Those two reforms are central, but more should be done. The ability of the minority to block legislation in the Senate should be abolished. The ability of Congress to investigate the president should be strengthened. And the question of whether the president can be prosecuted while in office must be clarified.
The only way to restore democracy to our republic is by amending the Constitution. In practice, getting that done looks nearly impossible in our current political atmosphere. But that does not mean we shouldn’t try. It has often taken decades of persistent activism before changes to the Constitution can be pushed through. The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1923 and the battle is still going on. We need to begin a campaign to create a government that allows a majority of Americans to elect a government that can actually govern on their behalf.
The current situation cannot go on forever. Support for democracy is eroding. If we continue to “elect” national governments that support policies opposed by the majority, which can’t pass budgets or solve problems, the people will turn to other alternatives. This is how authoritarians take control.
The Constitution was never meant to be static. The founders knew that constitutional amendments, maybe even a second constitutional convention, would be needed at critical moments in history. Now is one of those times.