How the Government Shutdown Illustrated the Issues with American Politics that Run Deeper than Trump

In a way, it’s somewhat fitting that the one-year anniversary of the inauguration was marked by a government shutdown. For all the other scandals, crises, embarrassments, and general insanity of the Trump era, the government shutdown ultimately underscored just how much Trump has failed (if he ever even really tried) at the one thing his more non-deplorable voters hoped from him: shaking up politics as usual.

Once again, government was brought to the brink of crisis by the inability of Congress to work through its differences and work for the good of the country as a whole. The notion that Trump was some sort of dealmaker that could break through Congress’s gridlock ended up seeming laughable – not that it wasn’t already, following a year where, despite the Republicans controlling the Presidency, House, and Senate, the only major piece of policy they were able to enact was a large-scale tax “reform” that primarily benefits their rich donors, while packing the courts with Republican ideologues. The idea of Trump as dealmaker now seems to ring as hollow as… well, the notion of Obama as someone who could break gridlock through bipartisanship.

The problem facing Congress is really the same one that put Trump in the White House to begin with: America is increasingly splitting into two nations that care only about advancing their own values at the expense of the other one’s. The Republicans have established that bipartisanship and standing for the good of the country doesn’t pay off electorally, only appeasing and energizing the base while entrenching your own power as much as possible, and the only way to stop them is for the Democrats to play the same game. Most people deeply disliked Trump and what he stood for, but he energized a significant portion of the American electorate, while even the Democratic base only voted for Hillary Clinton – if they even did – because she was the only viable alternative to Trump. Gridlock is no longer a disastrous fate to be avoided, but an actual political strategy, and the Democrats’ unwillingness to follow through on it once again has left the left bemoaning that the Democrats don’t really fight for them by playing by the Republicans’ rules.

But the left has no real alternative but to vote for whoever the Democrats give them while working to change who that is from within, and the same is the case for the rest of the country, many of whom may not like the Republicans’ shenanigans but not enough to vote for the Democrats. There is not a truly “free market” for votes, because despite what supporters of third parties may claim, there really are only two viable options on the ballot due to the realities of Duverger’s law; there is no realistic option other than the Democrats that would be effective at pushing the country to the left or even just correcting the Republicans’ depredations. Third parties that don’t realize this reality can’t do better than three percent of the vote in the most third-party-friendly Presidential race in decades; none have seen the opportunity to build a party from the ground up by focusing on actually winning elections in uncompetitive districts and leaving the Presidency to secondary importance until later. Without structural incentives to avoid gridlock, thanks to a Constitution written under the assumption parties wouldn’t exist at all, the only thing preventing us from reaching this point until recent decades has been an unspoken agreement between the parties not to take advantage of it, one inevitably torn to shreds the instant the Republicans broke it as much as Democrats have been loath to admit it.

That’s why I’ve argued that the true solution to our problems requires something more radical than either side wants to admit and which I’m not convinced we’re suited to pull off: a large-scale overhaul of the Constitution. Dating back to the eve of the election, I’ve called for a Constitutional convention to update the Constitution to reflect our values and the realities of our experience under 220+ years of the Constitution, while reaffirming the Founders’ goals for those realities – creating true structural incentives for compromise, rebalancing the powers of the branches of government, and correcting some of the more corrosive Supreme Court decisions of recent years. For well over a year – really for the past year and a half – I’ve tried to bring myself to elaborate on my ideas for how to fix the system, with my most sustained successes coming in the period between the election and the inauguration as linked above, but mostly failing with the enormity of the task hanging over my head even as I’ve already done most of the work. This week I intend to try again and hope to succeed, because without the sorts of reforms I propose, we’re just going to have more gridlock and more shutdowns – and potentially, presidents that make Trump seem normal.

An Open Answer to @mcuban: You Can’t End Tribalism, You Can Only Hope to Contain – Or Harness – It


The first thing that needs to be said about this is that this would have been a lot easier to achieve a few years ago. Throughout Da Blog’s history I’ve made a number of different posts looking for common ground between left and right, and calling for neutral media outlets like CNN to be bipartisan, not nonpartisan, in order to force each side’s extremists to reckon with each other. But with the advent of Donald Trump, I’m no longer sure it’s possible to achieve the things I was hoping to achieve, or even that it would have necessarily been productive.

More on the “productive” point in a later post, but for now I’ll say that the second thing that needs to be said is that, in some sense, the very term used – tribalism – is itself an answer to the question. It’s a very deep, human drive, far deeper than any of the hallmarks of modern individualist democracy. Part of the reason you haven’t seen it play out too much within American politics until recent years is that until fairly recently it was turned against forces outside the United States, whether the Soviet Union or whatever else, and even when we might get along with other parts of the country or world in areas that matter we hate their guts in sports. We’re hardwired to form groups and distrust or actively hate those outside those groups; it’s what helped us get where we are as a species.

The third thing that needs to be said is that, even discounting that, only the left and center is concerned about ending tribalism. The right is addicted to Fox News, talk radio, and other right-wing sources of news that tells them there’s nothing wrong with their own politics and the problem is all those dastardly liberals out there, and distrusts anything outside that bubble as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to undermine America’s conservative norms. So long as the left wants to embrace bipartisanship but the right remains distrustful of their motives, the left merely becomes a tool to help the right ramrod their politics down the throats of the rest of America. Until the right is willing to become as introspective as the left, the left’s only recourse is to become as tribalistic as the right.

I bring that up last because it brings me to the fourth and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said: there is no motivation for the right to become more introspective, or for Republican politicians or right-wing media to encourage or engage in such introspection. Why would they? They control the White House and both houses of Congress and are one death or retirement away from setting the course of the Supreme Court for a generation – and not only that, despite the historic unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Congress, it would be nearly miraculous for Democrats to take control of either house in 2018, thanks to gerrymandering of House districts and a Democratic wave election five years ago leaving the Democrats with few opportunities to gain Senate seats and plenty of opportunities to lose them. The Republicans have, in theory, rigged the system to all but insulate them from any accountability, to the point of stretching our democracy to the breaking point. In their mind, the only constituents that matter are their extremists, and for many Republican politicians, the only election that matters is the Republican primary. There is no price for stoking tribalism, there are only huge rewards. The left is left to appeal to “norms” and “morals” and to the notion that what the Republicans have done is “wrong”, words that seem hollow in the wake of the Republicans’ success. When the Republican base doesn’t care about the left’s “norms”, and the Republican party sees little to no negative consequences for flouting them, do those “norms” really exist in any substantial, practical form?

Getting back to the second point, the only reason we’ve managed to escape the problem of tribalism for so long is the “norms” preventing any political movement from exploiting it. Now that those “norms” have been breached, there’s no way of simply closing Pandora’s box, of simply putting the cork back in the bottle. Strip away the “norms”, the unspoken covenant governing American politics for 200 years and (with the exception of four or five years in the 1860s) preventing the American experiment from cracking up along ideological lines, and you’re left with a rather thin patchwork of laws and a Constitution written for a federation of thirteen mini-nations much closer together in relative population than today’s states, and one written with a complete ignorance of my second point. Indeed, the Founders outright disdained political parties and other “factions” but did little to prevent or accommodate their existence, opening the door for forces to arrive that would give the Presidency, an office designed for a George Washington but always vulnerable to a Donald Trump, more and more power in order to push forward their agenda.

Part of what has been so insidious about the expansion of presidential power is that a substantial portion of the electorate seemingly only cares about the presidency, with little to no knowledge or appreciation of the role of Congress or the courts, depressing turnout for midterm elections and insulating Congress somewhat from the consequences of their actions. As Obama learned firsthand, the President gets a disproportionate amount of the credit or blame for things not entirely, or even at all, within their control; even when the problem is clearly Congressional gridlock, the President gets at least some of the blame for not “pushing through” it, even when the problem is clearly one side’s refusal to do a deal at all. Thus Republicans could spend the first two years of Obama’s presidency utterly refusing to do anything Obama supported and grinding the machinery of government to a standstill, and end up taking the House and enough state legislatures to effectively lock in control of the House for the next decade, then use that control to continue to stonewall for the remaining six years and ride a Republican president into control of both houses and more lesser offices.

In short, our Constitution, coupled with the expansion of presidential power, the move to democracy uber alles, and the corruption of our understanding of the system, far from curbing factionalism and tribalism, makes it nearly inevitable: only one party can control the Presidency, and either that party also controls both houses of Congress and can pursue their agenda as much as possible, or at least one house is controlled by the other party (or nearly enough so) and becomes unable to settle on anything as they use every trick in the book to keep the party in the White House from getting their way, resulting in the President using other (constitutional and extra-constitutional) powers to advance their agenda regardless. Couple that with the President’s nearly unchecked power to stock the Supreme Court and lesser judicial offices, and the power the Supremes in particular have to set the direction of the nation for decades to come, and every presidential election becomes an apocalyptic battle to set the direction of the nation for the next four years and beyond, with congressional races an afterthought and if anything even more prone to tribalism and partisanship. Only our “norms” have prevented the problem from getting this bad, but the Republican abandonment of those norms, coupled with increased popular participation at all levels of the system and the rise of cable news and the Internet allowing a greater ability to pick and choose one’s own reality to glorify one’s own tribe and bring down the other, have started us sliding inexorably into the abyss.

The short answer, then, to the problem of tribalism is that nothing less than a major overhaul of the Constitution, possibly to the point of calling a new convention, may bring us out of the abyss – not necessarily to reject the Founders’ values, but to reaffirm them and update the Constitution for our modern values and what we’ve learned about how it’s been used in practice in the intervening years, to reflect what we’ve come to expect out of the system and correct for how it’s actually come to work, to either correct for and try to limit the impact of tribalism or to accept it as an inevitable fact and harness it for good while limiting its negative impact. But not only is that a radical step, it’s not clear that we have the people that would be able to do the weightiness of the task justice, or any way to ensure that those are the people that would be involved as opposed to groups with axes to grind hoping to enshrine their values in the Constitution, nor can we be sure that the result would be entirely trusted by all sides of the debate. Indeed, the best solutions might be unacceptable without each side first recognizing the legitimacy, let alone potential rightness, of the other. If part of the problem is that each side doesn’t even agree with the other on what the basic problems with the country are, then part of the solution would seem to be to devolve more power to the states to solve what they perceive their problems to be. But neither side is willing to accept that; conservatives believe that blue states are offending God and need to have their support for abortion and gay marriage curbed at the federal level, while liberals believe that red states are impinging on the rights of women and gays and need the federal government to stop them from doing so. Indeed, it’s not even clear that state governments actually would solve their own problems as opposed to entrenching the prerogatives of the party in power and their benefactors, disenfranchising those that didn’t vote for them in the process, and maybe not even helping their own voters if they can find a way to misdirect blame for and the nature of the problems and the degree to which they even need to be solved.

If the task, then, is to find a way to work within the existing system to alleviate the problem of tribalism, what can be done? If having no factions, as the Founders hoped, is not an option, the next-best thing is to have a multitude of them. Certainly the way the two-party system encourages an us-vs-them mentality doesn’t help the problem of tribalism if you can define one side as always right and the other side as always wrong; with a multitude of parties, there’s always room to find common ground with at least one faction at least some of the time. This is another way in which the Constitution fails us as our current method of selecting Presidents and congressmen runs afoul of Duverger’s law making a two-party system inevitable, as much as supporters of third-party candidates often find it hard to grasp. Even within that system, though, much of the blame must fall on would-be third parties themselves, which by and large have fallen into the same trap as the rest of the electorate in focusing on the presidency uber alles, even as it’s become increasingly obvious that they can’t win or even pull enough of a showing to make any sort of progress even under the most ideal circumstances as the 2016 election was. A third party willing to make the Presidency of secondary or even no importance, instead focusing on races one of the major parties isn’t seriously contesting or at all, adopting a position moderate enough to actually capture a substantial portion of the electorate in those districts, taking advantage of gerrymandered districts by capturing the disenfranchised underclass along with enough of the majority to compete, stands to not only build up some real power and even correct some of the depredations of the current system by their very presence, but in the long term stands a chance to even capture or at least determine the fate of the Presidency.

In a way, I actually appreciate this question coming up, even though I’m addressing it a few days after the fact, because it gives me a chance to come back to these topics I started writing about in the period between the election and the inauguration without having to engage too much in all the depredations of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress as I’d felt I’d have to do. In the coming days and weeks I hope to write more of these posts going into more detail about the crisis facing the country, about the best way to smooth the course for third parties and jumpstarting the conversation about how to reform the Constitution by presenting my own ideas. Much of what I hope to write has been sitting unpublished in drafts for a year or percolating in my head for even longer, and some other ideas have been coming to the fore as a result of the other events of the past year. Maybe you don’t agree that steps as drastic as what I propose are necessary to address the problem of tribalism, but at least telling the truth about the nature of the problem is a necessary first step to actually doing something productive to address it, without falling into the cult of personality of a charismatic billionaire.

“A Better Deal” Isn’t Better Enough, But How Much Room for Improvement Is There?

It’s hard to find a political entity in worse shape right now than the Democratic Party, who somehow managed to lose a presidential election to Donald freaking Trump, the least-liked and least-appealing presidential candidate in recent memory. Trump was good at exactly one thing – making grandiose speeches to cheering crowds – yet against the milquetoast Hillary Clinton, who projected an image of a condescending schoolmarm at best faking real humanity and generally projecting the perfect image of a droning wonky politician, that was more than enough to attract the attention of enough voters to win the electoral college. Even considering voting for Trump was enough to get you branded a racist bigot to be lumped into the “basket of deplorables” (never mind that when Hillary used that term she was warning against that mindset) with little to no consideration for the reasons why one might consider voting for Trump, which only served to make those voters think the Democrats were actively dismissing their concerns and thus pushed them further into the Trump camp. The Hillary campaign, and the left in general, seemed to assume that Trump was so obviously boorish and unfit for office that they didn’t even need to bother winning over voters, even though they had trouble keeping parts of their own base from defecting and casting counterproductive votes for Jill Stein.

The results of the election sent the party into a deep identity crisis, not helped by the fact that the misdeeds of Trump and the Republicans don’t seem to be helping the Democrats that much. The party has found itself split between the old-guard centrist establishment and a wing of former Bernie Sanders supporters who believe the party’s path back to relevance lies in energizing the base with a hard-left message of economic populism to serve as an antidote to Trumpism, a strategy whose focus on the “white working class” the establishment fears would amount to abandoning the party’s focus on helping the disenfranchised and discriminated-against in favor of accepting and appealing to bigotry. Indeed, the “resistance” sometimes seems to be as much against the left’s own party as the Republicans, calling out any Democrat that doesn’t engage in every bit of obstruction and no-voting the Republicans would have and did pull against Obama. Even that wing of the party isn’t necessarily improving the party’s image; in recent polls, the majority of Americans disapprove of Trump and over 40 percent want him impeached, but a majority of Americans also don’t think the Democrats stand for anything other than opposing Trump, including some of the very people the establishment is afraid of losing.

It’s clear to me that any attempt to craft a firm message, one that can confront the uphill battle the Democrats have to take even one house of Congress in 2018, will need to provide a real alternative to Trumpism in some way. Think of it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: it’s easier for people to support things that don’t benefit them directly, like curbing racism, sexism, and homophobia, when they have the basics taken care of, having a job that allows them to feed and shelter their family, feeling protected from terrorist attacks or the government, and generally feeling well-enough off that they feel they have a stake in the well-being of others in society rather than feeling threatened by everyone except them getting a piece of the pie. The cosmopolitan urban base of the party, and the tech workers in the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley, may feel this is the case, but for many used to jobs in traditional manufacturing fields in the Rust Belt, the modern economy has left them behind.

So it was that last week, the Democrats rolled out their agenda they intend to use to appeal to voters in the 2018 midterms. It’s off to a good start with its title, “A Better Deal”, which invokes populist programs of the past, especially FDR’s New Deal. But is it a deal that can actually appeal to the voters the Democrats are trying to win over?

In his New York Times op-ed, Chuck Schumer says that Democrats are promising “three simple things. First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” These are all fine things, but they’re more goals to achieve than actual tools to achieve them, and Schumer admits in the next sentence that it will take several months to roll out all the policies the Democrats have to achieve these goals. The implication is that the “better deal” will involve throwing out a bunch of policies and expecting them all to stick to voters, the same wonky approach that has backfired on Democrats in the past. Both Trump and Sanders stunned the establishment by simplifying their message and proposing a few key, concrete policies that directly appealed to voters that felt left behind by the establishment. By putting out nice-sounding platitudes without focusing on core proposals, the Democrats are presenting themselves as more of the same establishment politicians the 2016 election season was all about rejecting.

The proposals the Democrats have already floated – a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, and an infrastructure plan – go some distance towards achieving the first two goals (not necessarily the third), though whether they appeal to average voters is more mixed. Unfortunately, Schumer only gives them a sentence before focusing the rest of the op-ed on “three new policies”. These are also worthy policies, though the first, fighting to curb the cost of prescription drugs, is rather specific and mostly appeals to specific demographics, and won’t win over those segments of the party’s base clamoring to adopt a full-fledged single-payer health care system. The second, beefing up antitrust laws to make it easier to break up big companies and harder for them to merge, is broad-based and appealing enough to win over voters, and the third, “a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs”, at least starts to address the party’s third goal, but again might not do enough to win over the base.

The problem the party faces with the third goal, though, is that a lot of the reason for continued unemployment despite a supposedly booming economy for most of the Obama years has increasingly been chalked up to automation: jobs taken not by immigrants or outsourcing, but not replaced at all and instead filled by robots. One of the oldest problems in American politics is that voters reward politicians that tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear, and telling people that spent their whole lives in the coal mines or in manufacturing jobs that those jobs aren’t coming back no matter what they do won’t go over well (though Obama seemed to at least try in his farewell address). The Democrats’ “tax credit” idea assumes that there are enough other jobs out there that these people can be “retrained” for. For older people, especially those for whom mining and manufacturing are part of their identity, such talk could end up ringing hollow, while younger people may see more appeal in Sanders-like policies to reduce the cost of college itself, or even with the idea of a universal basic income (as is becoming increasingly popular in Europe) to make work more of a choice than a necessity.

Schumer promises that among the future ideas to be presented will be “fundamentally changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations”, tackling another source of Trump’s and Sanders’ popularity. Unfortunately, many of the ideas presented on that front may engender skepticism as to whether they would actually work. The first two bullet points are about creating new bureaucratic positions, a “trade prosecutor” to go after “unfair trade practices” by foreign countries, and a “jobs security council” that would supposedly stop acquisitions of American companies by foreign ones that could cost American jobs. Color me skeptical that any measures to ensure the transparency and openness of the “security council” will really succeed in insulating it from regulatory capture in the long term, turning it into just another rubber stamp big mergers need to get, nor am I optimistic that the “trade prosecutor” will be particularly successful in anything not supported by big corporations, even if Democrats have the best of intentions. Leading their trade proposals with these two things is not getting off on the right foot, and proposing reforming NAFTA when many people want to junk it won’t do much to win back the crowd – especially when that’s the only entry on the list directly addressing trade agreements, which need to be addressed more generally. Many of the later proposals to punish outsourcing could be appealing, although I saw Hillary Clinton’s “exit tax” ads enough times to be skeptical that they’ll really work.

I don’t mean to denigrate the wonky or specific proposals, only that they shouldn’t be treated the same as the firm, broad-based, bold proposals that can rally Americans. Democrats need to settle on a small list of front-line proposals to hammer home in the minds of the American people and shove everything else onto their web site for the wonks to pour over. Here’s my list: a $15 minimum wage; transparent negotiation of trade deals; penalizing outsourcing; breaking up mega-corporations; maybe paid leave; plus some Sanders proposals not on the Better Deal web site, namely free college tuition and raising taxes on and removing deductions and loopholes for the wealthy. Or to boil it all down to a slogan: let’s give every American the chance to prepare for and obtain 21st-century jobs paying a living wage that won’t be taken away capriciously at the whim of huge mega-corporations. Or to lengthen it a bit again so as not to be as vague as the Democrats’ goals: tax the rich and break up the corporations to pay for free college to prepare for good, stable, fulfilling, $15/hour jobs and protect them from being outsourced to or undermined by other countries.

Reaction to the “Better Deal” agenda seemed to be largely unimpressed, chalking it up to the same timid, incrementalist proposals that put the Democrats in this predicament in the first place. Some of these things could have been fixed before rollout, such as the aforementioned tax reform, education reform, a single-payer health care system, and halting and reversing the decline of unions, all of which would have done more to energize the left and convince working-class Americans that Democrats were really offering real solutions. Others are rooted in distrust that Democrats could overcome their fealty to wealthy donors and powerful special interests – and given their reputation for big government, Democrats have more of a need for a proposal to “drain the swamp” than the Republicans do. Such a proposal, coupled with the more radical proposals mentioned earlier, is probably the only real way to address the criticism that the “Better Deal” is basically the same Obama agenda the Republicans obstructed, raising doubts about whether the Democrats could pass it even with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. (Remember, Democrats’ control of the Senate was cloture-proof and Obamacare still ended up heavily watered down to appeal to centrists like Joe Lieberman.) Some of the problems can’t really be fixed, namely that talk of “retraining” and “education” won’t excite working-class Americans as much as “we’re going to bring the jobs back”, even if the latter isn’t actually possible, and telling them such won’t go over well.

Perhaps the biggest and most telling problem that Schumer and the Democrats can’t fix themselves has nothing to do with what the message is or how it’s delivered, but who’s delivering it. Progressives and swing voters alike don’t trust that the same establishment Democratic leadership that threw away the considerable political capital given them in 2008 and managed to lose to Trump can really learn from their mistakes and present a real response to Trumpism. In the end, the only thing that can really revitalize the Democratic Party might be a Tea Party-esque movement from the Sanders wing to replace such anodyne establishment politicians with true believers that will stand for the courage of their convictions and present a message that can actually win over middle America and get my generation energized enough to actually show up for the midterms. If the Democratic establishment insists on holding on to their prerogatives and taking control of the shape of the “resistance” and “better deal”, it may already be too late to save them.

I’m not sure it matters whether or how we survive the Trump era in the short term…

…because we were already pretty dang close to crossing the point of no return for global warming utterly destroying civilization, and with Republicans all but guaranteed to control the White House until 2020 and Democrats facing a massive uphill battle to retake just one house of Congress before then no matter how unpopular Trump and the Republicans become, the United States pulling out of the last best hope to salvage something of civilization might actually be a net positive.

Even without global warming, the increased distrust and discarding of norms once seen as essential to American democracy really makes it feel like we’re witnessing the end of, if not Western civilization, at least the United States as we know it. Throw global warming into the mix, and you get a contributing factor to my lightness of posts so far this year: it’s hard to see any point in trying to contribute to the direction of society when it feels like it’s in the midst of collapse. Short of inventing time travel, all we can do is talk about what should have been done and wrap things up before turning out the lights.

I’d like to think it isn’t that bad and that America and the world do in fact have a future worth contributing to, but it’s hard to see the path to that future, and the narrative being written right now sure seems to resemble societal collapse more than society overcoming adversity to emerge stronger than ever.

Still in a bit of a holding pattern

Not much has changed since the post I had last month. I think I’m basically letting myself have an unannounced vacation, having burned out on my attempt to continue my series of political posts. You can probably see a pattern to this if you look back on the history of Da Blog, especially over the last few years, where I’ll have long stretches, especially over the spring and summer, where I spend all my time on totally frivolous projects.

Every time this happens I feel incredibly guilty about it and about not spending time on the projects I actually consider “productive”, and then I keep working on the frivolous stuff because that’s where my mind is, allowing myself to fall into a complete rut for months on end. But every month I spend on stuff like that is a month I’m not working on stuff that can go on Da Blog or the rest of the web site or that can be released to the world at large, and I’m losing momentum in terms of establishing a name for myself in the wider world, and it feels like this is happening more and more recently (though that may be related to my not having school, living with my dad, and not feeling pressure to get a real job). To be honest, I feel that’s a reason why the book isn’t as timely as I’d hoped or quite up to how I’d envisioned it when I started. I shouldn’t be feeling old at just short of 29, but from what I’ve read I’ve already passed the age where the brain hits its peak and stops growing. Have I locked in my poor work habits for all time, and put myself in a situation where they’re enabled? Is there even a way to keep me focused on “productive” projects that I would be receptive to?

This isn’t really because of the election and the ongoing Age of Trump, aside from that being the impetus for my political series, but it doesn’t help. Part of the problem is that ever since the election, I can’t help but think we’re witnessing the slow-motion end of the world and self-destruction of civilization; if Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war because someone insulted him on Twitter, the forces behind his election and other populist movements around the globe will cause civilization to come to a halt, with or without all-out war, and if they don’t do it on their own global warming will do it for them. (That middle option might be the best-case scenario if it results in a drastic drop in emissions, but that wouldn’t be enough to prevent catastrophic changes.) Against this backdrop, as I said earlier, writing about anything else, certainly anything that attempts to shape what the future might be (and thus presumes its existence), seems frivolous; even the political series, which I had hoped to complete before the election, seems pointless. What good is anything in the face of humanity’s apparent and potentially inescapable self-destruction? It’s a recipe for paralysis and apathy; even trying to write recommendations for how to fix the problem seems like casting stones to the wind at this point, doomed to go down in history as a record of what should have been done rather than an impetus to actually do it while there was still time to make a difference (which feels like the story of my life since launching Da Blog). I do have a few ideas for projects I can try to make meaning out of even in this context, even aside from the political series, but they’d take a long time to get going and I haven’t been working on any of them.

So yeah, this is one of those periods where I descend into a tailspin of depression over my inability to get actual work done and end up getting even less work done as a result. I don’t know when I’m going to climb out of it or what I’ll come out of it with. Hopefully at least next month I’ll have more than an exercise in self-pity.

So, How am I Holding Up in the Age of Trump?

I haven’t made any posts since before the inauguration, and you’d probably forgive me if the first week or two of the new administration left me so broken down as unable to say anything. There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s not the whole truth; for example, circumstances outside my control left me unable to update the Pro Football Hall of Fame Watch, which I may have to reassess the criteria for and post with possibly substantial changes in July or August.

I’ve been trying to make progress on the series of political posts I started on the eve of the election, but one post in particular has proved much more involved than I expected, in part because it’s an idea for a post I’ve had going back at least to my first round of political posts in 2008, but the outcome of the recent election has resulted in an example to work with that’s far less straightforward than the 2000 election I was going to work with. Recently I’ve been letting that fall by the wayside in favor of another more frivolous project that may or may not result in new content for the site but which doesn’t make me feel much better for working on it. I was intending for this series of political posts to build up to my proposed changes to the Constitution, but the context now feels very different than it did then.

I did start a new Da Countdown on inauguration day ticking down the remaining days in the Trump administration, assuming he doesn’t suspend elections, but there hasn’t been much else. I actually have an idea for a more philosophical approach to my next political post, but it’s something that would have been better served coming out last week. And the election has inspired a bunch of other ideas for projects, but as was the case all last summer, it’s been hard for me to re-orient myself towards the project I had considered to be a prerequisite for them.

Still, I do hope to keep my “continue my streak of months with a post” posts like this one to a minimum going forward, but I suspect when my next Blog-Day post comes out I’ll once again have a pretty low mark of posts for the year.

How Third Parties Can Be Relevant, and Save American Democracy in the Process

I mentioned Duverger’s Law in the last post, which holds that in a “first-past-the-post” system such as what we have where a plurality rules, a two-party system is inevitable. Supporters of third parties constantly try to deny this, claiming some sort of conspiracy of the two major parties to convince people we have a two-party system and so discourage people from voting for third-party candidates. But it’s actually quite simple to demonstrate. Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election saw it play out firsthand. People dissatisfied with Al Gore’s progressive bona fides decided to cast their vote for Ralph Nader, and in certain states, that gave the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. By voting for a candidate closer to their views they actually elected a candidate further away from them. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to get your way, you stick with the major-party candidate closer to your views no matter what, because veering away from it is counterproductive. (Yes, I am aware that Nader defenders will claim he took equally from both candidates, but it wouldn’t have taken much of a difference in Gore’s favor to swing Florida.)

The Founders may not have been aware of Duverger’s Law, but they still took pains to avoid its consequences in the selection of the President. A majority of the electors are required to choose a President; otherwise the race falls into the House of Representatives, where a majority of states are needed to settle upon a President, recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive”. That a candidate could effectively secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency when he did not secure a majority of the vote in seven states, accounting for far more electoral votes than his winning margin, indeed when he lost the popular vote by over two million votes, yet his opponent failed to secure a majority either, would greatly offend the Founders. The only place where the Founders did not secure the process from “permit[ting] less than a majority to be conclusive” was in the selection of electors themselves. The electoral college could be greatly reformed, and made far more hospitable to third parties, simply by adding a prohibition against states awarding all their electoral votes to a candidate that didn’t win a majority. But adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as many on the left want to do, without requiring majority rule, would throw out all the wisdom the Founders tried to put into the electoral college while (as we shall see) actually foreclosing what little hope third parties might have to win the Presidency, further entrenching the two-party system and all its problems.

So if you want there to be more than two parties, so that you have an alternative to the two most hated candidates in history, you need to move away from first-past-the-post. Perhaps you adopt something similar to the ranked-choice voting system Maine enacted on Election Day. Or perhaps you follow the example of countries like Britain and Canada, where a multitude of parties reign and effectively challenge the dominance of the major, powerful parties. Those nations use… a plurality-rules, first-past-the-post system?!?

Yes, in Britain and Canada, third parties typically target electoral districts where one of the major parties is irrelevant, allowing them to serve as an alternative to the remaining major party. The viability of third parties in Britain and Canada is usually attributed to their being parliamentary systems, where the head of state is chosen by the legislature. But it’s hard to see how that makes much of a difference. There’s nothing stopping today’s third parties from focusing on winning in specific states and districts where they can be the only viable alternative to the major parties. Indeed, such a strategy should be more viable in the United States, with its gerrymandered districts designed to be safe for one of the two major parties, than in Britain or Canada. It might even completely nullify the problem of gerrymandering. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create a few districts utterly dominated by one party, and then leave the rest of the districts with a large enough majority for the other party so as to leave a sizable underclass of supporters of the first party that are left completely disenfranchised. A party that can appeal to that underclass’s interests, while being palatable to enough members of the majority, should be able to effectively challenge for the district better than the original major party it’s replacing. Done right, possibly assisted by multiple third parties all carrying out the same strategy, it should not be possible to gerrymander your way to one-party rule; no matter how much you disenfranchise the members of one party, you only create an opening for another party to challenge you. Perhaps then district lines could be redrawn to preserve the current two-party system at the expense of giving any party “safe” seats, or they could even be drawn without regards to party preference at all, just whatever makes sense for each state, if it’s not possible to entrench any one party into power.

Under the Founders’ vision, a party looking to influence the direction of the nation should actually focus on Congress more than the Presidency – there’s a reason Congress comes first in the Constitution and why all the powers we popularly associate with the federal government as a whole are attributed to “Congress” in that first article. Indeed, until the expansion of presidential power under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was more powerful than the President – and, as the past decade of gridlock has shown, still wields tremendous power to, if not shape the direction of the country, at least check the President from unilaterally doing so.

But rather than do the hard work of building a party from the ground up, third parties continue to waste their time on moonshots to win the presidency, hoping against hope that the people will, all of a sudden and all at once, reject both major parties and that enough of them would coalesce on just one candidate (which would, of course, be theirs) to steal the presidency. Even if such a thing were to happen, it’s highly unlikely their party would hold any seats in Congress which could leave their President wholly impotent, but the fact that no third-party candidate even became relevant even in the face of the two most hated major-party candidates in history should cause some serious soul-searching in third-party offices, regardless of how much they may blame the media or the two-party system or their inability to get on the debate stage. Only a candidate with enough pre-existing celebrity as Nader can truly achieve relevance, and even he didn’t achieve any of the milestones that could have established truly lasting or at least impactful relevance beyond just tipping the outcome away from his preferred policies.

I’m fairly convinced the 5% threshold to receive funding from the federal government is actually the most anti-third party rule we have, convincing third parties that their presidential moonshots are actually a good way to create a shortcut to building a real party, and once they collect their federal funding they can actually start working on electing people at other levels. Nader didn’t achieve it, and even Gary Johnson, arguably the most qualified third party candidate since at least Nader or Perot, again going against the two most hated major-party candidates, didn’t achieve it. Without actually being able to elect enough people at lower levels to convince would-be politicians that your party is a legitimate means to achieve office, you have no mechanism to build credibility for any candidate you would field or to give them the sort of experience that would at least allow them to know what Aleppo is or name a world leader they admire. And without being able to convince activists that your party is a legitimate means to advance their causes, you’re left to become a club for people far enough outside the mainstream to complain that the two major parties don’t represent them. Johnson was probably the closest any third party is likely to come to a viable, credible candidate as long as they keep chasing the presidency, and he was despised by a large portion of the Libertarian base, his best approach, according to many analysts, being to distance himself from his own party as much as possible. Ultimately, third parties’ laser-focus on the presidency effectively precludes them from being credible and moderate enough to even achieve enough presidential votes to be worth it.

What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that the Founders may have actually intended for the United States to be something akin to a parliamentary system, but failed because of another intersection between their two big blind spots I mentioned last week. The Founders believed that no one other than George Washington would be able to win a majority of the electoral college, simply because it was too difficult for anyone else to achieve enough name recognition across all the states given 18th-century communications technology, meaning most candidates would be regional at best. Thus, the House of Representatives would pick the president on a regular basis, effectively establishing the President’s fealty to the House, but the existence of the electoral college would mean that if another Washington had enough popular will behind him, he could become President without going through the House. The rise of parties would ultimately undermine this vision, but it didn’t have to. If a third party had enough support in the right states and could effectively split the vote on a regular basis, it could regularly force an electoral college deadlock and throw the race into the House, where, presumably, a third party that strong would have a say in who becomes President – something that wouldn’t be possible under the NPVIC without ditching first-past-the-post. So the presidency, and thus the country, continues to be subject to Duverger’s Law, and the President either gets to work with a majority in Congress or butts heads with a faction he has no need to appeal to, because third parties won’t work to make Congress, and with it the Presidential race, work exactly as the Founders intended, because of their laser focus on the Presidency.

That said, if a third party became large enough to regularly throw the Presidential race into the House of Representatives, we might start running into problems that would still warrant some significant changes to the Constitution. In our “democracy uber alles” society, having the House pick the President regularly after nearly two hundred years of the people doing so more or less directly would not go over well, especially if House districts remained gerrymandered (indeed, one could argue we more or less chose a two-party system over House selection of the President in the 1820s after the way the 1824 election played out and the subsequent slow coalescing of Andrew Jackson’s opponents into the Whig party), and it might end up subverting House races if people voted for representatives as a proxy for their presidential vote, since representatives have the “real” power to pick the president, rather than voting for representatives on their own merits. (This seems to be a common phenomenon in Britain, where people effectively cast their vote for the party they want the prime minister to come from, and even happened in the United States, where direct election of Senators was enacted because people were voting for state legislators based on who they wanted to be Senator.)

All this is exacerbated by a quirk of the Constitution: when picking the President, each state gets one vote. This may have made sense when the US was seen as more of a union of individual sovereign states, where the states were primary and the union derived from them, and in a more agrarian society where the state with the most representatives at the time the Constitution was drafted was Virginia with ten, but in today’s urbanized society of mostly neutered states and a stark urban-rural divide both in the landscape and in our politics, it would be quite undemocratic for California’s 50+ representatives to have the same amount of say in picking the president as Wyoming’s one (even if it is the same way the Senate, which would have to pick the Vice President, works).

As much as Democrats may lament that large numbers of their voters only turn out in Presidential years and don’t care as much about Congress or state legislatures despite their importance, that third parties suffer from the same affliction may be far more damaging to the country as a whole. A relevant third party could have offered a real, credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would have allowed a viable option for factions within the parties rather than forcing each faction to fight to make itself heard over the other factions in the major parties and the preferences of the establishment, would break the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality engendered by the two-party system and set itself apart from the major parties in the areas where they do agree (and so allowed themselves to become a true alternative to the establishment), forced compromises instead of gridlock where appropriate, and by their very existence would have done much to ease the scourge of gerrymandering, with both of the latter two having the effect of encouraging moderation instead of leaving the two parties to slowly leave the center behind in order to appease their bases. Instead they keep laser-focusing on the presidency and wonder why the major parties keep ignoring them – and in so doing, may be complicit in the ongoing decline of our democracy. I can only hope it is not too late for them to realize it.

 

The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part II: How the Two-Party System Turned the Presidency Into What the Founders Most Feared

In the last post I talked about the Founding Fathers’ first and most obvious of their two fatal blind spots when making the Constitution, their distrust of political parties without doing anything to prevent their formation or mitigating their effects. But the place where the rise of parties most undermined their vision was in the power of the Presidency, which was designed for a George Washington but which the parties would render tailor-made for a Donald Trump.

The Founders of course were very concerned about the tyranny of a single ruler, not only of a king but also of the governors of the colonies the king appointed, but as they deliberated on the Constitution many of them came to see the President as the safeguard against the tyranny or hubris of Congress, saw him as a way to protect against demagogues in Congress while doing little to prevent the office from being taken by a demagogue himself, feared an oligarchic conspiracy of the Senate without doing much to consider the opposite problem of a wholly impotent one paralyzed by faction, and sought to insulate him from Congress’ influence while doing surprisingly little of the reverse. Thus, after much debate, the convention finally settled on the system whereby a group of electors, determined by a process set by each state legislature but imagined to be mostly chosen by the people, would choose the President, and only if a President failed to receive a majority of the Electoral College did the House of Representatives step in to choose the President from the College’s top vote-getters. His powers were meant to serve as a check on Congress and to be in turn checked by Congress, not as a means to tell Congress what to do, but powers they were, and they provided enough of an opening for the President to seize ever more power across the decades and centuries. Doubtless the fact that George Washington was certain to be the first President, and that he was no would-be tyrant but in fact had no wish to take the office at all, was foremost on their minds. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” Certainly even the opponents of the Constitution had too much respect for Washington to voice any fears that the Constitution would grant him too much power.

The expansion of presidential power has meant that every twist and turn in the fortunes of the nation inevitably gets credited or blamed to the President, even if Congress actually has more to do with them, because the President is expected to “push through the gridlock” through sheer force of will and effectively tell Congress what to do. In effect, despite our alleged anti-monarchist origins, we seem to expect the President to act as an elected king, and Donald Trump in effect presents himself as what, on some level, we want our President to be, indeed what we think he already is.

For Alexander Hamilton, that the President would bear all the responsibility for all the nation’s ups and downs was a good thing. In Federalist #70, he made the case for vesting executive power in one man rather than diffusing it among many, noting that a diffuse executive would make it harder if not impossible to attribute responsibility for any action or inaction, especially if the executive’s deliberation were kept secret. Hamilton believed that “it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people”, that if a plurality in the executive did not result in dissension and paralysis, a far more dangerous problem than in the legislature given the urgency of the decisions the executive must take, it would more likely result in the opposite problem, of a conspiracy of men using such a powerful office to destroy the liberty of the people, aided by the inability to pin responsibility on any one of them. A singular executive can be held responsible for the successes and failures of the nation, and rewarded or punished accordingly. In a republic where the executive must be re-elected, this distinguished him from the British monarch, who was insulated from all responsibility for any decisions he might make that instead devolved upon his advisors who he could overrule.

Had Hamilton foreseen the level of influence the President would come to have on the legislative process, he and the other Founders might have recognized that this degree of attribution of responsibility to the President would insulate Congress from some of the responsibility that might rightly fall to them, even to the point of depressing turnout for midterm elections. A Congress with personal animus with the President could block the passage of any bills whatsoever, even those of the utmost importance, and the President would see much of the blame fall to him, as the Republicans’ showdowns with Obama have proved.

If Hamilton did not see the rise of parties that would make such a conflict possible, it is all the more profound that he did not foresee that it would also allow the executive to obtain more and more power at the expense of the liberty of the people, thanks to a conspiracy not of an executive council but of the President’s party’s representation in Congress, who would willingly expand what circumscribed powers the Constitution gives him even into areas that are rightly Congress’s. Federalist #69 contains Hamilton’s most robust defense of the presidency as substantially more circumscribed in its power than the British monarch, yet many of his points ring hollow. “The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority,” Hamilton writes; yet the President has repeatedly, since our last truly “declared” war in World War II, sent the military to fight around the globe without Congress’ explicit permission. “The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the sole possessor of the power of making treaties;” yet the Senate rarely applies any real influence on the formation of treaties and in any case, in practice, has little ability but to sign off on the treaty the President gives them. “The one would have a like concurrent authority in appointing to offices; the other is the sole author of all appointments”; yet in practice the Senate, once again, has little influence in changing who the President might choose for judicial and other offices except in cases of extreme disqualification, and if the President’s party is in power not even then, but even the party opposing the President has little power but to stonewall his choices in hopes of capturing the Presidency for themselves or, perhaps, forcing the President to choose someone else who might not be much better in their eyes, all while the country suffers from the continued vacancy.

Nor did Hamilton foresee that the emergence of two great, opposing forces would make the prospect of which party controlled the Presidency of profound importance, to the point of, judging by the left’s reaction to Trump’s election, threatening the liberty of the losing party, or that it would demolish the safeguards the Founders did install against a demogogue or a tyrant ascending to the Presidency. After the revelation of the CIA’s report on Russian influence on the election, Hamilton’s words in Federalist #68 were highly circulated and cited by liberals and by electors considering defecting from Trump:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means…

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

Perhaps Hamilton should have foreseen that when the electoral college exists solely for the purpose of choosing the President, they are less likely to deliberate on the merits of the choices given them than they are to state their intent ahead of time and allow themselves to be used as a proxy for whoever the people of each state really want to be President. Certainly if he had foreseen the rise of parties he might have reached this conclusion. In any event, the rise of parties and especially the two-party system has effectively neutered any hope that the electoral college might serve as any sort of effective check against “foreign powers…gain[ing] an improper ascendant in our councils”. All that is needed is for them to ingratiate one of their number into the nomination of one of the major parties and they will have access to an apparatus that will secure the vote of a considerable number of states, and will install electors obliged to vote for the candidate with an “R” next to his name, no matter his qualifications or lack thereof, no matter his fealty to a foreign power. For them to do otherwise, indeed, is to effectively defy the will of the people, to usurp the choice of the people under the system of election that, if it was not necessarily designed by anyone, is the system we have ended up in and which people believe ourselves to operate under, any deviation from which is inherently anti-democratic. It is quite unlikely in any case as such electors would effectively not only be rejecting a single candidate but calling into question the judgment of their whole party, when they tend to be party flacks, “corrupted” by “time” well before such a candidate even launched his candidacy, and tasked with carrying out the party’s will.

Perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, the electoral college is difficult to defend in the context of the two-party system. Yet perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, it is also responsible for that system. As mentioned, the increase in presidential power has resulted in the perception that the presidency is the only elected office that matters, and by not “mak[ing] the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men”, the Founders gave people no reason to care about any other office if the President was going to be that powerful and at least nominally directly elected by the people. Among other things, this means that third parties that set out to break up the two-party system and want to present themselves as viable alternatives inevitably put all their eggs in the Presidential basket, inevitably fail to gain any traction whatsoever (even with two historically hated candidates, Gary Johnson barely even broke three percent), and then whine about how the system is rigged against them. As the 2000 election should have demonstrated, the best-case scenario for third parties running Presidential candidates is to serve as a spoiler tipping the election to the candidate further away from their views. This actually has a name in political science: Duverger’s Law states that, in a “first-past-the-post” system like we have where a plurality rules (and which the Founders never intended), a two-party system is inevitable.

And yet the electoral college also provides more of an avenue for third parties to achieve the presidency than most of the proposed alternatives, if only they could see it and had enough patience to build up power at lower levels first. In so doing, they might alleviate many of the problems people have with our government without directly changing any laws, let alone the Constitution. The great irony is that the Founders’ two blind spots might have cancelled each other out instead of reinforcing each other, if only third parties would follow the path the Founders laid out for them, and which I lay out in the next post.

The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part I: The Inevitability and Value of Parties

Despite the bizarre political-rally setting, I thought President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night was one of the better ones of his presidency, certainly one of the most important, making several important points about the state of our democracy and our country and what to do and not do about it. But besides the fact that he aimed it enough at his supporters that the people who perhaps most needed to hear what he said will ignore it, I’m worried that his unwavering commitment to optimism may have led him to understate the threats to our democracy and fail to get at their root causes. In December, when the left was calling for the electors to effectively overturn the results of the election, I made many of the same points but came to two conclusions that evidently were a bridge too far for Obama: that the root of the problem was the two-party system and that truly fixing our government would have to involve making changes to the Constitution.

In other words, I saw the problems with our government as primarily structural, while Obama sees them (or says he sees them) as primarily peculiar to this moment. Obviously the particular circumstances of the moment must have something to do with our situation for us to make it over two hundred years without running into the problems we’re experiencing now, but the specifics of those circumstances are unlikely to change just because Obama hectors us to change them, and are more likely to get worse. “The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” and the ability to take in only the facts and engage only with people we already agree with was inevitable with the rise of the Internet, a natural consequence of human nature only forestalled by the presence of a small number of media outlets able to control the national conversation to a significant extent; perhaps it’s possible to teach people to discern real facts from “fake news”, but we’re a long ways away from that and not even that close to universally recognizing it as a good thing, let alone a necessity of democracy. Obama speaks of “allow[ing] our political dialogue to become…corrosive” and “writ[ing] off the whole system as inevitably corrupt” as weakening the ties holding the nation together, as though the corrosiveness of our political dialogue weren’t an inevitable result of technology and increased popular participation in political debates and the criticisms of the system didn’t have some merit. In this context, it makes sense that Obama would speak of “rebuilding our democratic institutions” in ways that work within the system – making it easier to vote, reducing the influence of money in politics, increasing the emphasis on “transparency and ethics”, and redrawing district lines, all laudable goals but made easier if not self-correcting when more than two parties can thrive, which none of those goals help with – but treat the problem as a failure to live up to our Constitution’s ideals, rather than the Constitution itself potentially being part of the problem.

Not that the Constitution’s ideals are bad ones – far from it! But in America, we tend to revere the Founders and our founding documents almost to the point of religious devotion. If Obama can’t admit that our Constitution might be a contributing factor to our problems, calling for a Constitutional convention to greatly change the structure of our government must seem downright sacrilegious; even raising the possibility that the way the Constitution pursues its ideals ends up undermining them seems largely verboten. In order to truly confront the root causes of today’s gridlock, we are going to have to confront the reality that for all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers were after all human beings who lived nearly 250 years ago, human beings with flaws and disagreements, and that in crafting the Constitution they made some critical errors that ultimately undermined their goals.

There are two major errors the Founders made in crafting the Constitution in particular that have proven to undermine the franchise. The first and most obvious to students of American history is their distrust of political parties without appreciating the forces leading to their creation. The second was that, for all their distrust of kings, they let their hero-worship of George Washington lead them to give the presidency more power than they probably actually wanted, creating the opening that would ultimately lead to today’s king-like presidency through a procession of presidents with less humility – a process they were actually deeply aware of. The two are interrelated – the Founders hoped the Congress would stop the president from obtaining more power for himself, but they’re more likely to let the president do what he wants if they’re more concerned about their loyalty to the party than to their current office or themselves – but each has proven corrosive on their own.

The Founders believed factionalism was the result of too much popular participation in the political process – of people pursuing narrow self-interests. By granting more power to elected representatives, they believed, those representatives would be free to focus on deliberating amongst themselves, united by the quest to do what was best for the republic as a whole and the imperative to do the job for which they were elected. In the Founders’ minds, lawmakers would line up and take stands on an issue, then when the next issue came up they would line up and take sides on that issue, sides that looked completely different from the previous issue and with little apparent commonalities besides their opinion on that issue. Besides missing that even the “best men” could be subject to a more subtle form of the same sort of passions they believed the people at large were susceptible to (not to mention that this was pretty much how Britain’s Parliament worked and it resulted in the very party system they were trying to avoid), the Founders missed that even the most learned, disinterested statesmen could have legitimate fundamental definitional differences as to what was best for the republic, differences that existed amongst the Founders themselves and would unite those committed to one definition behind a given course of action while pitting them against other definitions dedicated to other courses of action, and might even lead them to believe the other side was not really interested in the welfare of the republic and that only their own side was. Some might believe in a strong central government while others believed in states’ rights; some might believe in protecting rural farmers while others believed in helping urban industries. Even among the very people that worked on the Constitution there were disagreements over what it actually allowed the federal government to do.

In the end, the Founders were probably too optimistic about the merits of voting for the person as opposed to the party. Parties may have been the result of people pursuing narrow self-interests, but organized parties control and direct the pursuit of self-interest into forms more conducive to the success of the party as a whole, presenting a coherent statement of the merits for or against a particular position from the anarchy of hundreds of individual representatives, encouraging and supporting compromise and potentially unpopular yet necessary courses of action, even if they don’t always do so in the most savory of ways. The separation of powers was supposed to prevent the system from being exploited by people with naked self-interest; Congress was supposed to have most of the power, and the President had to work with them to get anything done. Individual Congressmen couldn’t get too much power without potentially running afoul of the President, and if worst came to worst the Supreme Court could curb the President and Congress from together abridging the rights of the people. What the Constitution does not do is provide any system for curbing those who would pursue naked self-interest despite all this, something that has become far more necessary now that the Senate and Presidency are directly elected by the people, creating far more opportunity for a demogogue to achieve one of those offices. Members of Congress can only be booted out in the middle of their term by a two-thirds vote of their house (a high enough bar that it is exceedingly rarely tried), and the President can only be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, not for using the legitimate privileges of their office in a legal but self-serving way. In effect, the Constitution and the push for democracy uber alles leaves it up to the easily-manipulable people to vote out the most self-interested politicians (and as the Republican primary process proved, even if the people do try to vote against the demogogue they can end up splitting the vote and giving the demogogue the win anyway).

Despite all our polarization along partisan lines, in some ways we live in a culture significantly closer to the Founders’ intention than at any time in history, and it is proving no virtue; we now live in a world where a self-professed billionaire can run for an office he seems to treat more like a dictatorship than a presidency solely on the back of his own brand, where one particularly venal politician can bring the entire government to a standstill just to discredit the “establishment” and further his own career. Republicans may take advantage of this more than Democrats, but over the last sixteen years I have lamented that Democrats have been too moral to engage in this sort of brinkmanship; their commitment to upholding political norms, actually seek out compromise, and actually care about appealing to more than just party activists gave them a candidate for President that failed to excite those activists enough to match the enthusiasm of Trump supporters, has given them little hope of capturing the House until at least 2022, and dashed any hope of actually accomplishing any of their agenda at the national level short of favorable Supreme Court decisions – and the rise of Bernie Sanders and backlash of the party base against its establishment in the wake of Hillary’s loss (in part because of the reticence of many of Sanders’ supporters to support her even in the face of the threat posed by Trump) suggests the Democratic base is getting tired of constantly trying to appease the Republicans and constantly losing, and may be about to react to Trump’s victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress similarly to how the Republicans reacted to Obama’s similar victory. Sanders supporters who seethe at the DNC tipping the scales to Hillary should note that a similar degree of control at the RNC might have saved the country from Trump.

In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that the only way to prevent the tyranny of a majority of citizens from trampling over the rights of a minority was a system of representation, whereby “the public views” would be filtered “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Demagogues and evil men might obtain high office, but this would be unlikely at large scales, since there would be more wise men, it would be harder for demagogues to charm a larger number of people, and the diversity of their opinions would be more likely to center on wiser men. A large nation, Madison argued, would have a greater diversity of interests, which would make it harder for any of them to form a majority with which to pursue their views on the whole, and even if they did they would be torn apart by internal disagreements:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Madison recognized that if factions could not be avoided, the best outcome would be a large number of them, representing a diversity of competing interests, that could not band together to pursue a single policy at the expense of the minority. This, he would soon see, would not come to pass. The Constitution did nothing to prevent the diversity of interests in the United States from coalescing around two major political parties, or from being able to push their agenda on the rest of the country once they were able to form a majority. Nor could Madison foresee today’s great urban-rural divide and the formation of two great factions with diametrically opposed views hoping to achieve enough control of government to enact their agenda, with few who honestly combine views from each side, let alone hold completely novel views, and fewer who are active enough in politics to exert their own influence on the system.

It’s impossible to know what, exactly, the Founders would have done differently if they had known that the rise of parties was going to be inevitable. Likely they would have sought to find a way to direct the passions of each faction towards the good of the republic while mitigating the negative consequences they feared – perhaps incorporating the parties into the system of checks and balances in some way and creating structural, not merely cultural, incentives to compromise. If Federalist #10 is any indication, one thing they might have done would be to try to ensure that as many definitions of the good of the republic would be represented as possible, under the theory that compromise is more likely when there are many parties that are likely to find common ground with other parties than when you have two parties diametrically opposed to each other. Part of the reason for our current malaise is that we have too few political parties for the diversity of our electorate, with the result that the parties, which should be private organizations to exert a particular viewpoint on the levers of politics, have effectively become fundamental parts of the political process themselves, with the primary process being seen as every bit as important a means to express one’s duty as a citizen as the general election. In a functioning democracy, party bosses should have every right to set the rules to run their parties as they see fit, but when the parties are every bit as much a part of the political system as Congress, for them to do so smacks of corruption and twisting the political system itself to serve entrenched interests, so the parties find themselves torn between ensuring party unity, representing all the factions of their base, presenting an electable candidate, and resisting insurgency. So the Republicans are hijacked by activists to nominate perhaps the most anti-democratic major-party candidate in American history, while the Democrats’ greater control of the process ends up alienating the very activists that, in the modern American political system, they so desperately need. A healthy party system might have parties for the following viewpoints (some of which might merge with others):

  • The free market almost always knows best, and government should be shrunk and as many functions given to private enterprise as possible.
  • Government should serve to curb the excesses of the free market and provide avenues of opportunity for people to move into the middle class or the rich.
  • The capitalist system needs to be torn down and replaced with a socialist system with government at its center.
  • America is a federation of states, and so the states should be given broad leeway to run themselves as they see fit, as much as is feasible.
  • Only a singular strong, powerful leader can make America great again.
  • America is a Christian nation and should be organized around Christian principles.
  • People should have freedom to do whatever they want without impinging on other peoples’ freedom, whether that’s to get an abortion, marry someone of the same gender, own a gun, or start and run a business as they see fit.
  • Government needs to act on behalf of the environment and future generations that cannot have a direct voice in government.
  • The only goal that matters is for America to increase its GDP as much as possible.
  • America should focus on protecting its own working class from the abuses of the rich and competition from overseas.
  • America should use its power to spread the ideals of democracy all over the world and safeguard the current world order of peace.

One thing I’m fairly certain the Founders would have done differently if they had known about the inevitability of parties is greatly curb the power of the Presidency, if not get rid of it and have the head of government be chosen directly by Congress. The rise of the two-party system would make it much easier for the President to continue to accrue power across the decades while losing little to none of it, while the method of electing the President himself would end up being the single biggest factor in preventing more than two parties from forming. We’ll get into that in the next post.

At a Time of Constitutional Crisis, A Call for Radical Bipartisan Reform

Before the electoral college has even voted, we find ourselves on the verge of a constitutional crisis. Over three hundred electors find themselves in the unenviable position of voting for a man who seems to see the Presidency as a personal tyranny, a man with no political experience and little apparent interest in the minutia of governing, who has evidently discarded his pledge to “drain the swamp” and filled many cabinet positions with fellow businessmen and people opposed to the very roles they are to be lifted to, who was only elected because, many people believe and the CIA has seemed to affirm, Russia selectively expedited the leaking of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy while doing nothing public with the information they obtained by hacking the Republican National Committee – yet this is just another thing being viewed through the lens of partisan politics, something the left can cling to as a mitigating factor in Donald Trump’s election yet which Trump’s supporters disclaim the importance of, because of Republicans, according to the same reports, viewing their own power as more important than America’s independence from interference by foreign powers.

Unwilling to come to terms with a Trump presidency, many on the left are now calling on Republican electors to overrule the vote of the people that put them in their position, and the vote of their party in the primary process, to choose a more “moderate” Republican, not even recognizing the undemocratic nature of what they are asking the electors to do, considering the risks associated with a Trump presidency to be worth any measure taken to avert it – in effect, to send a message to Trump’s supporters that even if their anti-establishment champion is elected, the establishment will still be able to overrule their vote and install one of their own as President to protect their prerogatives. The left has little to say about the reaction Trump’s supporters might have to such a turn of events, which might range from widespread rioting on the low end to full-on civil war on the high end. Even as someone who considers a Trump presidency similarly unthinkable, the only thing such a measure has to recommend it is that it would create what might be a once-in-a-lifetime bipartisan consensus to abolish or reform the electoral college, the left because of its effect to overrule the popular vote even when it supports the “losing” candidate by over two million votes, Trump’s supporters because of its members’ ability to overrule the very choice of the people that put them in their position if the powers that be object strenuously enough – but I’m already seeing evidence that if the electors did succeed in keeping Trump from the White House, the left would praise the electoral college to high heaven, forgetting that unless you believe Trump’s claim to have won by an even bigger margin if he had been forced to appeal to the popular vote, the electors’ intervention was only needed because of the electoral college in the first place.

But the electoral college is only one aspect of how we got here. So is the power-hungry Republican party that will take any measure to protect, increase, and perpetuate their own power, disenfranchising those that disagree with them, going along with whatever those that agree with them choose no matter the danger to the republic, and engaging in political brinksmanship to deny even the most necessary actions if Democrats would take the credit for it. So is the unaccountable establishment that consists both of the aforementioned Republicans and of the Democratic Party that many believe went all-out to secure the nomination of Hillary Clinton even in the face of the left’s own populist uprising in support of Bernie Sanders, a candidate who might have proven the anti-Trump forces to be more about Trump himself than the establishment as a whole, and rendered themselves vulnerable to the Trump movement without realizing it until it was too late. Regardless of what happens on Monday, if we are to avert a civil war and truly take power back from the establishment, we need a bipartisan effort to hold both parties accountable and reform our system of government to be properly responsive to the people. True change was never going to come from electing a single president, whether it be Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or even Barack Obama, but from constant, hard work of activists on all sides to put pressure on people on all levels of government. We need to recognize that when we dumped all of Trump’s supporters into the “basket of deplorables”, or dismissed his opponents (for that seems to be more true than to speak of Hillary’s supporters) as “SJWs” and “cucks” who were deluded by the establishment’s lies, or generally allowed culture-war issues to define the differences between us, we were effectively doing the establishment’s work for them. So long as we remain divided, neither side will really get what they want and will be blinded by their hatred into losing sight of the areas of common ground, all while the establishment continues to profit at the expense of the people.

Our reform effort must begin by recognizing the systemic nature of the problems infecting our government and our political discourse, specifically the two-party system. Until recently, the two-party system protected the establishment’s prerogatives by presenting a mostly unified, centrist platform and finding a few wedge issues to nudge people into voting for one side or the other, both of which would ultimately pursue the same policies outside those wedge issues. There were good reasons for the parties to take that approach, but also good reasons for people to feel disenfranchised. The people have taken greater control over the parties and they have become diametrically opposed as a result, but the two-party system is if anything even more insidious now, as moderates and anyone outside the two great camps have effectively been purged. Yet it took someone with Trump’s charisma and cult of personality for anyone truly anti-establishment to capture a major party’s presidential nomination. Anyone with misgivings about Clinton or Trump were obliged to vote for them, as they had for their respective nominees in every previous election since at least 2004, if for no other reason than the control the winning candidate would have over the future of the Supreme Court. Perhaps if third parties offered a more viable choice than Gary “what’s an Aleppo?” Johnson or Jill “I’m not anti-vax but…” Stein, people with misgivings about both candidates could have rallied around such a candidate, but even then such a candidate would have little to no direct support in Congress, and third parties’ inability to field a viable candidate ultimately stems from the same source. With Congress in gridlock as the two great forces try to stop each other from getting their way, the Presidency is perceived, whether true or not, as being of pivotal importance, and since only one man can be President, the entire direction of the nation for four years turns on this one election – and there are only two directions it can go.

In short, the establishment already has less power than ever, yet the health of the Republic as a whole has suffered more than anything else, because we are trying to work within a system that can’t accommodate the situation we find ourselves in today. The irony is that we might be about to play out one of the exact scenarios the Founding Fathers feared might be the dissolution of the republic, which they tried so hard to prevent in the Constitution, in large part because of that same Constitution’s shortcomings. That’s why on the eve of the election, I issued a call for a constitutional convention to update the Constitution for today’s realities, or at least to form a bipartisan movement to work within the Constitution to uphold its values, to make our government work again, to make it responsible to the people again, to make our system of checks and balances strong again, to make our values real again – because only then will we truly be able to make America great again. I hope people from all sides of the aisle can put aside their differences and join forces to carry out this work, or else there will be nothing to stop our descent into the abyss.