I envy the British. Their current government is unable to solve a major problem – Brexit – so they will let the people decide the issue by electing a new government on December 12. When the election is over a new majority in the House of Commons will take control and have the power to actually govern. No filibusters. No vetoes from the executive branch. No gridlock.
Oh, and the British people aren’t stuck with just two choices. There will be multiple parties on the ballot, including a moderate party, the Liberal Democrats, which stands between the Conservatives on the right, and Labour on the left. Imagine that.
Representative democracy is based on a simple principle: the majority elects a government which then has the power to govern. That’s how it works in other democracies, but not here. Not anymore. To preserve and protect democracy we need to modernize our political system.
I teach a class on legislative relations at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. For that class I describe the “American System” of government as opposed to other systems used around the world. The American System is failing, and as a result, our liberties are at risk.
The American System is highly unusual. It consists – at the state and federal levels – of a bicameral legislative branch, with an independent elected executive with veto power, and an independent judicial branch with decides the constitutionality of laws. In addition, the rules of the US Senate allow the minority to block most actions. On top of that, the electoral college, gerrymandering, and the makeup of the U.S. Senate work together to give disproportionate power to small states and thwart the will of the majority.
In practice this means that to make federal policy you need a majority vote of the House, 60 votes in the Senate, the agreement of the President, and often the agreement of the Supreme Court.
Our system was designed before political parties emerged. It assumes that the people will elect sober, mature, qualified leaders who will reason together and compromise. For most of our history, it has worked; largely because one party or the other was able to win complete control of the machinery.
But today Americans are deeply and nearly evenly divided, which means neither party can win a governing majority. By pandering to their base voters, the two parties have become ideologically so far apart that compromise is impossible. Divided government and gridlock result. In Washington DC, Republicans and Democrats cannot reach agreement on anything other than keeping the government open – and sometimes even that is impossible.
The American people see the dysfunction and are disgusted. They become cynical. They turn to leaders offering radical solutions. The center falls as the two parties become more extreme, alienating politically homeless moderates.
A failing system eventually collapses. When a democracy collapses authoritarianism rises, as it did in the 1930s, and as it is ascending again in many parts of the world. Our democracy is very, very strong. But how many years of paralyzing gridlock can the system endure?
We need to modernize and democratize our democracy by changing the antiquated elements of our system that create gridlock. The list of possible reforms is long, but must start with these changes:
- End gerrymandering, at least in terms of U.S. House elections
- End the filibuster in the Senate
- Do away with or reform the electoral college
- Reform our campaign finance system
Most importantly we need to break up the logjam created by our current two-party system. As I wrote earlier, the election of 2020 will create a new party system. If the Democrats remain relatively centrist, they have the chance to build a solid governing center-left coalition which could end the gridlock. But if the left comes to define the Democratic Party something more radical will likely happen. Suburban moderates will never support Trump’s “nationalism,” but they also won’t support neo-socialism. Eventually something new must then emerge to fill this vacuum, a new, centrist third major party.
By winning enough seats in legislative bodies to deny majorities to either existing party, a new party would compel negotiation and compromise. And faced with an emerging centrist party, Republicans and Democrats would be forced to moderate their positions or risk being supplanted, as the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1850s.
We have been here before. In 1787 leaders came together in a constitutional convention to replace the failed Articles of Confederation, and in so doing created a whole new system of government. Article V of the Constitution they created allows the states to call a new convention to suggest amendments to our system. Given that most of the needed reforms will require a constitutional amendment, has the time come to use that power?
And in 1854 another group of leaders gathered in Ripon, Wisconsin to create a new major party dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery, and remade our party system.
The time is approaching when similar bold leadership will be required. The American System was designed for a world that no longer exists. It is time for major changes.