Commentary: Fix the political system. Don’t touch the Constitution. | Remark


In the lead up to the bicentenary of the Constitution, the late Constitutionalist Walter Berns was invited to deliver a speech on the Constitution in a Latin American country. After his remarks, an obviously agitated man posed a question to the sponsors of the event: “Why, he asked, was this American giving us a lecture? After all, our country has had many constitutions while the United States has only had one!

The United States actually had two constitutions: the Articles of Confederation (1781) and the Constitution (1788). Nevertheless, the underlying point remains the same: there has been remarkable stability in the basic governance structure of the country. Why?

Gary Schmitt

The answer begins with the passage from the Articles to the Constitution. Dissatisfied with how the young republic functioned, the founding generation devised a new structure that they believed would better protect basic rights and foster sounder politics. The goal, as they repeatedly said, was to create a federal government that would help make Americans prosperous at home and respected abroad – a country strong enough to be able to control its own destiny in a monarchical world. unlikely to be friendly with his revolutionary. republicanism.

While there have been struggles and setbacks to achieve these goals – most obviously and most damaging in the case of slavery and African American civil rights – the reality is that America has become a prosperous nation and remains the bulwark of the liberal world order. As a Marxist might say, “It didn’t happen by accident, comrade.”

It is true that much of this progress is due to the character and ingenuity of citizens. But as we have seen throughout history, poorly constructed governmental institutions can prevent such virtues from being properly promoted or even exercised.

Commentary: Congress must deliver on the promise of the Constitution

That’s not to say the United States doesn’t face political problems at home. “Internal tranquillity”, as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, is far from assured. However, the question that must be asked is whether this is a problem largely attributable to the Constitution or rather to the political system that covers it.

Take, for example, the state of American political parties. Parties originally aimed to ensure that candidates were governed by a set of principles articulated in a platform and were held to and moderated by that standard once elected. Today, candidates routinely appeal to a minority in open primaries, taking political positions that polarize, rather than moderate, our politics.

This feeds our governmental institutions, especially the Congress and the Presidency. Instead of elected officials being pressured to develop a national consensus to deal with the problems facing the country and claiming their ability to solve the problems, they are pressured to promote an agenda that can only be put in place when a party controls both chambers. of Congress and the Oval Office.

It’s the electoral equivalent of the children’s game “capture the flag”. It’s all-or-nothing politics, with the result of senators filibustering to prevent the other side from passing laws, members of the House ignoring their own budget rules to pass massive spending, and that presidents use executive orders to enact policies that should be the prerogative of Congress to decide.

None of this is inevitable – nor directly related to the Constitution.

Over the years, political parties have changed the way candidates are chosen. Congress changed its internal workings, giving more sway to leadership but less to the more deliberative work of committees. Presidents have come to see themselves as running the country, in charge of everything from the economy to the health and safety of the smallest communities. It is a mandate that they cannot respect and which inevitably leads to the frustration of the whole country.

Such frustration leads some to argue for this or that major change in our governance structures, such as the abolition of the Electoral College.

Of course, we should never discount out of hand the possibility that a change in the Constitution is for the better. After all, there were 27 amendments to this document.

But before embarking on a path the long-term consequences of which cannot be fully known, it would be wiser to reflect on the smaller but nonetheless important changes that can be made to our political system, without touching a constitution that has served the country so well. for more than two centuries.

Gary Schmitt is Resident Scholar and Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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