A Vibrant (but Entrenched) Political System

Is it Time for Meaningful Constitutional Reform in the United States?

Stella Schieffer made a strong case in the November 4th issue of The Tech (“Party-Based Elections”) for reforming the American electoral system. She described the advantages of Germany’s parliamentary electoral system, where voters separately elect both geographical delegates and party representatives proportional to their support. Schieffer argues that the German system more accurately reflects the sentiments of the electorate and that parties maintain their positions more reliably than individual politicians do.

I am very much in favor of electoral reform in the United States. The U.S. Constitution was written in a time when Americans’ strongest loyalties were to their states and local communities, and statesmen viewed political parties with great suspicion. Obviously, things have changed since then. It would be wonderful to see a wider variety of non-geographical interests represented in Congress.

Unfortunately, the foremost obstacle in reforming our electoral system is the immense difficulty in amending the Constitution, which would be required in order to implement Schieffer’s suggestions. However, there are at least two other explanations for why Americans quietly tolerate our old-fashioned electoral system: the fact that the United States was among the first modern democracies and the apparent stability of the nation over the past two centuries.

It is no coincidence that Massachusetts has the oldest state constitution in the nation (in fact, it is the oldest written constitution still in effect in the world) but was also the last of the original thirteen American states to write its post-1776 basic charter.

When each of the other newly independent states hastily established governments that served as experiments in democratic self-rule, they soon ran into numerous problems they did not foresee. By the time Massachusetts called a constitutional convention, its delegates were able to draw enough from the lessons of its neighbors to make a workable, yet still thoroughly 18th century-style, government.

Within decades, all the other states abandoned their original constitutions and tried again with more modern features that leap-frogged Massachusetts.

We see a similar situation with the U.S. Constitution, the oldest national constitution in the world: Its improvement over the Articles of Confederation was “good enough” that significant revision was never seriously considered by future generations.

We’d certainly expect the systems subsequently established by other democracies to be much “better” than the U.S. original. The popular revolutions that swept Europe in the 19th century were somewhat influenced by the American and French experiences of the previous century. The proliferation of new states based on rising nationalism in the 20th century were perfect opportunities to create modern republics and constitutional monarchies. Surely the framers of those governments studied the flaws of previously established democracies. Furthermore, the relevant scientific aspects of politics, such as modern psychology, game theory, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and the Balinski-Young Theorem, weren’t developed until the 20th century.

Many democracies have completely rewritten their constitutions from scratch after suffering a major collapse of their government due to war or revolution. For example, the drafting of the constitutions of (West) Germany and Japan were supervised by the Allied victors after World War II and the Fourth French Republic was born after liberation from Nazi occupation.

Only two nations have had the same political system in the 21st century as they did in the 19th and 20th centuries: the United States and the United Kingdom. Both are strong democracies, and yet both have anachronistic elements that have long been abolished in most other countries: the U.S. has its electoral college, Britain has its House of Lords. Both nations were blessed to have not have suffered any serious economic or military upheaval (except for the U.S. Civil War), and thus their citizens did not feel any sufficient incentive to drastically alter their political systems.

As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The American Revolution of 1776, unlike the French Revolution, was just another step in a very slow democratization of a society that gradually moved the source of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. Since that time, Americans have incrementally expanded popular participation in the federal government, including granting voting rights to the landless, non-whites, women, 18-year-olds and the District of Columbia, and transferring the power to choose a state’s national senators and presidential electors from the legislature to the people.

Ultimately, the degree of democratic rule in a nation is determined much more by its civic culture than by the formal mechanical rules for filling in its government positions. Every South American nation that has tried to copy the U.S. political system has fallen victim to military coups. Britons enjoy the benefits of living in a reliable democracy, despite having a largely unwritten political system run under the principle of parliamentary supremacy.

If their system were exported to certain other countries, it would quickly degenerate into dictatorship. The American Founding Fathers were acutely aware that the government they created was not ideal. Many did not expect it to last. However, their legacy was not that they created the world’s most democratic system, but rather that they built the foundations for a stable democratic society to thrive in response to evolving social and political climates.

Stephen Hou is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.