I think it may be safe to breathe now. While the election isn’t over, it’s getting closer and much of the conversation is beginning to turn from “who” to “how?”
As in, “How are we going to move forward?”
Much has been written of late about the consequences of a US Senate that disproportionately favors more rural, less populated states and penalizes those with large urban centers. It’s been identified as an issue because large metropolitan cities lean heavily to blue (Democrat) and more rural areas to red (Republican). One Twitter post I saw recently said simply, “Land doesn’t vote. People do.”
Two nights after the election my daughter’s boyfriend was waxing philosophical on this problem and I entertained him by keeping my mouth shut. He’s a vocal and articulate liberal, appropriate to his age and energy level; but I like him anyway. He made a point I later read in a New York Times editorial, which was: Wyoming has half a million people and they have two senators. California has 39 million people and they have two senators. How is that fair?
I said nothing, but what I thought in my head was, “If you were a musical theater person you would know how that’s fair. It’s fair because Alexander Hamilton (his name was Alexander Hamilton) devised a blueprint for government that balanced popular representation (the House) with equality among states (the Senate). Duh.”
But like I said, I kept it to myself. And I thought: Hey wait, this was absolutely intentional. It was considered genius at the time and became the model for sustainable democracy worldwide. Plus: Lin Manuel Miranda did a friggin’ musical about it and won a whole bunch of Tony awards. So it can’t be broken, right?
Cut to the NY Times editorial, which validated the boyfriend’s concerns and gave me a stomachache. Okay that’s a lie. I already had a stomachache. But it made things worse. Especially the line that said, “Put it this way: If we were looking at a foreign country with America’s level of political dysfunction, we would probably consider it on the edge of becoming a failed state — that is, a state whose government is no longer able to exert effective control.”
Then I remembered that the musical was rumored to be based on actual history so I decided to look up A.Ham’s original plan and see how we managed to screw it up. And sure enough, in the National Archives, there’s Hamilton’s original blueprint for what became our government, including annotations by colleagues James Madison, Robert Yates, and John Lansing, Jr. It’s eerily close to the structure we ended up with, the one that survives today. Not 100%, but 90% or better.
It was June, 1787 in Philadelphia and it was hot. But it wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. The humidity is what gets you. We never get a dry heat, like they have in Phoenix. It’s sticky from, like, Memorial Day ‘til October. That’s why you need a place down the shore.
But I digress.
The war was won, but as George Washington rapped, “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” The earliest US government was based on the Articles of Confederation, a document that supported states’ individual rights to self-govern rather than creating a tightly unified nation.
In modern terms, think of Europe – which is much smaller than the US, but more comparable in size to the original 13 colonies – and the modern day European Union. Each country, from the largest to the smallest, contributes to and is represented within a central body that coins money and legislates trade. But they reserve the great majority of governing authority for themselves, at the nation-state level. That was the original model for the US.
Ironic, isn’t it, that we tried and trashed that model back in the 1700s while our European cousins evolved to it (results TBD) 230 years later.
The biggest fear among the new residents of the US (by the way, despite being a crappy model of government, the Articles of Confederation were the first to establish the name, United States of America) was to ping pong from one dictator situation to a new one. That fear had many levels: individual landowners worried about self-determination. Municipalities worried about solvency. And, of course, “states” wanted no part of any interference in their governance. After all, what was that whole war thing about anyway?
So what Hamilton did was pretty amazing. He came up with the three branches of government approach. He proposed the bicameral approach to legislature, with the House (he called it the Assembly) being elected by popular vote; but the Senate being made up according to electors from each state. It was the germ of the concept we now know as the Electoral College, and it was a brilliant strategic move.
Should the people be in control of their own government, their own destiny? Absolutely. After a long, bloody war for independence try selling anything short of that. But educated men, successful men, men in power, know that the general population is really a bunch of idiots, a necessary evil if you will, particularly if you have an ethical problem with slavery. Because if you can’t own the means of production, you have to placate the means of production, you dig?
Within his blueprint Hamilton made sure the Senate would be selected by those with power (i.e. money) and education through these Electors. And then he made the Senate the most powerful of the legislative bodies. The most powerful damn body of white men in the country.
- The President (Hamilton was savvy and called him the Governor, to help people feel more at ease) was to be elected by the ELECTORS chosen to populate the Senate. Boom: Congressional Districts, Electoral College.
- Failure to elect a President successfully, in allotted time, left “the President of the Senate” in charge.
- The Senate was empowered to advise on and APPROVE all treaties, cabinet appointments and diplomatic appointments.
- Only the Senate was gifted the power to declare war.
- The President was empowered to pardon all offenses except treason, “which he shall not pardon without the approbation of the Senate.”
- And finally: “On the death, resignation or removal of the (President) his authorities to be exercised by the President of the Senate.”
Now to be wholly accurate, not all of those provisions made it out of Philly and into the final Constitution we know and love today. For example, the Speaker of the House of Representatives gets the job if both the President and Vice President are unable to discharge the duties of the office. But a lot of those provisions stayed, along with their original intent, which was to hedge the risky bet on democracy and insulate those with power and resources against a capricious populous that needs to be governed.
And this design, this intent, predated women in the electorate. Or black people, who were most often slaves. The nation was an agronomy and, as such, only landowners had power because land is what you grow food on/in. Hamilton’s separate initiative, the creation of a central national bank, was the antidote to that. With a central bank the financial elite could influence, effectively govern, those who were funding the economy, regardless of the means of said funds.
So flash forward to today. A lot has changed: Women and black people are actual human beings, for example, and get a say in how they are governed. The richest people make a bajillion dollars without owning much land or growing one single vegetable. They are still the ones with the most power, and overwhelmingly white, but they are plagued by large, vocal groups of people with comparably little power and impressive - and growing - tenacity.
Everything Hamilton and his contemporaries put into place, everything that has lasted these 200-plus years, made perfect sense at the time and even today sounds good on paper. But in its execution there have been both intended and (I believe) unintended consequences. A system of checks and balances makes very good sense on paper. The inability to proceed forward without unilateral alignment doesn’t. Holding one chief executive accountable to the electorate through a senior legislative branch makes sense. Removing the ratio of voters to electors doesn’t. Ensuring an informed, duly elected body is delegated to represent the will of the voting public when choosing our most powerful leader makes sense…kind of.
It makes sense when the great majority of our population is uneducated, illiterate and far-flung, unable to engage directly in the election process, let alone aspire to leadership in it. It makes sense when urgent requirements of government cannot wait for widespread communication and debate for effective resolution to be put into action.
But that’s not the country we live in now.
Most people go to school, at least for 12 years, and can correspond freely – with the phone/computer/camera/GPS tracker in their pocket. People are taught they can grow up to be anything to which they apply themselves, whether that is reality or not. There a thousand ways to earn money to support one’s family, even if the rich are still rich and the poor are still poor.
And yes, there is that persistent problem that all democracies face; the reason we’re a Republic and not a true democracy. If you let everyone participate in the process you’re stuck with whatever the majority of people think/say/decide. And that is dangerous, isn’t it? What if you believe, as I have (albeit quietly), that most people are kind of dumb, and pretty lazy; and that is why organizations like unions and churches and political parties have been so successful: They give ordinary people the illusion of control (“yay my team!”) and tiny slivers of people all the real power to direct big flocks of sheep – I mean people – in the directions they choose.
If you level the playing field, remove those safeguards we’ve built against ourselves and our base nature, you’re opening up the country to a whole lot of risk. I mean, like, serious risk. What if, for example, Kanye West could have actually mounted a successful presidential bid? If every vote counted, with no electoral process, would we have any way to prevent or remediate that?
OK, how about this: What would stop Jeff Bezos from saying, “I will put $100 in the Amazon account of every man and woman who votes for me.” He could afford it. Would it work? We’ve proven, time and again, we can be led – and misled. Can we be bought?
We have structures in place, structures that built the greatest nation in the world. Many of the same structures have resulted in portions of our society being restricted from evolving and thriving at the same pace, to the same extent. I’m sorry, this is a fact. I bristled every time my daughter tried to make the point to me, but that may be because when you’re 20-something the statement is immediately followed by, “So let’s tear the whole thing down.”
But it’s a fact, plain and simple, like it or not. What remains is what, if anything, are we prepared to do about it?
I believe everything in the universe exists in a bell curve. In this context there are people on one end who want to do nothing, because it is not in their interest. Makes sense. On the other end are people who, “just want to watch the world burn.” (Gratuitous The Dark Knight reference.) The rest of us, most of us, the great majority of us, are in the middle.
What are we prepared to do?