Our Readers' Opinions
November 15, 2016
Prophets and Politicians: The (d)evolution of American democracy

Dr Garrey Michael Dennie
St Mary’s College of Maryland

No one can see 200 hundred years into the future, though politicians crave the power and prophets claim to possess it. In fact, as we have seen with Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, the best and brightest among us may also fail to see the future, even when it is just hours ahead of the prediction. Historians, of course, have an easier task – we claim the benefit of hindsight – the capacity to know the past, even though it is sometimes as opaque as the future.{{more}}

It is this fundamental truth that allows us to understand the crisis of the American political system that has erupted over the last 16 years: that a country which proclaims itself the greatest democracy in the world produces electoral outcomes which are contrary to the popular will. The most obvious of these are the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 where George Bush and now Donald Trump both won the presidency, although both lost the popular vote. How could this be?

The simplest answer is that this was purposefully designed. When the American revolutionaries finalized their new constitution some 235 years ago, they were driven by an overarching principle: how to limit the power of the federal government and thereby protect the power of slave holding states.

They sought to secure this in three ways. First, they empowered the states, not the federal government, with the responsibility of carrying out the great majority of duties of governance within each state. Second, they not only enumerated the powers of the federal government, they also limited the power of the federal officers by dispersing federal power equally between the president, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Technically, none was more powerful than the other; each could block the other. Obama’s struggles with a recalcitrant Congress offers sufficient proof of this. And third, the framers designed a political process where the election to the presidency and the Congress were reflective of the preferences of each state, rather than the popular will of the American people as a whole.

This was nowhere better demonstrated than in the creation of the American Senate. Each state was awarded two senators, irrespective of the size of its population. Hence, in the US Senate, a state like California with 33 million people has two senators and a state like Alaska with fewer than one million people also has two senators. In 1781, when the USA was comprised of 13 states, that might have made sense. In today’s America of 50 states it is utterly undemocratic; for what this actually means is that in terms of the election of senators to the US Senate, the value of one vote in Alaska is 33 times more valuable than a vote in California.

But the undemocratic nature of the American constitution runs deeper. Each state is also guaranteed one member in the House of Representatives – again regardless of the size of its population. Think again of California and Alaska. But the US constitution then compounds this inequality by making the election to the presidency contingent on its congressional design. In electing the president, each state is also guaranteed three electoral college votes – reflecting its allocation per state of two senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives. For the presidency, the consequence is this: states with small populations have a greater weight in electing the American president than would be the case if the US president was elected by the popular will. In other words, it does not matter how many persons voted for a presidential candidate; what matters is which states voted for the candidate. And it guaranteed that the first 12 American presidents came from slave holding states.

No one alive today made those rules which govern the US presidential election. At the same time, over the past 200 years, the American historical experience has destroyed two basic goals of the founders. First, the federal government has expanded its powers enormously far beyond anything the framers could have conceived. And second, the American presidency has become significantly more powerful than Congress and the Supreme Court.

What this means is that the American presidency has become far more consequential in the lives of Americans than anything the founders could have imagined. But, of course, neither could these men have imagined the car, the plane, the moon landing, the Internet, or any of the extraordinary features of modern life which we take for granted today. In effect, a constitution designed by 18th century slave holders to empower the slave holding states is now binding 21st century Americans to a presidential electoral system contrary to their understandings of how a democracy should work.

American history has been characterized by the struggle to expand the meaning of freedom and democracy for those groups left out of the limited ideas of democracy espoused by the framers of its constitution. At a time when the US is now being ruled by a Congress and a presidency rejected by the majority of American voters, clearly, the work to democratize the USA remains unfinished. Equally clearly, we can offer no prediction when this work will be done, for the future is always opaque.