Why is America’s political system so dysfunctional? (1)

I was recently discussing with an American friend some of the problems with the American political system and I advanced an argument that i should like to share with you and test on you.
The fundamental components of my argument are as follows:
  1. The American political system is seriously dysfunctional
  2. This is not the fault primarily of politicians who are themselves victims of the system
  3. A main – but not the sole – factor is the nature of the US Constitution which is no longer fit for purpose
  4. The US Constitution is really difficult to amend when there is controversy around the amendment
  5. The Constitution is so hard to amend both because it was designed that way and because it is so revered by many Americans
I don’t know that everyone would accept the first point in my chain of argument, but it is a widely held view both inside and outside the USA. The sort of evidence adduced to support this view includes the following:
  • The frequency and cost of Congressional elections requires constant and large-scale fundraising which makes Congressmen beholden to financial interests and opens the American political system to the charge of plutocracy
  • Repeated efforts to control and limit campaigning expenditure have failed with the ultimate constraint being the First Amendment to the Constitution
  • So many legislative proposals in Congress fail to be enacted – in part because of the Senate blocking minority.
  • Many of those legislative proposals which are passed take a lot of time and require damaging ‘earmark’ ¬†amendments which effectively represent ‘pork barrel’ politics
  • There is regular failure to agree a federal budget before the start of the new financial period resulting in federal ‘shutdown’
  • Even a President struggles to enact legislation even when his political party has a majority in both Houses of Congress

In a recent piece for the “New York Times”, Robert Kuttner wrote:¬†“The American system is experiencing a crisis of confidence that is almost unprecedented in its history. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 89 per cent of respondents did not trust government to do the right thing and 85 per cent expect the economy to continue stagnating or worsen.” He argued that: “The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has revealed one of the flaws of the American system. With its checks and balances, the United States Constitution has a deliberate bias against activism.”

Which brings us to the Constitution. Its distribution of power between the various organs of the state and its elaborate system of checks and balances were clearly intended by the Founding Fathers to be a radical alternative to the system of monarchical absolute power exercised by King George III from whose control Americans had just taken their nation following a prolonged war of independence. However, more than two centuries later, such a system is dysfunctional when the USA is now the global military superpower and the largest economy in an integrated global system of trade and finance.

Of course, the Constitution can be changed – but this is really difficult. First, a proposed amendment has to secure a two-thirds vote of members present in both houses of Congress. Then three-quarters of the state legislatures have to ratifiy the proposed change (this stage may or may not be governed by a specific time limit). Even the Equal Rights Amendment failed to meet these thresholds after a 10 year process.

There have been 27 amendments to the US Constitution (although one was simply a repeal of another) – listed here.

The first 10 amendments – constituting the Bill of Rights – were taken together shortly after the drafting of the original Constitution. Of the other 17 (effectively 16), one was the abolition of slavery, but this took half a century and a bloody civil war. Other amendments brought about woman’s suffrage (1920) and votes for those aged 18 (1971), but these were simply measures introduced about the same time in other democratic states. My proposition is that any constitutional change that is controversial – for instance, longer terms for Congressmen or strong controls on election expenditure or strong controls on gun ownership – is effectively ¬†impossible to achieve. This makes the US Constitution the oldest and most inflexible in the world and in large part explains why the US political system is dysfunctional and will remain so.

Would any readers – especially from the USA – like to comment?


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