Political Stagnation

One hears little besides politics on the news, of course, but one thing that strikes me is how little the US political system has actually changed in the last several decades.   The last new state was Hawaii in 1959.  The last constitutional amendment was the 27th in 1992, and it was a quite minor one about restricting the ability of Congressmen to change their salaries in a lame duck session.  The last amendment of any importance was the 26th in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.    So it’s been almost 40 years since anything basic changed about the US government, the longest gap in its history:

Recent decades are almost empty of change

There seem to have been three phases of amendments: the initial wring-out, the big re-working after the Civil War in the 1860s, and the tinkering of the Progressive Era from 1910 until its last gasp under Nixon in 1971.  The increase in states was basically the westward expansion, and then Alaska and Hawaii.

Compare the recent stagnation with what’s been happening in similar countries:

  • Canada: enacted a Constitution in 1982, abolishing Britain’s last jurisdiction over it.  In 1999 it created the whole new territory of Nunavut to give the Inuit more self-determination.
  • United Kingdom: Reworked the House of Lords to remove hereditary peers in 1999.   Devolved power to local government in Wales (1998), Scotland (1999) and Northern Ireland (2007).
  • France: the steady integration with Europe, including the loss of the franc in 1999.
  • Germany: Absorbed East Germany in 1990, what Business Week recently called the best merger ever.

So why has the US remained so static?  There are still a lot of open structural issues after all:

  • The electoral college – Everyone believes that the president should be directly elected, but this strange and broken system persists.
  • Status of Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific territories – These are ruled by the US but have no voting rights.   They contain almost 5M people, enough for 7 Representatives in the House.
  • Lack of jurisdiction over Indian territories, no matter how ill-defined.  Groups of people with quite tenuous connections to aboriginal peoples can operate in open defiance of the laws of their regions, particularly with respect to gambling.  This is an obvious bug, and has been exploited for enormous profit.
  • The filibuster – a 60% super-majority requirement unique to the US Senate among democracies.

There are occasional moves to act on these, but nothing comes of them.  The reason has to be that the status quo suits the political elite.   When there are such vast amounts of money and power at stake, no one wants to perturb things.   One would have thought, for example, that the election of the disastrous George W. Bush under very dubious circumstances would have prompted calls for abolishing the electoral college, but no one even tried.

The rigidity of the current system is unusual in the US’s history, and is not a promising sign for the future.  It resembles the US air traffic control system, creaking along with obsolete technology, barely able to handle its enormous volume of business, and way too close to disaster way too often.   Yet you can’t replace such systems overnight, because disasters will happen in the interim.  They have to be upgraded incrementally.  That’s what the US has done before, but seems to have stopped doing now.

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4 Responses to Political Stagnation

  1. kohler says:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn’t be about winning states. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives already agree that only 14 states and their voters will matter under winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states. Candidates will not care about 72% of the voters– voters in 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. Candidates have no reason to visit, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The Electoral College that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: CO– 68%, IA –75%, MI– 73%, MO– 70%, NH– 69%, NV– 72%, NM– 76%, NC– 74%, OH– 70%, PA — 78%, VA — 74%, and WI — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE –75%, ME — 77%, NE — 74%, NH –69%, NV — 72%, NM — 76%, RI — 74%, and VT — 75%; in Southern and border states: AR –80%, KY — 80%, MS –77%, MO — 70%, NC — 74%, and VA — 74%; and in other states polled: CA — 70%, CT — 74% , MA — 73%, MN – 75%, NY — 79%, WA — 77%, and WV- 81%.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR (6), CT (7), DE (3), DC (3), ME (4), MI (17), NV (5), NM (5), NY (31), NC (15), and OR (7), and both houses in CA (55), CO (9), HI (4), IL (21), NJ (15), MD (10), MA(12), RI (4), VT (3), and WA (11). The bill has been enacted by DC, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, and WA. These 7 states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  2. mtraven says:

    Good post — it seems like the level of political stagnation just now is higher than ever. Maybe the only thing not stagnating is the tendency towards stagnation.

    Here are some things that have changed significantly in the last 40 years or so, mostly for the worse. They aren’t all exactly political and some are effects rather than causes:

    – the rigidifying of party lines and discipline (there used to be a fair contingent of moderate Republicans, like Rockefeller or Lincoln Chafee or Charles Percy).

    – the use of the filibuster to enforce a supermajority requirement for basically everything (related to the previous point, and a very recent development).

    – the end of the draft and professionalization of the military

    – the establishment of the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy

    – the use of the Supreme Court to make ad hoc electoral decisions (you mentioned this)

    – the drastic decline in infrastructure investment

    – NAFTA and other free-trade and globalization trends, and concomittant hollowing out of labor as a political force.

    The solution is simple — let the neoconfederates who make up the current Republican party have their way and redo secession, but let them go this time. The new US would be composed of the coasts and the upper Midwest, and would be a reasonably sane and governable place.

    • jlredford says:

      Unfortunately, the Midwest is pretty red these days too! When states like Wisconsin elect far right radicals like Scott Walker for governor, there doesn’t seem much hope for holding onto a belt between the coasts.

      Maybe we should just join Canada. We tried that whole Revolution thing and it just didn’t work out. New England, at 14M people, would just edge out Ontario as the largest province. New Hampshire probably wouldn’t come along, but they’ve got ocean access at Portsmouth and could just be their own country.

  3. Shea A says:

    Thank you for shariing this

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