Small World: Time for a Tune-up

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our country, most critics agree — and there are few commentators who are not critics — suffers from weak and uncertain leadership. We are riven, they say, by uncompromising and conflicting ideologies, by a steep chasm separating the rich from the poor, and by a refusal on all competing sides to honor the unity derived from a common history.

What the nation needs, the tough-minded among them prescribe, is a firm authoritarian hand at the helm. The common man is an ignoramus, they assert. He knows no civics, nothing about the art of compromise and has almost no practical experience in the give and take of politics. It is foolhardy to entrust the nation’s future to those so poorly qualified.

In short, these harsh critics conclude, democracy has failed. Their necessary answer is nationalism. Our only hope is to keep our bloodlines pure, free of foreign ideological and ethnic germs. These concepts are more brazenly voiced and sometimes put into operation by populist parties in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe.

I take a different view: I say the answer to our multiple divisions and dilemmas is more, not less democracy. The systems and institutions that from ancient days have controlled our politics and governance are badly in need of reform and refurbishing.

Let’s start with our rules for allotting votes in the legislative branches and in the Electoral College. (Sorry, Mainers!) It is simply not fair, not just, for a Wyoming or a Maine congressman’s vote to be valued at vastly more than a representative from New York or California. Candidates are selected, campaigns waged, and funds expended on the basis of this anachronistic setup. If the arguments had to be made to appeal to the entire country were nationally based, they would be wiser and closer to resolving national problems. Small states (perhaps excepting Maine) are more easily influenced by the selfish interests that abound in our land.

Continuing on this theme, I find the distortions of the Electoral College are an insult to a modern nation. The system allows — as it did in 2016 — a candidate with a minority of the popular vote to prevail if his support is located in key states. The Founders’ original idea was to provide a status-protecting deal for slave-holding states that would encourage them to join the Union. (Some say the interests of the monied classes were behind the construction of such an undemocratic enterprise. Whatever the history, it was designed to protect minority interests, not those of the country as a whole.)

Abolish the Electoral College, I say, and let the president be chosen by popular vote alone. Perhaps a run off might be written into the Constitution if no candidate received a majority of the votes.

While we’re at it, we might change the lifelong tenure of Supreme Court justices to something more limited, like one ten-year term. Otherwise, the effects of the appointment powers of a single administration might last for decades and decades (as with Clarence Thomas).

Flipping through the pages of the Constitution and laws that have grown up over the years, it becomes clearly apparent that we need a thorough overall of our basic rules. Nothing less than a Constitutional Convention is what’s required. Such a gathering of the best brains might, for example, clarify and reword the second amendment and the right to bear arms. Or it might add explicit language to the Constitution on the authority to declare war, or the way religious institutions should be treated by the government. All corrective changes expressed in the final report, would be subject to popular approval, rejection, or modification through actions of the national or state legislatures as prescribed in the Constitution. The details can be worked out if the urgent need and concept of cure are agreed on.

Easy to suggest, the dickens to achieve. But essential if we are to run smoothly as a nation in the era ahead. Like global warming, Constitutional change is huge but essential if we are to survive and prosper.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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