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The holy constitution and the crisis of democracy in the United States

The Constitutional Convention in 1787. A 1915 mural by Violet Oakley at the Cuyahoga Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio. PHOTO: Onasill ~ Bill – Onasill ~ Bill – Be Safe, Flickr.
Written by Heli Santavuori

The Crisis of democracy in Europe and in US

USA 1

The holy constitution as an obstacle to reforms
PART 3

USA 2

The Supreme Court - coming up.
PART 4

Contents

  • Links in the text open in a new tab; the main sources available online are also listed as references at the end of the article. Links to literature references lead to a bibliography at the end of the article.

Introduction

Democracy is in crisis. The crisis manifests itself in different ways in different countries. Still, everywhere it is about the failure of existing state institutions to meet the challenges of the changing of the era. There is a crisis of legitimacy.

In the case of the United States, the most striking examples are:

  • In the 2008 financial crisis, nine million Americans lost their jobs, and ten million lost their homes. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of people living in poverty increased by 2.6 million. However, poverty researchers say the actual number was much higher. None of the banks or bank managers who caused the crisis were prosecuted. On the contrary, banks were given hundreds of billions of dollars in state aid.
  • President Trump’s refusal to admit defeat in the election led to a violent attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The “Big Lie” continues – future elections at various levels are being prepared for in advance by spreading suspicions of electoral fraud in order to overturn an unwanted result. This is completely unprecedented in the history of American democracy. At the same time, some states are passing laws that restrict voting opportunities, especially for minorities and the poorest. Legality supervisors are either unwilling or unable to prevent this development, which undermines the very foundations of democracy.
  • In recent years, the US Supreme Court has become politicised in a way that has led confidence in its independence to plummet. The Court will soon be facing highly controversial issues (e.g. abortion law, gun rights, election finance, and voting rights legislation). Such matters should belong to elected legislators, not to judges appointed for life. Judicial appointments are subject to unjust political intrigue, which the law has no means of preventing.
  • The US Congress is also in a deadlock because the constitution allows a minority to slow down and block legislative work. Even legislative reforms that have the long-term support of a majority of the people are difficult to pass. The situation is made more acute by the fact that a demagogic movement has gained power in the other party in power. I will not comment here on the political alignments of the two main parties in the US. The policies of the Republican Party have been and could still be pursued in accordance with the rule of law. But the Trumpist movement has no regard for the rule of law or that speeches should somehow be based on facts. It has all the hallmarks of an ecstatic movement based on personal worship and manipulation. Many commentators warn with historical examples of what that can lead to.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

When the constitution was ratified in 1787–1791it contained the following sections: 

  • Preamble setting out the republican ideals (see above)  
  • Republican form of government (1787) 
  • Bill of Rights, i.e. the first ten amendments (1791) 

Fundamental rights include, for example, freedom of religion and speech (the 1st Amendment), the right to keep and bear arms (the 2nd Amendment), protection of property, and fair trial. Most of them are formulated in very general terms, so their application in lower courts and state laws is constantly disputed. 

 Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865. In 1868, citizenship rights were granted to all persons born or naturalized in the United States (the14th Amendment). The 15th Amendment, prohibiting the federal and state governments from restricting the right to vote on the basis of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude, was enacted in 1870. 

During the 20th century, only ten amendments were made, two of them related to prohibition and one giving women the right to vote (the 19th Amendment in 1920). During the 21st century, no amendments have been made. 

Most of the additions concern fundamental rights. By contrast, the articles concerning the government structure have remained virtually unchanged for nearly two and a half centuries, during which the world has fundamentally transformed several times. 

Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, or alternatively, approval by a two-thirds majority of the states.  

In a two-party system, this requirement is very hard to meet. In the current inflamed political situation, it is impossible. 

Article 5 also provides that by making amendments “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” 

The constitution thus presupposes that it can only be amended, but on essential parts, it is intended to be almost eternal. 

For example, if you wanted to move to a unicameral system (i.e. abolish the Senate), or if you wanted to change the rule that each state has the same number of senators (two) regardless of size, you would have to write a whole new constitution. Of course, that would be needed for other reasons, too. 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

When the constitution was ratified in 1787–1791it contained the following sections:  

  • Preamble setting out the republican ideals (see above)  
  • Republican form of government (1787) 
  • Bill of Rights, i.e. the first ten amendments (1791) 

Fundamental rights include, for example, freedom of religion and speech (the 1st Amendment), the right to keep and bear arms (the 2nd Amendment), protection of property, and fair trial. Most of them are formulated in very general terms, so their application in lower courts and state laws is constantly disputed. 

 Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865. In 1868, citizenship rights were granted to all persons born or naturalized in the United States (the14th Amendment). The 15th Amendment, prohibiting the federal and state governments from restricting the right to vote on the basis of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude, was enacted in 1870. 

During the 20th century, only ten amendments were made, two of them related to prohibition and one giving women the right to vote (the 19th Amendment in 1920). During the 21st century, no amendments have been made. 

Most of the additions concern fundamental rights. By contrast, the articles concerning the government structure have remained virtually unchanged for nearly two and a half centuries, during which the world has fundamentally transformed several times. 

Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, or alternatively, approval by a two-thirds majority of the states. 

 

In a two-party system, this requirement is very hard to meet. In the current inflamed political situation, it is impossible. 

Article 5 also provides that by making amendments “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” 

The constitution thus presupposes that it can only be amended, but on essential parts, it is intended to be almost eternal. 

For example, if you wanted to move to a unicameral system (i.e. abolish the Senate), or if you wanted to change the rule that each state has the same number of senators (two) regardless of size, you would have to write a whole new constitution. Of course, that would be needed for other reasons, too. 

It seems that US democracy is at an impasse. This is also reflected in opinion polls and international surveys:

Two-thirds (67 %) of Americans believe that democracy in the US is under threat.

According to the Global Democracy Index, the US has lost its place among “full democracies” and has been defined as a “flawed democracy”. In the ranking of democracies, it has fallen from 17th place (in 2010) to 25th place (in 2019–20).

The US system has been capable of reform. But the need for reform is now more profound than ever before. The same applies to Europe. Radical, root-and-branch reforms are needed. Therefore, the first question must be “what to think?” and only then “what to do?”

The holy constitution

The constitution is the backbone of US national identity. In holiness, it is probably second only to the Bible. All sections of the population swear to it, even representatives of totally opposed political or ideological views. Even the violent far-right swears to it.

According to an American journalist Ezra Klein, the US political system is treated “as if it were etched on stone tablets and carried by George Washington down from Mount Sinai. We do not judge our constitution, we venerate it.” (Vox, October 16, 2018)

Foreclosure.
Ten million Americans lost their homes due to the 2008 financial crisis. PHOTO: respires, CC BY 2.0.

Proposals from legal scholars

There is a debate among legal scholars on the need to reform the constitution. The debate was initiated by Stanford Levinson, Professor of Law at the University of Texas, one of the leading legal scholars on the US Constitution. His 2006 book Our Undemocratic Constitution details the problems with the current constitution. He proposes a referendum on whether to call a new constitutional convention.

Levinson continues the same theme in his 2012 book Framed, in which he also discusses state constitutions.

Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, has published the book A More Perfect Constitution (2008), in which he makes several practical suggestions. Sabato’s reform proposals aim to make the administration both more functional and more representative.

The professors’ proposals have not caught fire. They could not see where the country’s political atmosphere was evolving: the 2008 financial crisis gave rise to the Tea Party movement and its sequel, the Trump presidency. Eventually, Trumpian demagoguery took hold of the Republican Party.

We are now in a situation where a rational cross-party debate on deep reforms seems impossible. And yet, that is exactly what is needed. See some reflections on this at the end of the article (Ideas instead of identity politics).

Historical reasons for the shortcomings of the constitution

The United States had the first republican form of government in history. Americans are rightly proud of that. But therein also lies the cause of the many problems with the constitution.

When the constitution was ratified in 1787, it was still the age of the estates. Slavery prevailed in several southern states. Women, blacks, and indigenous peoples did not get the right to vote. There were no political parties and no modern press.

15th amendment.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution of 1870 banned racial discrimination in voting. PHOTO: David, Flickr.

With 13 newly independent and highly pro-independence colonies about to join the US, dividing power between the federal and state governments was not easy. But a federation was to be established at almost any cost, for several reasons.

Firstly, it was essential to avoid mutual wars – there had been wars between European countries for centuries, and the situation did not seem to be changing.

Therefore, when the constitution was being drafted, the demands of the smaller states were given in. It was provided that each state would have two senators, regardless of the size of its population.

But in the House of Representatives and presidential elections, the size of the population was taken into account. In this, the demands of the slave states led to the Three-Fifths Compromise: slave states were allowed to count each slave living within their borders as three-fifths of a person. Thus, slave ownership gave the state a larger number of votes in both the House of Representatives and the presidential election.

However, even these measures did not prevent the outbreak of civil war half a century later.

Secondly, a great fear of the Founding Fathers was that some tyrant would come and seize power. That was linked to the “fear of democracy,” i.e., the view that if the majority (= the poor) were to gain power, they would be too easily manipulated by skilled demagogues. Many (though not all) thought that the wealthiest section of the population, on average, would be more capable of running the governmental affairs, given already their upbringing.

Thirdly, the constitution was also seen as a guarantee of the survival of the republic. Therefore, it was made almost impossible to reform it and extremely difficult even to amend it. Thus, the United States is probably the only country in the world where a constitution more than 200 years old is still in force.

Governance structure

The president has the executive power

Professor Levinson titled the chapter on the president in his book: “Too-powerful presidents, chosen in an indefensible process, who cannot be displaced even when they are manifestly incompetent”  (Levinson 2006,  79)

We will start with the electoral system, which is simply undemocratic, outdated, and much too complicated. Next, we will briefly discuss the differences between a presidential system and a parliamentary system and the powers of the US president.

Electoral College

The oddity of the system is that the presidential candidate with fewer votes can win the election. This has happened five times: in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.

Each state gets the same number of electors as it has members of Congress. In other words, the same number as the state has representatives in the House of Representatives + two (because each state has two senators).

Elections are expensive and have only got more expensive every time. The price tag for the 2020 presidential election was $14 billion – a sum that CNN analyst Chris Cillizza calls “absolutely stunning”. (CNN, Oct. 29, 2020) There is no point in wasting money on states where the outcome is certain in advance. The citizens of these states actually only have the role of a rubber stamp, or perhaps the elections in these states can be seen as a kind of opinion poll.

The activists’ slogan “Every vote counts” does not hold as long as this system is in place.

Protest for voting rights.
A protest against a voting rights court case in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in 2013. PHOTO: David Sachs / SEIU, Flickr

Even the total number of popular votes does not necessarily indicate the real winner (Levinson 2006, 97). In countries where the president is elected by direct election, a second round must be held if no candidate gets a simple majority in the first round. In this case, the winner will only be determined in the second round.

The indirect election was a compromise. The Founders were “tired, impatient, frustrated”, writes George Edwards III, emeritus political science professor at Texas A&M University. “They cobbled together this plan because they couldn’t agree on anything else.” (History.com, Dec. 14, 2020)

A majority of Americans have long been in favour of moving to direct elections. But reform just won’t happen. An illustrative example is that in 1969 the House of Representatives tried to pass direct election by a vote of 338–70, but in the Senate, small states overthrew the initiative. (History.com, Aug. 25, 2020) Since 1800, more than 700 proposals to change the electoral system have been submitted to Congress, but none has received the required two-thirds majority. (Wikipedia)

An indirect election provides loopholes even for a coup or an attempted one, e.g. if a sufficient number of electors were to switch sides or if the election results were declared invalid in some states. Such developments are already being planned for the 2024 elections, about which there have been increasingly many warnings in the media. (The Washington Post, Sep. 23, 2021)

Presidential system

In a parliamentary system, the government must enjoy the confidence of the parliament. The government can therefore be dismissed in mid-term if a majority of the members of parliament are dissatisfied with its work. Parliamentarism is the dominant form of government in Europe

The United States, on the other hand, has a presidential system. The president appoints his cabinet, and the Senate approves the appointments. The government then remains in place for the next four years, and the legislature cannot dismiss ministers except on criminal charges.

The United States Founding Fathers wanted to get rid of the British parliamentary system because it was not an optimal way to decentralise power. It allowed the Prime Minister to constantly interfere in the legislative process. (Helo, 75.)

However, the presidential system adopted gave rise to a new problem: as many legal scholars have pointed out, the president in the United States has significant legislative power because of the veto. (Levinson 2006, 38-49.) Moreover, according to some interpretations, the presidential oath of office’s promise to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution” would also give the presidents the right to interpret the constitution as they see fit, that is, to disregard laws that they deem unconstitutional. (Levinson 2006, 104–105.)

The question of whether a parliamentary or a presidential system is better is perhaps not the most relevant to the current crisis of democracy. Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers is also, in a way, outdated. Legislative and executive powers are more or less intertwined in all democracies.

If we want to adopt the core of Montesquieu’s vision, then the independence of courts and the judicial review of the supreme authorities are essential. Nowadays, we should also ask what opportunities citizens have to participate in the exercise of judicial review.

The White House.
The White House in Washington in August 2020. PHOTO: BLAZE Pro / Shutterstock.com.

Nomination powers

The president has vast nomination powers, which were to be limited by making the appointments subject to the approval of the Senate.

But the Founders could not see that the future was for political parties. (See below on the Two-party system.) The senators’ voting behaviour is mostly guided by party loyalty, as it best guarantees their own retention of power. If the president and the majority of the Senate are from the same party, the Senate does not actually act as a balancer of power, but on the contrary, as an enabler of too much power. And the way both the president and Congress are elected allows the party with fewer votes to gain control.

In this way, the original purpose of the constitution has turned on its head. (See also Senate as the legality supervisor of top officials.)

Other presidential powers

The president has – with confirmation of the Senate – the power to declare war. Actually, no war has been officially declared since 1941, but it has not prevented the United States from waging wars. (Levinson 2006, 108–109.)

The president also has the power to make international treaties. However, they need the approval of the Senate by a two-thirds majority, after which they become law. In reality, a two-thirds majority in the Senate may represent a small minority of voters (see below on how the Senate is elected). (Levinson 2006, 110–111.)

Another possibility for presidents is to use their power to enter into “executive agreements”. They may not require congressional approval at all, or a simple majority in both chambers is sufficient. The problem then is that the next president can withdraw from the agreement with the stroke of a pen, as Trump did when he withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now president Biden wants to restore them both. What about the next president? Of course, such uncertainty does no good for the US’s reputation as a treaty partner.

The president has veto power over legislation, although the Senate can override a presidential veto by a two-thirds majority. But as said, that is difficult to achieve in the Senate. The president can also influence lawmakers only by threatening a veto so that senators begin to exercise self-censorship. Levinson sees this as partial legislative power and calls the presidency a “third chamber” (Levinson 2006, 38-49.)

Presidents have begun to use their right to pardon as a political weapon to secure the back of their supporters. Most recently, Donald Trump used this right for the benefit of his supporters who had been convicted of various crimes related to the exercise of political power. Trump also toyed with the idea of pardoning himself. Of course, the constitution does not mention such a possibility, but logically it is clear that it would elevate the president entirely above the law and would therefore go completely against everything that the constitution was intended to achieve. 

Levinson is particularly concerned about the president’s right to declare a state of emergency. It seems to offer a clear opportunity to those who would be willing to defend almost “presidential autocracy”, he writes (Levinson 2006, 109.)

There is no opportunity here to go into further detail. In general, the president’s powers are exceptionally great. The current constitution does not guarantee protection against abuses when the president’s party is relatively united in its willingness to allow them. (See below Senate as the legality supervisor of top officials.)

Legislative power

Legislative power is vested in the bicameral Congress. The House of Representatives is the actual parliament, with the Senate as the upper house.

The Senate’s extraordinary power

There are two-chamber systems also elsewhere, in Europe, for example, in Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, etc. But in them, the power of the upper chamber is weaker: the lower chamber has the final say. In the United States, bills must pass both chambers equally. The Senate can therefore block any bill that has already passed in the House, even if it has the long-term support of a large majority of voters.

 

The Senate’s electoral system

The way the Senate is elected is blatantly undemocratic: each state, regardless of its population, has two senators, each with one vote. However, for the sake of population growth alone, the world known to the Founding Fathers has long since passed away. The following maps illustrate this. The situations differ like night from day, but the electoral process remains the same.[1]

The situation in 1787–1790

There were 13 states, each with two senators.

The situation in 2020

There are 50 states, each with two senators. The map shows the seven largest states (green) and the seven smallest states (blue). So there are 14 senators representing 5.5 million inhabitants and 14 senators representing 148.5 million inhabitants. The voting power of the small states is many times greater than their population.

And the situation is only getting worse. Journalist Ezra Klein has calculated that by 2040, 70 % of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. They will then be represented by only 30 senators out of 100, while 30 % of the population will be represented by 70 senators. (Vox, Nov. 16, 2018)

Today, senators represent more parties than states

There are historical reasons for the provision of two senators per state. The Senate was supposed to represent the states, not the national parties. The emergence of political parties gradually completely distorted the original purpose.

The Senate has also made its own rules, requiring a 60–40 majority to pass certain bills (the filibuster rule). The idea was to facilitate dialogue between parties and consideration of issues before a vote. That idea has now been entirely forgotten, and the filibuster rule is being used to play politics.

Even a majority does not guarantee a party the opportunity to push through the reforms it promised to get elected. The minority party is tempted to put spokes in wheels, as the party in power will be blamed if reforms are not coming about – and the minority party will therefore have a better chance of success in the next election.

It also matters whether the president’s party is in power in the Senate or not. If not, the Senate can torpedo the legislative reforms that the President and the House of Representatives are pushing for and that the majority of citizens support and even consider vital. An example of this is the decades-long arm-wrestling over health care reform, which is still going on.

The US is a federal state, which makes its governmental system complex and sometimes difficult for outsiders to understand. The states not only have their own flags, but also their own constitutions, congresses and supreme courts – and a lot of will of their own. PICTURE: koya979 / Shutterstock.

Another example is the fight against state laws that seek to make voting more difficult. They are clearly targeted at ethnic minorities and poor areas where the Democratic Party has traditionally had a majority. According to opinion polls, the Freedom to Vote Act has 70 % support among the population. (Dataforprogress, Sep. 24, 2021) But the Senate blocked its passage in October 2021 by 41 senators representing just 21 % of the population. (Motherjones, Oct. 20, 2021)

Individual proposals for a solution have been put forward. The most popular of these is the call for giving up the filibuster. It would also be the easiest to implement, as it would not require a constitutional amendment.

It has also been suggested that the District of Columbia (where the capital Washington is located) and Puerto Rico should be granted state rights, which would, of course, be right in principle. But, in practice, it would give the Democratic Party four more seats, which is why it is currently impossible to get a 60–40 majority behind the proposal.

Levinson proposes to abandon bicameralism altogether, that is, to abolish the Senate (Levinson 2006, page 29).

Implementing any of these reforms is not currently in sight.

The electoral system of the House of Representatives

Every ten years, a census is taken to determine the number of representatives for each state. The states are divided into constituencies, and the party that wins a majority of the votes in a constituency gets all the votes in that constituency. This winner-takes-all principle has made the elections to the House of Representatives undemocratic, too.

This has resulted in ‘gerrymandering’ [2]: changing the boundaries of constituencies can significantly impact the outcome of elections. This picture tells it all:

Gerrymandering.

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What matters is which party is in power in a state and thus gets to decide who has the right to draw the electoral maps. However, the practice in that respect varies.

Rather than endlessly arguing about the drawing of maps, it would be simplest to change the electoral system to a direct popular vote, with representatives from each party elected according to their real support. But due to the electoral system and the Senate’s rules, this reform, too, is currently impossible to implement.

Two-party system

When the constitution was adopted, there were no political parties. The Founders also disregarded the idea of parties because they felt that such “factions” were driven by group interests rather than the entire nation’s interests.

When parties inevitably began to form, their politics continued to be based on a dispute over federal and state powers. In practice, it was a conflict between the two tendencies within the owning class – the slave owners and the rising industrial bourgeoisie. No strong working-class parties like those in Europe ever emerged in the US, nor did parties of rural workers and small farmers.

The history of the two dominant parties is peculiar in that they have become opposites of each other. The Democratic Party initially represented the slave states and supported a weak central government. The Republicans, as their name suggests, were for a strong federal government and represented the rising industrial bourgeoisie. Today, the situation is the opposite. The Democratic Party now profiles itself as a party of liberal values and social reform at the federal level, while the Republicans represent conservative values and want to reduce the size and power of the federal government.

Developments in the 21st century – the structural change brought about by globalisation, the ITC-revolution and speculative finance capital – collapsed the economic status and prospects of many. Discontent, especially among the white working and middle classes, channelled into demagogic, sometimes racist currents that came to power with Trump’s presidency and continue to hold the Republican Party in their grip.

It is worth remembering, however, that the Republican Party has, throughout its history, made a positive contribution to the emergence of the American welfare state and the consolidation of democracy. It has deservedly been called the ‘Grand Old Party’ or GOP.

Eeva Lennon, a correspondent for the Finnish Broadcasting Company in Britain from 1970 to 2006, writes that right-wing populism has come to power in Britain and the United States precisely because of the two-party system. In other Western countries, there are several parties. As demagogic currents are forced to form their own party, their representation in the power machinery is more in line with their real support.(Lennon 2021, s. 217)

Senate as the legality supervisor of top officials

In the United States, Congress is responsible for supervising the legality of top officials. A possible prosecution is brought by the House of Representatives and heard by the Senate. The Senate thus acts as a State Court. In this role, senators must act under oath or solemn declaration. A conviction requires a two-thirds majority behind it.

In reality, there is no independent judicial process – the senators’ party loyalty prevents it. Thus, there is no institutional obstacle to the president being above the law.

Of this, President Trump’s two prosecutions were like textbook examples. When the president and at least 41 senators are from the same party, the senators – despite their oaths and declarations – do not act as independent judges. Their concern is to be re-elected and to retain acceptance among their own people. Party loyalty is then more important than judging according to law and justice.

Mitch McConnell speaks as President Donald Trump points to the crowd at the MAGA convention in Richmond, Kentucky, in October 2018. PHOTO: Shot Stalker / Shutterstock.com.

So it is no wonder that presidents may begin to imagine themselves above the law.

The Senate was once intended to be a state representative body, not a political arena divided by party boundaries. That is what it has become, and as such, it does not qualify as a court to deal with criminal charges.

Threat of a coup

The Washington Post writes that a coup is now being prepared in earnest, exploiting all the loopholes in the system. (The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2021)

The argument about stealing the 2020 election is alive and well – it is being repeated and has become a smokescreen under which preparations are being made to nullify the results of future elections as necessary. The case is also being pursued with violence. For example, just a week after the 2020 presidential election, Eric Coomer, an executive at voting machine manufacturer Dominion Voting Systems, had to go into hiding with his family. (NPR, Dec. 23, 2020) Angry Trump supporters had published his home address and phone number and promised a million-dollar reward for his “head.” (Ark Valley Voice, Dec. 22, 2020) An unprecedented number of officials involved in the election received death threats. The Justice Department set up a special body to defend election officials from threats. (Journal of Democracy, October 2021)

At the same time, supporters of the electoral lie are being appointed in office in Republican-led states. The aim is to prevent a repeat of what happened after the 2020 elections. Then, Trump’s own party colleagues obeyed the law and prevented a coup. (Politico, Jul. 13, 2021)

Reform efforts

Legal scholars and activists - join forces!

There is also an active, vibrant and enthusiastic citizens’ movement in the United States fighting against legislation that seeks to restrict voting rights. Its activists are doing great work in grassroots communities. But they should be aware that the slogan “every vote counts” cannot really come true as long as the current constitution remains in place.

The point is, as Professor Levinson writes:

”– – we are deluding ourselves if we believe that winning elections is enough to overcome the deficiencies of the American political system. – – ”We must recognise that a substantial responsibility for the defects of our policy lies in the constitution itself.” (Levinson 2006, 8–9)

Academic researchers and citizen activists should therefore join forces. But will that be enough? The democratic movement needs a vision with an ideological-historical basis. Otherwise, it may result, besides temporary victories, in inevitable defeats and the frustration they bring.

Ideas instead of identity politics

In the United States, there are different, even opposing currents within the two ruling parties. Indeed, it seems that the more ambiguous the actual ideological differences and political alignments are, the more heated is the climate of debate, the deeper the confrontation among supporters, and the more it manifests itself in purely personal hostilities.

Helsingin Sanomat columnist Tuukka Tervonen aptly described the situation:

“Is there good and evil? At least the Americans have found an answer to this age-old philosophical question. For an increasing number of people, good is represented by their own party and evil by the opposing party.” (Helsingin Sanomat , June 30, 2018. In Finnish.)

The same trend can be observed elsewhere in the world. It reflects the bankruptcy of the ideologies inherited from the past era and the fragmentation of politics into identity politics and tribalism.

The United States’ Founding Fathers studied the history of ideas from Aristotle onwards. The European Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century were their idols. In the spirit of Aristotle and Montesquieu, they compared the forms of government in different countries to adopt all the best experience and knowledge. They saw themselves as creating something new in world history. If we really want to respect the work of the authors of the constitution, we should do the same today.

Setting our sights high makes it possible to rely on the power of study, debate, and fair discussion, regardless of the practical political stalemate. That is because it is no longer a question of individual shortcomings and remedies, but of an era, of understanding its essence and of how to develop political science and philosophy of law in this historical situation.

Today, holistic worldviews based on class status can hardly emerge. The idea that reflects this age is the idea of humanity as a whole. Such an idea can only arise on the basis of free discussion, study and debate on the theme of human nature and the entire human journey. The search is then for the truth of the age, but not the “only truth”. The different currents are free to argue with each other. The main dividing line is not related to opinions but to ethical attitudes and the culture of debate.

That is what is meant in the New History Association’s programme when it says that humanity must unite on the basis of its self-awareness; otherwise, it will destroy itself.  The struggle to develop democracy is part of that unification, on both sides of the Atlantic and everywhere else.

References

[1] However, in 1913, the 17th Amendment provided for the election of senators by ballot. The Amendment ended the practice in some states of having senators elected by the state congress.

[2] The name comes from two words: Gerry and salamander. Gerry refers to Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed the state’s new electoral district boundaries in 1812. Salamander refers to a drawing in which the outline of a district resembled a dragon-like creature.

Selected bibliography

Sanford Levinson:
Our undemocratic constitution – Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct it).
Oxford University Press 2006.

Sanford Levinson:
Framed. America’s Fifty-one Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance.
Oxford University Press, 2012.

Larry J. Sabato:
A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised: Ideas to Inspire a New Generation Walker & Company, 2007.

Ari Helo:
The birth of American democracyThe idea of the Union and the American concept of history.
(In Finnish;  Yhdysvaltain demokratian synty. Unionin idea ja amerikkalainen historiankäsitys.)
Gaudeamus 2014

Eeva Lennon:
Does England belong to Europe?
(In Finnish; Kuuluuko Englanti Eurooppaan?)
Karisto 2021

Articles online

The Toll Of Conspiracy Theories: A Voting Security Expert Lives In Hiding. NPR, December 23, 2020

On Edge: There’s a $1,000,000 Bounty on His Head and He Can’t Go Home. Ark Valley Voice, December 22, 2020

Chris Cillizza: The absolutely stunning price tag of the 2020 election. CNN, October 29, 2020.

The Constitution and Slavery. Constitutional Rights Foundation.

John Mulholland: A win for Joe Biden would only scratch the surface of America’s afflictions. The Guardian, November 1, 2020.

How the Electoral College Was Nearly Abolished in 1970. History.com, August 25, 2020.

Why Was the Electoral College Created? History.com, December  14, 2020.

The Voting Rights Alliance

A Supermajority of Voters Support the Freedom to Vote Act. Dataforprogress, September 24. 2021.

Rachel Kleinfeld: The Rise of Political Violence in the United States. Journal of Democracy, October 2021.

Ari Berman: Republicans Are Planning to Hijack the Next Election. Dems Are Squandering Their Chance to Stop Them. Motherjones, October 20, 2021.

‘Get on the team or shut up’: How Trump created an army of GOP enforcers. Politico, July 13, 2021.

Robert Kagan, Opinion: Our constitutional crisis is already here. The Washington Post, September 23, 021.

Ezra Klein: The rigging of American politics. Vox, October 16, 2018.

Ian Millhiser:  America’s democracy is failing. Here’s why. Vox, January 13, 2021.