The “System” is broken

A recurring slogan one heard from the radicals of the 1960s was that the “system” is broken. Some of them went so far as to claim that the structure of American society is so out of whack that it can’t be repaired– it will have to be burned to the ground and rebuilt.

Although this claim was never articulated clearly enough to know what precisely was meant by the word “system,” there was plenty of evidence that the radicals were right. The Vietnam War dragged on and on because none of our leaders wanted to admit defeat. Minorities were repressed throughout the country and prominent leaders at the national level were working actively to prevent them from being treated as equals. Several cities across America were on fire due to protests over discrimination. Pollution was fouling our air, rivers, and lakes and polluting corporations were doing everything they could to prevent the government from taking action. And the US Congress seemed to be stuck in a pattern of hysteria and inaction.

At the time I reasoned that ours is a democratic government and that as the truth got out to the American people eventually they would demand action. The crushing defeat of George Wallace and his segregationist movement in 1968, the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1970, and the end of the Vietnam War all seemed to confirm my deductions.

But more recently I’ve come to realize that the 60s radicals were right all along. My mistake, I now see, was in believing that our government is a democracy. Yes, Article VI of the Constitution guarantees each state a republican form of government– and yes state Governors and Legislators are elected directly by the people. But at the national level our government is designed chiefly to represent the states, not the people. That’s why it’s called the United STATES of America, not the United People of America. The President is elected by a body that is apportioned by state. The Senate is clearly designed to represent states. And because of rules enshrined in Article I Section 2 of the Constitution and in The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 the House Of Representatives is skewed toward protecting the power of small states.

The belief that ours is a democratic form of government is deeply ingrained in American culture. It’s taught in schools, it’s repeated daily throughout all news media outlets, and it’s stated again and again as if it were an obvious truth in every political campaign.  In consequence there is no perception in the general public that anything about our form of government is truly broken. But the 60s radicals were right, even if they couldn’t articulate clearly what was wrong. It’s the Constitution itself that is broken, and our national government has almost no chance of fairly representing the will of the people until these major structural flaws in our government are fixed.

I’d like to believe that we could pass a couple of amendments and thereby put our society on a truly democratic footing. But I know that the residents of small states would never agree to give up their advantage. Perhaps a national campaign to communicate the Constitution’s inherent unfairness could succeed in stirring the people to action, but I see no evidence that any such program could get off the ground. Certainly no one at the national level is arguing that the Constitution is in need of significant revision.

So at present it appears that the most extreme radicals of the 60s– those who argued that the entire system has to be torn down and rebuilt– were right. There is simply no other way for our society to restructure the national government as a representative democracy other than to burn it all down and to hope that whatever emerges in its place will in most respects be an improvement. Large majorities of the American people want more gun control legislation, not less. Sizable majorities want abortion to remain legal. Most Americans want an improved health care system. Most Americans want the government to take the lead on climate change. And yet the US Congress can’t make progress on any of these issues because it doesn’t represent the will of the people.

The obvious problem with that view is that we have ample evidence from history that chaos more often leads to autocracy than to democracy.  The revolutionary fervor that led the French to tear down the Bastille eventually devolved into the autocratic imperialism of the Napoleonic Empire.  The Russian Revolution led to a highly stratified and oppressive nation, not the paradisal society of equals its leaders had foretold.

There are a good many non-governmental issues that have impeded progress as well. First and foremost of these, in my view, is the absolute avalanche of misinformation that pollutes the public discourse. It’s certainly a good thing to have healthy discussions about matters of public policy, but that doesn’t seem to be the least bit feasible at present. Too many of our public leaders have advocated outrageous lies and fantasies. President Trump’s many false statements about COVID19 are but one example. If you don’t even have agreement on a basic set of facts you can’t hope to have a meaningful conversation about something truly complicated like the national economy, or immigration, or climate change.

But I strongly believe that the best and surest way to solve that problem is to change the form of our national government. Why did President Trump repeatedly lie about the lethality of COVID19? He did it to set red states against blue in the expectation that doing so would juice his chances in the Electoral College. The imbalance of our national government distorts all aspects of public discourse and national policy.

If we could tomorrow change our national government to represent the people, rather than the states, it might take 50 or 100 years to know if I am right. I’m pretty sure there is no philosopher or scholar of government who could give us a definitive answer to that question today.  But the fact is that just about every other possible form of government has been tried at one time or another in the past and none has proved to be as capable of providing for the economic, social, and emotional needs of a populace as democracy.

We’ve endured much turmoil during the Trump era, but much worse is yet to come. Climate change will eventually destroy most everything we love about this country. There will be literally millions of climate change refugees vying for water, resources, jobs, and living space– many from Central and South America, but a good many millions from within our own borders as well. Environmental turmoil usually results in political turmoil.  So one very likely result of the disruptions that will inevitably arise from climate change will be the very revolution that the 60s radicals sought to ignite.

Written 2020-11-15

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore

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