The American Constitution is now well into its third century, which says a lot about the political sagacity of the Founding Fathers. Its adoption was a messy business. It gave the slave states additional seats in the House of Representatives by counting each slave — who couldn’t vote — as three-fifths of a person. Small states got two senators each, like big states.
Still, the amendment process helped the constitution keep up, more or less, with a rapidly changing world.
The framers of the constitution foresaw opportunists and demagogues, and designed a system to frustrate them. But they never imagined a Donald Trump.
Whatever seismic upheaval follows the Trump regime, the U.S. is unlikely to return to business as usual. Business as usual, after all, got the Americans (and us) into this mess. However difficult the process, the Americans are going to have to upgrade and reboot their constitution.
Canada as an ‘alternate-universe America’
“Canadians,” Northrop Frye once observed, are Americans who reject the Revolution. That’s partly because so many American Loyalists became refugees here, but also because the Québécois, recently conquered by Britain, had no interest in escaping into America’s embrace. Canadian Confederation was hammered out in the 1860s as 600,000 Americans slaughtered one another next door. If the U.S. Constitution could break down that badly, the Fathers of Confederation wanted something a lot different.
So Canada is a kind of alternate-universe America, pointing to opportunities the U.S. might seize, if it could only get over itself. Even with their cumbersome process of constitutional amendment, the Americans could save themselves a world of grief (and many future demagogues) by adopting some Canadian political concepts.
One key idea would to be make federal elections a federal responsibility, run by a nonpartisan Federal Election Commission. American elections are now run by the states; the states that worry about “voter fraud” use it as a pretext for voter suppression. They also routinely gerrymander congressional districts, ensuring that the party currently running the state will remain in power while sending its supporters into Congress and the Senate.
The Federal Election Commission, like Elections Canada, would set the terms for the whole country. It would recruit, train and pay local elections officials, print and distribute ballots and periodically adjust electoral boundaries to ensure roughly equal numbers of voters in each. It would also underwrite the parties’ campaign funds: let’s say $5 per vote that each party received in the previous election. That would give the Democrats almost $330 million in the campaign chest for 2020, while giving the Republicans about $315 million.
Individuals would be allowed to donate an additional $100. Contributions above that level would be punishable by at least three years’ imprisonment for the donor and a $1 million fine for the candidate. If the donor is a corporation, it would be dissolved and its assets seized by the government, with no compensation to shareholders. The corporation’s CEO and board of directors would also do three-year sentences, if not longer.
New rules would apply to candidates. Anyone elected to the House of Representatives would be limited to three terms, or six years. Candidates could be required to have at least two terms in a state elected office before they could run federally.
Senate candidates, meanwhile, would have to have had two terms in state elective office or one term as governor. If elected, they would serve two terms, or 12 years.
If you’re not a politician, why do you think you’re qualified?
These requirements would block the charlatans who seek office on the grounds that “I’m not a politician.” Anyone needing surgery would deserve what he got if he chose a surgeon who bragged he’d never been to medical school, but the medical profession saves such idiots from themselves. Politics is a profession that can result in serious health consequences for voters, and politicians should be serious professionals.
As for the presidency, a revised constitution would permit naturalized citizens to run for office. But they, like native-borns, would have to meet much tougher job standards.
First, the candidate must have completed one term as a state governor or two as a senator. The same would apply to vice-presidential candidates, who would be chosen by a party convention, not by the presidential nominee.
Both presidential and vice-presidential candidates would have to undergo thorough physical and psychological testing by nonpartisan medical experts as soon as they announced their candidacies. We don’t launch people into space without such testing, and the key offices of the nation should meet similar requirements. Fail the tests, and the candidacy is over.
As well, both presidential and vice-presidential candidates would have to provide tax returns from their entire lives, and they would be published online on the day the candidates announce.
The reasons for these changes should be self-evident. Gerrymandering and massive donations have built a ruling class in Washington and the state capitals, with representatives and senators in power for decades. Adventurers like Trump can now buy their way into power and then bring in fellow billionaires to help run a plutocracy, not a democracy.
The likelihood of these suggested changes is infinitesimal. States would bitterly resist giving up their power to set the terms of elections. Senators and representatives would oppose term limits and job qualifications. They would invoke the sacred text of the constitution, which after all gives them the loopholes by which they rule. They would reject out of hand the idea that a revised constitution would return democracy to the people and enable the country to respond to events the Founding Fathers never imagined.
So only a catastrophic collapse of American government could sufficiently discredit the present rulers and their financial backers to permit the framing of the necessary constitutional amendments. A new Constitutional Convention might even be needed, and it would likely be as messy a business as the first one.
The collapse would of course throw the whole world into disarray, including Canada. But while we may have rejected the Americans’ first revolution, we might be able to offer useful assistance in their second.
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