Sat, 11 Nov 2000

American political system: Is it a matter of trust?

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): The events of the past few days amply demonstrate the absurdities of which the American political system is capable, but there is an underlying principle. The framers of the United States constitution did not trust people.

They did not even trust educated, property-owning people like themselves, which is why the division of powers between the various branches of the U.S. government is deliberately designed to stymie almost any attempt at sweeping political change.

"Power tends to corrupt," as Lord Acton remarked in a not very different context. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

And they certainly did not trust the great unwashed mass of common people. They believed that the mob was a dangerous beast, liable to be swayed this way and that by its emotions, and it might elect some demagogue who would try to overthrow the established order of things. So rather than let the voters choose a president directly, let us interpose an electoral college of more reliable people who will make sure that doesn't happen.

There was an element of states' rights in it as well, in that the electoral college gave the smaller states a relatively bigger say in choosing a president, but the real motive behind the thing was crowd control.

Even after the "founding fathers" had done everything they could think of to hem in and hamstring the presidency, it was still such a powerful position that they couldn't risk having it fall into the wrong hands.

Foreigners generally think the almost religious reverence with which Americans view their founding fathers is mere ancestor worship, all of a piece with the bombastic political style that makes otherwise sane American politicians and pundits unselfconsciously congratulate themselves for belonging to the "greatest nation in history" (a.k.a. "the world's most powerful country" and "the leader of the Free World"). But the foreigners, in this case, are wrong.

The founding fathers of the American republic had to invent not one but two radically new political systems. One was a form of federalism that would persuade 13 separate colonies, all jealous of their rights, to merge their interests under a central government. The other was some way of making mass democracy work.

For federalism, they had a few existing models like the Swiss confederation in Europe and the Hodenosaunee League (the Iroquois "Six Nations") at home.

But for mass democracy -- apart from the strictly limited democracy for the privileged few then practised in Britain -- they had no precedent except the ancient republics of Athens and Rome.

As classically educated men, the drafters of the American constitution all knew in gory detail how those early experiments in democracy ended. What had destroyed them was the seduction of the mob by plausible demagogues (often successful military leaders) who persuaded the electors to hand them power on a plate.

Now here they were in America, trying to build a democracy that would have far more people -- millions, in fact -- and a much wider franchise. All adult white males, regardless of whether they owned property or not, would have the vote.

Such a thing had never existed in the world, and it seemed an intensely risky enterprise. So they built in as many safeguards as they could, including an electoral college to rein in the enthusiasms of the mob.

For generations afterwards, their fears seemed well justified. The next big democratic experiment, the French Revolution, ended in classic Roman style by handing power to a military dictator, Napoleon. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, formally democratic European states like Weimar Germany were falling into the hands of fascist demagogues. Forcing the raw choice of the voters to pass through the hands of wiser electors continued to seem like a sensible precaution.

By now, however, the caution of the U.S. founding fathers feels rather excessive. When there is mass education to bring people up to speed and mass media to keep them informed, the "mob" turns out not to be such an ignorant and dangerous brute after all.

Most democracies these days allow their governments much greater freedom of action than the U.S. constitution does, and put fewer barriers between the popular vote and the choice of a national leader. In the vast majority of cases, they suffer no adverse consequences.

Indeed, the U.S. has also moved in this direction in practice, if not in constitutional law. The custom of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote, now automatic in all but two states, has produced some strange distortions in this election, but it began as an attempt to democratize the process by linking people's votes more directly to the final choice of president.

The United States is the first and oldest mass democracy on the planet, and its constitution, while a brilliantly innovative document, is also an artefact from another time that grows more exotic as the world continues to change.

But it is very hard to change the U.S. constitution, and most of the time it does no particular harm.

True, it makes the selection of the president a rather uncertain matter. But since it also severely limits the power of the presidency, that doesn't normally matter much. The U.S. president, except in times of great crisis, has far less power than the leaders of most other democratic nations.

So let us pray that there isn't a great crisis in the next four years.