The Europeans Have It All Wrong

How does one go about fixing a flawed U.S. political system?

January 19, 2001

How does one go about fixing a flawed U.S. political system?

Egged on by complaints of my friends in Europe, I have been brooding over the 2000 U.S. election mess for quite some time now. Surely, the time is long past when Americans had anything to instruct Europeans regarding democracy.

I believe even the Germans of the last two generations survived any reasonable test by standing on the frontiers of freedom, right under the guns, without blinking — or erupting into some “-ism” or other.

What Americans require, under the circumstances of the 2000 election debacle, is a little patience and understanding from Europeans.

It is perhaps ironic to note, but compared to the American Republic, Germany’s system is barely half a century old in its laws and institutions.

No wonder it is fairly up to date and relatively “efficient” in its political and legal institutions. In sharp contrast, our hoary old republic here in the United States is now 210 years old — and counting.

It has evolved incrementally, in hit-or-miss style, all the way since its horse and sail-powered days of origin. As a consequence, almost all of the U.S. institutions are in some state of inefficiency and disrepair.

One doesn’t want to redesign everything at once, given the reverence held for something that has basically worked. The need to reform a particular practice or institution becomes apparent only when events put the institutions or practices to a real test, and the practices and institutions involved fail.

So, as always in the past, our mindset is geared toward fixing the thing that is wrong right now, as a protection against a reoccurrence next time. No wonder we live in such a patchwork of a democracy, but proudly so.

Reform of the U.S. electoral college, though, will be daunting. The founders faced a tremendous logistical problem in trying to create a national government. It took a minimum of three weeks for anyone to travel from Massachusetts to Washington, or from Georgia to Washington. And that was hard, hard travel, by boat and horse. That’s a six-week round trip (usually it took longer)! And it would take weeks for a candidate moving 10 miles a day between speeches to circulate within just one entire state.

So a national campaign involving direct elections was geographically impossible, inconceivable. This was in addition to the reservations of all of the founders about unleashing democracy to do their unfiltered whim.

This geographic problem was totally unknown to the Europeans. In Europe, no one was more than a week at most from the national capital in places where representative democracy was being advocated or evolving. In many places, the distances were less: Britain (4 days) and Holland (2 days), Denmark (1-2 days max).

But we come back to the question of the electoral college — one of the colossal feats borne of the revolution. The founders could have made the members of the House of Representatives into the electors of the new President every four years (a la the system evolving in Britain).

But they (a) had to provide the smaller states (colonies) with more clout in the appointment of the president, in order to bribe them into joining a strong union, and they (b) wanted to create an independent presidency that was not beholden totally to the Congress, in order to provide a check and balance on the power of each.

Initially, the founders said the legislators of the states would elect a congress of electors. All of these would have the time to travel to one central place and hold their election of the President. And then go home. The members of Congress themselves then in those slow times convened only once every two years, for as long as it took to do their business and then return home.

The genius of these arrangements is apparent only in their longevity, plus the relative political, economic and social success of the nation that adopted them. That these arrangements create problems from time to time, needing adjustment, should astonish no one. That they have endured should awe us all, at least a little.

The system was crafted expressly to give extra clout to less populous regions and thwart a “tyranny” of the majority in the raw popular vote that might be mustered solely in the major population centers. The smaller U.S. states and the less populous regions will fight to keep their veto over such a majority. We are indeed a republic. The Democracy rules, all right, but only gradually.