Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Reforming our government"

Sandy Levinson

A mantra of the Clintons' stump speeches is the desirability of "reforming our government." Thus she told the folks in Iowa on December 17 that "We need a new beginning when it comes to reforming our government." Bill returned to this last night in a Missouri speech trying to assuage Obama's rout of Hillary in South Carolina. And the Hllary web site includes a release on her endorsement last June by Illinois Rep. Jack Franks, who said, "When it comes to reforming our government to make it work for the people, Hillary Clinton is the best candidate to lead that change."

Needless to say, I'm no opponent of "reforming our government." What does send me up the wall, equally needless to say, is the fundamental unseriousness of any such mantra, whether articulated by the Clintons, John Edwards, or my own favorite, Barack Obama, that doesn't include even a side-glance at the Constitution itself as worthy of some reform. We don't have to rehearse all of the specific issues; I've more than had my say as to that in past posts. Nor do we have to rehearse whether a constitutional convention is possible or desirable. All I want is for some candidate to say that at least one single aspect of the Constitution--it would seem easiest to start with the electoral college and its incentive to engage in pander-politics directed at the "battleground states," plus its demonstrated proclivity for putting people in the White House without demonstrated majority support of the country (see, e.g., the elections of 1968 and 1992)--might have something to do with the present situation. Instead we get incantations about "reform" or "change" that boil down to the proposition that the cure for our ills is electing a particular person with a compatible "vision" and/or commitment to given issues. Would that elections, even ones "we" win, mattered so much. A better captain of the Titanic wouldn't have saved the ship once it hit the iceberg, and we know now that there were design problems that made the iceberg fatal. But, hey, rearranging the deck chairs is always fun, whatever the relevance.


Actually, I believe Huckabee has advocated changing the constitution to bring it more in line with what God would have liked to put in there. So perhaps Huckabee should be your candidate, instead of Obama.

Or maybe you should be a little more careful with what you wish for. :-)

Prof. Levinson,

I'm a little puzzled -- if you think the electoral college is problematic, and are saying that no one should be in the White House without the "demonstrated majority support of the country," what do you think the outcome of a multi-candidate election should be? A run-off between the two candidates with the highest percentages? I don't see 1968 and 1992 as appalling; the guy with the highest percentage of support won in both elections. A runoff might have given us a different result, with more Wallace voters drifting toward Humphrey than to Nixon and more Perot voters to Bush than Clinton, but national runoffs aren't very feasible.

Are you using 1968 and 1992 because you have a particular problem with third party candidates, or did you just not feel like raking up 2000 again -- an instance where the person who had the greatest percentage of the popular vote actually didn't win the White House?

Anyway, I'm happy just to have someone who keeps our imperfect ship of state away from the icebergs. When the captain is incapacitated, even 60 hulls won't save you. (See "The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz," Futurama)


Why are national run-offs not feasible? Plenty of countries around the world use a run-off systems and seem to get by.

At least such a system would ensure that the person left standing had received, at some point, a measure of support from a majority of voters.

You want Presidential candidates to start by criticizing the electoral college? How will that argument go?

"The Electoral College is a flawed system, foremost because it encourages us to pander in battleground states. The very states that I need to win. Florida, I resent having to pander to you. If you elect me, I will be sure to fight to reduce your importance on the national stage. Ditto Ohio. To residents of those states that will support me no matter what, however, like New York and California, and to those who never will in a million years, like Texas and Georgia, I say: help is on the way!"

Sounds great to me. But then, I live in Los Angeles. :-)

Similarly, they could start with the other, most glaringly undemocratic aspect of our system that you have identified, the Senate. Except, of course...

I think this is why you get the reactions that so frustrate you. I agreed with almost everything you wrote in your book, but I just don't see how we get from here to Point A. Short of revolution or a crisis that dwarfs the Civil War or the Great Depression (which our Constitution's "hard-wired" structure weathered), I don't see it changing. A Presidential candidate who runs on a platform of radical constitutional change is like one running against hurricanes or earthquakes. There's not much we can do about those, except ameliorate them. I am far more concerned about their amelioration plans.

(Of course, Democrats (and even some Republicans) do identify hurricanes and earthquakes as problems. It might be nice to have someone acknowledge the same about the Constitution.)

pg and daniel:

You don't need a second election to insure that the winner has majority support. Instant runoff voting (called the alternative vote outside the U.S.) does this in one round of voting.

Among the presidential candidates still standing, Obama once introduced an IRV-related bill in the Illinois state legislature, and McCain once endorsed an IRV ballot measure in Alaska. Neither mentions this kind of reform as part of their current campaign. Nor do any of the other candidates.

For a good survey of the positions of all of the candidates, see political scientist Matthew Shugart's Fruits and Votes.

My own preference is to get rid of the electoral college and have a national election with either a runoff or, preferably, the "instant runoff" of ATV. But even with the electoral college, especially if we keep the winner-take-all feature in states, we could have a runoff in given states between the two highest candidates if neither receives a majority. One of the perversities of 2000 is that George W. Bush not only came in second in the national vote count, but he didn't even have a majority of the vote in Florida; he simply came in first (at least according to the official totals, which many of us continue to find fishy). There is really no excuse for not making the College more attentive to the majority preferences of each state.


Running against Washington as an agent of change is as old as the Republic. It is amusing that all of the leading Dems and the leading GOP candidate are all Senators who are part of the "problem" in DC.

Why would a Presidential candidate take a controversial position like this? There's no constituency of any size supporting it and it can never pass because no small-state legislature is ever going to vote to reduce their state's influence in Presidential elections. But it would be guaranteed to anger voters in small states, so for the candidate it's all downside and no upside.

I just find it bizarre that of all of the problems in the nation, you think that reforming the electoral college is even in the top 50 problems that should command the attention of the president or Congress.

And if not, why would a candidate who has limited time and money to communicate his message, mention his potential support for that reform as a reason to vote for him? Not only would it potentially alienate voters from states who would lose by the reform, but it would cast him as a forest-for-the-trees candidate in the mold of Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis.

Even if you were to hold a constitutional convention, I doubt that reforming the electoral college would be among the top five or ten amendment priorities to most Americans.

I agree that it is probably silly to expect candidates operating in our present system to take the lead in suggesting necessary constitutional reforms. This is why a mass movement must be persuaded that overcoming our political malaise will require not only a gifted and charismatic leader (terms that should be bothersome to a republic, since charisma comes in all flavors), but also structural changes. But it also demonstrates, as far as I'm concerned, why most of the rhetoric about "reforming our broken system" is not worth taking seriously. I don't know what is worse, whether those who profess to be engaging in "straight talk" really don't realize that the Constitution is part of the problem or they are simply too fearful to connect any of the dots.

Incidentally, I agree that most Americans would put constitutional reform well down the list of their concerns, but that is in large part because they don't realize the extent to which the Constitution makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the political system adequately to address their central concerns.

I don't know if I buy the argument that real reform starts at the constitution. To begin with, you are talking about a governmental system that has largely worked: in a little more than 200 years providing the framework for transforming 13 fledgling colonies into the world's leading superpower on military, economic and cultural fronts. We may have our problems, but how many other systems have worked as well as ours over that time period? You never know how even a well-intentioned change to that system will turn out. It may have unforeseen negative consequences that outweigh any intended benefit.

Nor on the ground, do I buy the argument that real reform on issues important to most Americans is being hampered by the electoral college. It may be responsible for foolish policies on ethanol and Cuba, but it has nothing to do with our failure to effectively address universal health insurance, education, energy independence, Iraq or a weak dollar (and little to do with addressing illegal immigration) which most people would likely identify as the most important issues facing the nation right now.

Plus, the electoral college probably does some good, both in ensuring that policy is not dictated solely by the needs of the most populous states (I say that as a Californian) and by limiting potential election fraud/vote-counting issues to affecting the results of only one state rather than the national results. As bad as the Florida recount was, I cannot imagine having to deal with a national recount.

At worst, the electoral college is like the requirement that the president must be natural-born: perhaps a bit quaint and unnecessary, but not worth the effort it would take to fix it, even if it occasionally prevents someone like Alexander Hamilton (to stay safely in the past)) from getting elected.

In any event, if you have the mass movement necessary to change the constitution, you have the mass movement necessary to make the substantive policy changes (in spite of the present structure) that are the more important goal. And if you don't have the support for the substantive change, changing the structure probably won't make any difference.


It's hard to know whether reforming the Electoral College makes the top 50 issues list for rank and file citizens, but it's easy to know their position on it. For decades, a substantial majority has favored dumping the EC in favor of a national popular vote.

On a more fundamental point, I don't go along with the idea that the importance (or lack of it) of constitutional reform is driven by any given array of policy outcomes. Democracy -- meaning the extent to which citizens participate actively in governing themselves, and the extent to which all of them have representatives seated at the table when decisions are made -- is at least partly its own reward. I hope I would support governance reform even if I didn't think it would lead to universal health care or world peace.

Finally, I disagree with the idea -- although it's promoted by some advocates for cleaner election administration -- that decentralization of vote counting reduces the opportunity for fraud. Historically, it has done the opposite (on this, see Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote).

It's fairly ironic that Prof. Levinson is irritated at the lack of democratic support for making the political system more democratic. The fact that there is little democratic support for making the political system more democratic should suggest to everyone that the biggest problems with the current system are not lack of democracy. The biggest problems with the current political system are those problems inherent in how we practice democracy; rational political ignorance, and the irrational calculus of democracy. Which is not to say that autocratic forms of government are better, but that we should investigated novel institutional changes, instead of rearranging the deck chairs of the constitution (eliminating the electoral college).

You are my best friend, my human diary and my other half. You mean the world to me and I LOVE YOU.
Agen Judi Online Terpercaya

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts