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Lessons from the US Constitution

The Practical Defeat of US Republicanism

Criticisms of governments today…

…often start and end with similar dogma:

X is disgraceful because X is undemocratic.

  • A billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos shouldn’t control a large media outlet: that’s undemocratic.

  • The system of electoral colleges in the United States – allowing a President to be elected with less than a majority of the population: that’s undemocratic.

  • Unelected eurocrats implementing policy in Brussels: that’s undemocratic.

…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms…

Today’s relentless quoting of Churchill (apparently) is second only to startups chanting “We are democratising X, Y or Z”.

Criticisms of governments at the time of the Founding Fathers…

…focused on fears:

  • from the experience of English colonial rule. These were fears of an overly powerful central government, especially if distant. (Ironically, the US constitution has led to strong central government powers.)

  • of a majority gaining too much power at the expense of minorities. This is what Madison termed the “violence of faction” in Federalist Paper number 10. It was published during the period before ratification of the US constitution. (Ironically, the constitution allowed for slavery and voting was largely limited to white men who owned property.)

  • of a hereditary style of English rule, as opposed to a more representative system.

To allay these fears, the constitution was intended to be republican rather than purely democratic. I’ll discuss two design features to illustrate what I mean by “republican”.

The first design feature failed organically through the emergency of political parties. The second feature was eliminated by an amendment.

Feature 1: Indirectly Electing the President

The three US branches of government are the Executive (President), Legislative (House and Senate) and the Judiciary (Courts and Judges).

Accordingly to my Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, delegates at the Constitutional delegation largely felt the president should be elected by the national legislature. The drawback to this approach was the lack of separation of powers between the president and the legislature. A smaller group felt that state legislatures or perhaps state governors should elect the US president. I’m unclear on why this approach was ruled out, but – if weighted equally across states – this would have given smaller states disproportionate power in chusing the president. James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate, was apparently the only one vocal about having a directly elected president. The chief concern in this final case was that voters would be too provincial and insufficiently informed about candidates from other parts of the country.

Virginia delegate James Madison – only 37 at the time, and who was involved in much of the drafting – wavered back back and forth on who should elect the president. In the end, as a form of rough compromise, James Wilson proposed a system of electors. Each state would have a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives. Citizens would vote for these electors and the electors would then vote for the President. The idea was that the electors were be better informed than the populace on national candidates. They were seen as better positioned and better able to choose the best president.

Since there are only two senators per state, but typically many more representatives, the number of electors per state is roughly proportional to population (although the smallest population states have a higher proportional representation, and the largest population slightly lower). From my ten years in the US, I can say that this specific topic, is a big topic of dinner conversation in some households. However, there was a much bigger organic change to the system than I was unaware of.

To recap, the idea with the electoral college was that citizens would vote locally for the electors they preferred, and those electors would then vote for president. Within a matter of years, political parties organically emerged that would have their electors pledge their votes to presidential candidates in advance. This resulted in citizens voting for electors based on the presidential candidate to which they had pledged their vote, not based on the ability of the elector themselves. In effect, the layer of wise electors was dis-intermediated and rendered largely redundant. Thus, from its republican origin of indirect elections, the US presidential election has been organically transformed – by political parties – into a more direct democratic form.

[Side-note: The US Senate is biased towards states (two votes per state). The House of Representatives is biased towards number of citizens (states get a number of reps proportional to population, but a minimum of one rep). My mental model is that the electoral college system for electing the president is about ~80% biased towards population and ~20% biased towards states. Each state plus Washington DC has an elector for each senator – 2 x 51 = 101. There is an elector for each of the 435 house representatives, and then there is one additional elector given to Washington DC. So 436 of the electors out of the 538 total come from being roughly population based, and the rest are state based.]

Feature 2: Indirectly Electing the Senate

In the original US constitution, the Senate was elected by the legislatures within each state. It was a republican design that was indirectly democratic. The people of the state would elect their state house and senate, and those houses would then elect two senators for the state. This is in contrast to how the House of Representatives, both originally and today, is directly elected by the people.

In 1913, this approach to electing the senate was changed by an amendment:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years…

To a significant degree, the 17th amendment appears to have been a practical matter. Some state legislature elections became dominated by the question of which senators candidates would elect (somewhat like what happened with electors for the US president). At times there were delays in states reaching agreement on which senators to send. Corruption at the state legislature level in electing senators also seemed an issue. I would need to read more to have a better sense for the relative importance of these issues.

In short, while the presidential election organically became more directly democratic, the election of senators was explicitly made more directly democratic.

Reflections for Political Design

My lesson from the US constitution is that people can sit down and theorise about government design – as I often do – but, when theoretical plans go into practise, there are parts that fail! Trial and error is central to good political system design and theorising needs to come with a big dose of humility.

Still – even if only for the entertainment – here are a few remarks…

When the US constitution was written, there was substantial respect for the English systems of government – including the idea of a directly elected house of parliament (even if that approach wasn’t evenly applied in colonies). However, the founders didn’t like the hereditary aspects. A monarchy seemed unrepresentative – especially when ruling over far away lands. So, the founders wanted to retain protections against violence by a majority faction by combining a representative system with a hereditary one, but by replacing the hereditary part with something else.

To some extent, hereditary aspects of the British system were replaced with the ideas of making the Senate indirectly elected (by state legislatures) and making the President indirectly elected by a system of Electors. As described above, these approaches fell apart in practise and collapsed to a more direct representative democracy. One conclusion is to start with a more direct representative democracy in the first place. Another different conclusion is that there is something to be said for a system that combines democracy with hereditary leadership, because hereditary systems allow an orthogonal set of interests to persist.

It’s interesting to think about why the US system has become more directly democratic (understanding that many people feel it is not democratic enough). Perhaps it is just a better system that is more just and/or more functional or practical than in its earlier days. Or, perhaps power naturally concentrates at the national level, weakening local (e.g. state) interests and – over time – moving the overall system towards once in which there is 51% majority rule. I’m not sure. I’m going to read what the Swiss are doing over there.

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