Charles Ellingworth

11:36

American fundamentalism

American exceptionalism is something that was understandable in the greatest democratic experiment there has ever been. Who can deny that the extraordinary and durable political system created by the founding fathers has produced a flawed - what political system isn’t? - but successful mode of government that has lasted over two hundred years. It has taken America from a handful of colonies to a continental superpower. 


The unfortunate result of this success is that the constitution has become as sacred to Americans as the Koran is to Muslims - with similar fundamentalism that seems just as blind and irrational to us sceptical Europeans. In this election year its flaws are becoming glaringly apparent.


First up must be the electoral college - which allowed Trump to become president despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3m votes. There have been five other occasions, the most recent being Bush/Gore. This is straightforward binary vote (sometimes more) between two individuals - not a parliamentary election out of which emerges a leader. The electoral college may have made sense in the 18th century when distances were great and communications difficult. It was a  system that  was created to deal with a possible populist insurgency that could be short-circuited by a college of the great and good - oligarchic rather than democratic in concept. There have been what are called ‘faithless’ electors who have failed to vote for the majority in a state - but they have never changed the result of an election. So what are they for? Surely the time for an electoral college has long gone?


Secondly is the very obvious dysfunctionality  of the House of Representatives. The two year electoral cycle seems designed to encourage pork-barrel politics as no sooner has one election passed than the fund-raising starts for the next. How can anyone be statesmanlike with that pressure? And then there is the gerrymandering of congressional districts that is in the hands of the incumbent party not an independent electoral commission. A map of these districts looks like a crazy doodle by a child with ADHD - but hides very sophisticated attempts to effectively disenfranchise minorities. On average only 5% of congressional seats ever change hands.


Then there is the naked voter suppression enabled by the individual states where polling stations are rationed or opened to suit the incumbent parties’ advantage. For example a Republican state that wanted to encourage middle-class voters and make it difficult for working-class voters to get to the polls is allowed to close polling stations before the end of the working day - justifying this because of health and safety of the polling staff. Why isn’t the entire electoral system in the hands of an independent federal body? 


The cynical answer lies in the approximately $5 billion (yes, that is right) that gets spent every year lobbying Washington. As Sir Humphrey Appelby in Yes, Prime Minister so rightly said, “No prime minister will ever reform the electoral system. You do not kick away the ladder that got you where you are. Especially while you’re still standing on it.” Substitute, president, senator and congressman for Prime Minister. But surely the other barrier is that idealistic American exceptionalism. Every American (maybe not all blacks) ingests with mother’s milk the truth that their system is perfect and as near anything, handed down from God to his chosen on earth. This is despite the obvious fact that it is was a constitution conceived in the 18th century to deal with an oligarchic agrarian society of racial  homogeneity - not a vast immigrant, and now mainly urban, continent. 


It is that fetishisation of the constitution that is probably the bigger barrier to reform than any corruption. That sort of fundamentalism has the potential to be as harmful as its Muslim equivalent as it is hard wired into the governance of the most powerful nation on earth.

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