The United States Is ‘Ungovernable’ by Design
Those who lament that Democrats can't get anything done ignore the genius of the Constitution's roadblocks to a "tyranny of the majority."
January 28, 2010 - 12:00 am
Matt Yglesias of Think Progress took a lot of heat from the right last month for stating that America has become ungovernable. Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey said Yglesias wasn’t making these complaints when the Democrats were in the minority and obstructing judges and social security reform. Kim Priestap of Wizbang suggested that Yglesias was trying to make excuses for Obama’s flailing agenda.
Yes, Yglesias was being hypocritical. Yes, Yglesias was making excuses. Nonetheless, Yglesias was essentially right. America is ungovernable. It has been for the better part of its history.
Regarding the U.S. Senate, Yglesias complained: “It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.”
Yglesias hit on the left’s problem, but he stopped short. Yglesias and the left complain about the bind in which they find themselves. They can spare 4o votes on any House vote, and they have a Senate majority, but they can’t get anything done. It’s as if a genius schemed against them to thwart their efforts and require impossibly large majorities to accomplish something.
A genius did conspire against the left, but their foe isn’t Karl Rove. In fact, he’s been dead for 173 years.
By fingering the system as the problem, Yglesias identified the system’s creators as the enemy and James Madison in particular. But our founders didn’t set out to frustrate any specific people. They were concerned with one big question: how does one prevent a republic from degenerating into tyranny, as all historical republics had?
While Yglesias worries about the minority ruining a Democratic stampede, Madison worried about something else entirely. In Federalist 51 he writes:
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. …. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.
Madison’s solution was simple.
Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.
We like to imagine we only have two factions in America: Republicans and Democrats; liberals and conservatives. Last year showed that we have all sorts of factions within the two-party system. There’s been a lot of talk about Blue Dog Democrats, but coal state Democrats opposed cap and trade, and pro-life Democrats pushed the Stupak Amendment and guaranteed that President Obama’s rhetoric about the Freedom of Choice Act will remain empty words. Right-to-work state Democrats like Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) have frustrated efforts to pass card check.
Our constitutional system of government works — but it works to protect liberty, not allow those who want to get their agenda passed and get it passed yesterday to run roughshod over the minority. Madison warned of such a system, writing, “In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature.”
It must be said that from the time of the Great Depression until the election of Ronald Reagan it was far easier for the left to “get things done.” Democrats held absurd majorities and could usually get more than enough votes to have their agendas passed. During the 48-year period from 1933-1981, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for all but four years.
Democratic hegemony allowed them to push through Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It allowed them to pack the courts with activists who shamelessly added to the Constitution, giving the left political victories they could have never won using the constitutional process of amendment through state legislatures. This includes the removal of prayer from schools and abortion on demand. While conservative Democrats could frustrate the process, liberals could always find like-minded Republicans, such as Charles Mathias, John Chaffee, and Jacob Javits, to swing the balance.
Since 1980, the Democrats have lacked the super majorities they enjoyed in the days of LBJ and FDR. They have fewer senators like Mathias and Javitz with whom they can parlay to get their agenda approved At the same time, Republicans have not been able to get their more ambitious items passed. More often than not, divided government has been the rule.
Thus left and right are both stymied by the Constitution, which was designed to frustrate change in favor of freedom. America is ungovernable because the founders never intended the lives of Americans to be governed from the federal capitol. Hamilton writes in Federalist 45:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.
The founders would tell Yglesias and other liberals that if they wanted to govern something, they should have governed their own states.
In an ideal world, we could end this column by simply re-affirming the Constitution. But the years of liberal hegemony have created problems that simply “following the Constitution” from here on out can’t solve. For instance, there is more than $44 trillion in unfunded obligations for Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements. And there is a poisonous culture war waged by liberal lawyers in New York and California — people who are unable to cope with a boy in Alabama praying in schools or a woman in Utah not being able to get abortion on demand. Simply following the Constitution from now on doesn’t repair the damage already done. For conservatives, the challenge is to persuade a wides swath of the population to support not only our candidates, but our ideas.
The left may grumble about the unfairness of our system of government now that they can’t get their way on everything they want. But conservatives know our system of government works even when it frustrates us.