We Believed Our Constitution Would Always Protect Us - Until It Didn’t

Wolfgang Mack


For so many years, we were rightfully proud how the world was looking to America as the prime example of good governance with its principles enshrined in a great Constitution, the envy of many other countries. Now, in the span of just a few years, our belief in the infallibility of our political system has been shaken to the core by a leadership that stretched its powers way beyond the limits imposed by our constitution, while breaking many of our norms of moral behavior. How did our leaders get away with flagrant abuses of power, interfering with our justice system, undermining our sacred elections, shameless nepotism and relentless attacks on our rights of free expression?


Why did our constitutional institutions fail to prevent these violations of our cherished principles? Why did our famed “checks and balances” not kick in to stop these excesses? It left many of us wondering whether our constitutional protections are really as effective as we like to believe. Are we now discovering that there are, perhaps, flaws in our Constitution and in our government setup overly ambitious politicians can use, and actually have used, to bypass the protections that these institutions are meant to give us?


The good news is that the basic government structure our Founding Fathers had designed over 230 years ago is still serving us well. The problems we have seen during the past few years are not the fault of our Constitution’s basic concepts, but rather the belated effects of some of the very uncomfortable compromises that our Framers were forced to make in order to accommodate the divergent interests of the first 13 states. The trouble is that some of these old compromises have recently been turned into tools to undermine our democratic institutions.


How so?



Take for example, the allocation of Senate seats. The smaller states insisted on a form of protection so the larger states could not overpower them, and so the Framers reluctantly gave them two Senate seats for each irrespective of their population. At that time, when the differences in size were not really so large, this was not unreasonable, but now this rule has led us into the untenable situation where our five smallest states, with a combined population of less than 1 percent of our total, have the same voting power as the five largest, with over 40 percent.


This imbalance has been cunningly exploited to thwart efforts to reign in the excesses by our executive branch, while forcing the appointing of judges and top administration posts based on their ideologies rather than their professional qualifications. We need to find a more realistic way to apportion Senate seats before it will do more damage to our democracy.


The most acrimonious arguments among our Founding Fathers erupted about how much power to give to the office of president. On the one hand, they were deadly afraid that a president with too much power could one day maneuver to make himself a monarch, who could potentially take away people’s newly won freedom. After all, they had just risked everything in fighting to rid themselves of the oppression by the British monarchy. But on the other hand, they were facing the mundane problems of communication and traveling — their mail would take weeks, and travel was at best at the speed of a horse. That meant a lot of latitude had to be given to the president so he could take decisive actions in urgent matters, when consultation with other government members was not possible in a timely manner.


These communication issues were real problems in their time and are the main reasons why they finally decided to grant an extraordinary range of powers to our president, from taking a number of unilateral actions, such as ruling by decree after declaring a “national emergency,” making or breaking international agreements, deploying the military, and hiring or firing heads of government agencies. No other modern democracies are giving anywhere near as much power to their top leaders because now those old communication problems no longer exist.       



Of course, our Founding Fathers also installed limits to our president’s decision-making such as the requirement to seek after-the-fact Senate approval for unilateral presidential decisions. This turned out to be highly ineffective -- what is the Senate to do when the president has already taken actions that are in fact irreversible? And how can you expect a lopsided Senate to reprimand its own leaders?


With the communication difficulties they were facing in their days, our Founding Fathers had no choice but to give this extraordinary range of powers to the president. However, this was then, and in today’s world, with instant communication and speed of travel, the reasons for a concentration of power in a single person simply no longer exist. Instead, we have seen how easy it is for a president to abuse his powers for his own ends. It is time to limit these excessive powers before they, once again, could be used to endanger our democracy.


Then our Framers found themselves entangled with the thorny question of how to elect the president. There were those who wanted to have Congress do the selecting, while others wanted a popular vote. That motion was squelched quickly as it pointed to the problem with the mail. However, there was another much more insidious argument -- elitists as they were, our Founding Fathers simply doubted that the “masses” would possess the information and discernment necessary for such a weighty decision as the election of president. Thus, the Electoral College was born with electors appointed by the states, each state free to set its own voting procedures for its delegates. This led to a patchwork of inconsistent rules, opening opportunities for voter manipulation and “back-room dealings” -- we are seeing this playing out right now.


The worst part, however, is that the Electoral College has, several times, elevated a candidate into our highest office even after losing the popular vote. In fact, it has happened twice in our own lifetime, putting doubts into our minds about our time-honored concept of “one citizen, one vote.” We can ill afford such a flagrant devaluation of our sacred voting rights. We need to get rid of this undemocratic anachronism before greater damage will be done to our faith in our election system.



To sum up, some of the compromises that our Founding Fathers had to make may have been necessary at the time they formulated our Constitution but the reasons for these compromises simply no longer exist. As recent events have shown, these obsolete compromise provisions can be exploited by less-than-trustworthy politicians to undermine our democratic institutions -- a clear and present danger to the future of our republic.


Of course, it will not be easy to make these changes because they can only be made by the very people who owe their position of power to those anomalies. It will take a heroic effort to convince those in power to put their patriotic duties above their narrow self-interests, but we could never forgive ourselves if we fail to even try.


Author Bio:


Wolfgang Mack witnessed his country’s slide into dictatorship while growing up in Nazi Germany. After surviving the war, he studied engineering and economics in Germany and Austria before moving to the United States under a post-graduate Fulbright scholarship. Mack managed multiple industrial enterprises in countries under strict dictatorships, later representing industry associations and becoming a lecturer and serving on several nonprofit boards. He is now retired and resides with his wife in Seattle. Mack is the author of Parallels in Autocracy: How Nations Lose Their Liberty.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:


--Painting by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)

--Lawrence Jackson (Whitehouse.gov, Creative Commons)

--Donkey Hote (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

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