American Institutions

If you’ve spoken with me in the last few months about public policy in the United States (and, given everything going on in the world, that includes pretty much everyone I’ve spoken with), you’ve probably sensed a rather unpleasant tone of defeatism and exasperation in my voice. I find myself starting lots of sentences with the phrase “if we had functional institutions we could…” and I really can’t bear to think about going through the process of getting an absentee ballot to vote in the upcoming presidential election when I truly believe that it just absolutely makes no difference.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and us US citizens (and the rest of the world) got a close-up look at just how badly the US government’s institutions are failing, I had been growing increasingly disenchanted with the United States’ policy-making and services-providing apparatus (partially leading to my move to Mexico in 2019).

Unfortunately, the last few months have solidified my belief that American institutions are unsalvageable without some major structural changes to the way that the government operates in the United States, and, alas, I think that making those structural changes will be practically impossible.

I won’t cover all of the different institutions that are broken — if you’ve read any amount of media coverage in the last few months you can easily come up with a list on your own. Instead, I want to have a meta-discussion of the things that would need to change in order to even start fixing the broken institutions that we have currently.

Problems:

  • Rural Americans is over-represented in both state and federal government at the expense of residents in cities. This leads to inequitable redistribution policy and the election of officials who don’t represent the majority of citizens in the country.
  • The Supreme Court makes too much policy. The 9 justices of the Supreme Court have way too much policy-making power and we should not leave matters of racial equality and access to abortion to 9 people who are appointed by presidents and elected for life.
  • Congress makes too little policy. The use of the filibuster and the disjointed nature of our bicameral legislature means that elected officials are encouraged to spend too much time posturing and complaining rather than delivering on their campaign promises.

What needs to change:

  • Get rid of the electoral college. If trends continue, we will see and more and more situations where the President loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college. This absolutely has to change as it effectively disenfranchises large swaths of the population.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Requiring 2/3 of the senate to agree makes legislating impossible and allows both sides to escape the burden of having their proposed incendiary policies enacted.
  • Re-allocate the senate based on population. I like having an upper-house that is elected less frequently, but the over-representation of citizens of Idaho and Montana must change.
  • Basically repeat all of the above at the state level so that representation is not determined by geography but rather by population.
  • Something(?) with the Supreme Court. I’m not sure what the exact policy proposal here is but I’d like to see the Supreme Court sending more laws back to congress and having them decide what the rules should be rather than letting the 9 philosopher-kings make the policy for the most important factors facing America. As much as I like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, giving her more power also means giving Neil Gorsuch more power, and the direction of the court ends up getting decided by whoever happens to be president when one of the 9 dies.

The general theme of all of this is that I believe that we don’t actually have enough accountability in today’s system. Because we put too much faith in unelected supreme court justices and too much power in the hands of senators representing sparsely populated states, our federal government is not held accountable to the majority of the citizens in the United States.

Right now, federal aid dollars go disproportionately to rural areas whose elected representatives continue dismantling the social safety net for citizens who live in cities — until we change that disproportionate representation, we’ll keep plundering our cities (the centers of culture and innovation in the country) in favor of the over-represented rural folks who have historically demanded policies that are not aligned with the well being of the majority of the country that lives in urban areas.

While I don’t know the numbers well enough to say this for certain, my strong suspicion is that a re-balancing of voting power to be proportional (note that I’m not saying that urban citizens should be over-represented, just equally represented!) would increase the voting power of non-white citizens as well.

Until these things change, participating in the US electoral system just seems pointless. A voter in Wyoming has 3x the voting power that I do (voting in Texas) and nearly 4x the voting power of someone voting in Florida (source and source).

We can’t expect our Federal Government to look after the interest of the majority of its citizens when the minority is so over-represented (note that over-represented rural states face much less danger from COVID-19 than densely populated states).

Unfortunately, all of the changes I’d like to see would require constitutional amendments, which would effectively require the rural states to cede power voluntarily, which seems more than unlikely. I’m deeply worried about the future of America and I truly hope that we can find a way to bring about meaningful change, but the structural incentives are very bad and the lift to change the incentives is very high. That is not a good combination.

About the author

michael
By michael