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The American constitutional system is not simply odd, it is not even just unusual, it is unique. It is not repeated anywhere else in the world, which is strange, as America keeps pressing its personal view of democracy onto the world every chance she seems to get. It is part of the Great American Democratic Mission to foist the idea of her version of Democracy on the world, to encourage countries that this is the way forward to being modern, developed and acceptable. Presidents continually press America as the way forward, promulgating the view that democracy is better than any other system even where it plainly isn’t. You would have thought some-one in the emerging free countries over the last century or so might have decided to give it a go.
The following table (published in Robert Dahl: How Democratic is the American Constitution? Yale 2003), lists those countries with a reasonable track record of being continuously democratic. 1950 as a base year is a decent length of time. As you can see the number of countries that can achieve this is very limited. It’s only 22.
Countries which have been steadily and continually Democratic since 1950
- Costa Rica
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- United States
The second table looks at elements of the American system that might be considered as particularly strong in elements of US system and looks to see if they are there in these countries also. The results are interesting. Although elements that are in America’s system exist elsewhere, not one single country has a President in the American sense of a Head of State who also has executive powers and still remains democratic.
TABLE TWO. How the United States Constitutional Political System compares with the 21 countries in Table One.
US System and those of the 21 that have these features
1 Very strongly Federal: Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium
2. Strong Bicameral structure : Australia, Germany, Switzerland
3. Unequal representation in upper house: Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland
4. Strong judicial reviews: Canada,Germany
5. First Past the Post : Britain, Canada
6 Strongly two party system: Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica
7 PRESIDENTIAL WITH SINGLE POPULARLY ELECTED CHIEF
EXECUTIVE WITH IMPORTANT POWERS : None!
The problem with a constitution like America’s, which was set from its eighteenth century beginning to serve a pre-existing oligarchy centred in Virginia and New England, is what to do about it in a very different world. And the answer isn’t as simple as you might imagine.
The Framers, when they set the constitution in the frantic hot summer of 1786 panicked by the recent revolution by Daniel Shaw, sought stability above all else. Stability we should understand for their own selfish interests. Democracy in the modern sense of rights for the common man, indentured servants, tenant farmers, women of all classes, slaves and native people was so far down the list as to not be there, and these elite gentleman farmers and merchants built a system designed to keep matters calmly on the straight and narrow.
They set up a constitution that worked very much as the picture by Baird above. The oligarchs, those handsomely rich plantation landowners and Northern merchants banded together to draw from their number a representative to hold executive power for a period. Initially this was not a set period – they sort of hoped and trusted he would accept being elected out of office or that he would stand down at the end, allowing another, drawn again from the ranks of the oligarchs, to take the title of President. So we see the oligarchs at one end of the bench of the see saw, or teeter totter, and a sole President at the other, their powers balanced exactly so neither could take complete control.
Things in general rarely remain in balance permanently, so I thought I might explore what would happen if the weight shifted on the balance
beam of power.
Baird’s second drawing shows an Oligarchy that has overwhelmed the control of the Executive. If this happens then the oligarchs end up with the power, and the President becomes an irrelevant cipher, borne along by the tide rather than influencing and guiding the state. This is a scenario that would lead to secession of some states from the Union itself or a civil war between the states. It was the position that America has seen prior to its Civil War in the 1860’s. It is a situation unlikely to be repeated.
The third shows a more likely scenario, that of what I might affect to call a “Collapsing Oligarchy”. In this case the oligarchy are reduced both in number and in power. This could be caused by war, taxation, Political machination, external factions such as business or military (including military industry) allying with the Presidential office to the disadvantage of the oligarchy to deter or remove individuals from positions of power and influence in that oligarchy.
Additionally, and I believe significantly, there has been since the end of the Second World War, a change in the nature of the oligarchy. Increasingly, the old patrician families who were those who so benefited from the Constitution of America, those 600 families of Hughy Long’s famous denouncement, have been winnowed out and replaced by other individuals. These individuals, although legal persona, with all the rights and privileges that you or I are entitled to, are somewhat different from us. These individuals are immortal. For American business law like other legal systems, has the conceit that businesses may be granted legal persona and may exist as independent quasi people (in this legal sense) and over time these eternals have begun to enter the oligarchy as individuals whose immense power and money in turn is pushing out the mortal oligarchs.
The effect is that the office of President becomes more and more the gift of a reducing number of families or oligarchical companies until it is passed between one or two alone. Then the balance falls the other way, and the President garners more and more power at the expense of Oligarchs and Congress, becoming in effect an Emperor. Or in modern terms – a Dictator.
So, what to do? Well, there is a perfectly good argument to be made to do absolutely nothing. A utilitarian might say this oligarchical republic model retains just enough true democracy to keep most of the people happy most of the time. (At least whilst the going is good). It is a model which has delivered America as top dog, head honcho, the cat’s pyjamas. Only if matters start to deteriorate will it be under scrutiny.
Democrats interested in the representation of the common man should find a system which offers two flavours of vanilla only, and with a choice of one class of representative being too limited, and too oligarchic to be truly representative.
An oligarchy as described above is a form of political control where power rests in a small group of players – individuals, corporate bodies, or families. Some are military in nature, others more resemble the mafia. Examples of oligarchies of individuals would be the triumvirates of late Republican Rome and these naturally can be understood to be short lived by their very nature. With companies, several such oligarchies – or cartels as they are usually termed – have existed in the past and still do today. OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries or the “Seven Sisters” group of oil companies, are examples that exercised great power in the 1970’s. Cartels are most effective when they control the supply of essential elements of the economy such as energy. The latest such is the Gas Exporting Countries cartel controlling supply of natural gas supplies to Europe. An oligarchy of businesses might last centuries.
The United States has long recognised that such economic cartels, where they exercise such controls, are unfair to the customers of the good supplied, and have sought to strike down those they can reach through acts such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Acts. However, when it comes to cartels of political influence exercising control of the democratic process, far from seeking to remove these also in the name of their consumers – the electors – they rather entrench such cartels or oligarchies.
Copyright David Macadam 2011