Saturday, April 20, 2002

A Quick Meditation On Constitutional Democracy- A lot of people were upset about the abortive coup in Venezuela last week, pointing out that Chavez was popularly elected President. Chavez's authoritarian behavior underscored the strength of the American constitution and why many of the Founding Fathers were leery of direct democracy. A pure democracy will allow 51% of the populous to rape and pillage the other 49% without safeguards. Chavez got the Venezuelan people to vote him near-dictatorial powers; they then lived to regret it. The advantage of the American system is that it takes a lot of time and consensus to get structural changes made in the system. A two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states are needed to pass a constitutional amendment, which we do about once every 15 years or so once the first ten were passed en masse. This makes the system less subject to quick changes. Even run-of-the-mill laws have to have a majority of the house, 60% of the Senate (if it's contentious enough to warrant a possible filibuster) and the president and the Supreme Court to sign off on it. Our system of checks and balances is designed to slow things down and to protect minorities. Political systems with a streamlined structure can be quicker to make changes, but those changes need not be good. Political systems without checks and balances can lead to an unpopular dictatorship and need to resort to coups to correct bad leaders who want to grab power at the expense of the public. An American Chavez (Huey Long comes to mind as the closest analog in history) wouldn't be able to pass a constitutional overhaul if a third on one of the houses or 13 states got in the way. The Supreme Court would block some of the more egregious uses of police-state powers and a history of respecting individual liberties (yes, it's not perfect but darn good) would stop a lot of the goonishness before it started. A determined majority with a friendly Supreme Court majority could push through an autocracy in the US, but there are a much larger set of hoops to jump through in the US. Is it right to overthrow a "popularly elected government" if the leaders are running the country into the ground? We've seen in Russia and Peru cases where presidents got rid of the current legislature and ruled by decree until a more friendly body could be elected. Leaders were forced out by popular uprisings in the Philippines, Argentina, Serbia and briefly in Venezuela. Musharref kicked the corrupt elected leadership in Pakistan aside and rules as a somewhat benevolent dictator. In all but the case of Argentina, the irregularly-installed government was an improvement from the replacement. Working within the system is good, but it the system is so dysfunctional to be unworkable, then it might be time to use extralegal means. The original Constitutional Convention was supposed to modify the Articles of Confederation; they ignored their mandate and started from scratch. Would a really strict constructionists say that the Constitution itself is bogus because of this? Open question for my blogmates to ponder-if the change is good for the country at large and helps the populous to achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is a little rebellion now and then a good thing?

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