The US Political System is Absurd: The Founding Vampires

It is truly incredible that so many people around the world continue to regard the United States, and their highly flawed, convoluted, constitutional system of government, as a model both to emulate and to inspire others. This is simply another of the many examples of how the innate human tendency to admire can blind admirers to the many faults that exist in the admired person, object, belief, or system.

The United States political system has a number of serious flaws, which flaws have become especially apparent in the recent past. Although the president is directly elected by the people, it is not by simple majority, as is true in other countries with a presidential/congressional political system. Instead, because it is enshrined in their country’s hallowed constitution, they still use the antiquated electoral-college system, an archaic remnant of the eighteenth century, in which the presidential candidate that receives the majority of a state’s votes, even if it is by the smallest of margins, receives all of that state’s electoral votes.[1] This leads to the highly perverse result that a candidate can win the electoral-college vote, which is the one that counts, without winning a majority of the overall votes, an outcome that has occurred five times in the United States’ history, including the 2000 election, when the incompetent George Bush, despite receiving more than 500,000 less votes than his opponent, after political and legal shenanigans in the state of Florida, where his brother was the governor, was declared the winner of the presidential race. More recently in 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral college even though he received significantly less votes than his principle adversary.

Second, there is an absurd gap of more than two months between the presidential election and the day on which the new president takes office.[2] At the time of the first federal election in 1788, such a lengthy interim did not matter much, as the government’s responsibilities were much fewer, and the pace of life, politics, social change, and world events was considerably slower than it is today. But now, in large part due to technological inventions and advances that have greatly speeded up the rate of communication, travel, and shipment, things happen much more quickly than they did in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Third, the presidential race, starting with the two major parties selecting their candidates to the election of a winner, now requires the absurdly long period of approximately two years, which is half the length of a presidential term of office. The US political system has extended what is nothing more than political foreplay into a ridiculously long two-year ritual. Furthermore, in the last several decades, all political races, whether presidential, senatorial, or congressional, have become more and more expensive, with presidential campaigns now requiring the collecting and spending of more than a billion dollars to contest and win. In terms of time and money, the US electoral system is surely the most inefficient and costly electoral system in the history of the world. Even the election of the Roman Catholic Pope – byzantine, archaic, and full of secrecy and intrigue – is accomplished in a much shorter time, and at far less expense, than the election of the US president.

In a country as populous as the United States, with almost 330 million inhabitants, there should exist many national parties, and perhaps some regional parties at the national level, to represent the many different and disparate points of view of the populace. But the formidable monetary barriers that exist effectively prevent any new party from achieving success at the national, or even at the state, level. Hence, Americans are stuck in the extremely confining position of having, in clothing terms, a choice between only two sizes, two colours, two styles, or two brands. Consequently, there are many Americans for whom their two national parties are, politically and morally speaking, a very bad fit.

The existence of two elected legislatures, the Senate and the House of Representatives, is due to the fact that the US political system was based on the musings of a bumbling political theorist named Montesquieu. It is highly debatable whether this dual legislative system has resulted in better laws being promulgated and better government in general. In recent years, the fact that the same bill must be approved by both Houses of Congress has enabled senators and representatives to attach clauses that benefit a very small segment of the American populace, a procedure that is clearly contrary to democracy. The great irony is that, while the United States continues to be mired in the political disputes, rivalries, partisanship, and gridlock that often characterize the relations between these two legislative bodies, Great Britain, which was the original model on which Montesquieu based his ideal system of government, has significantly reduced the power and influence that the British House of Lords formerly had over their country’s laws. In other words, whereas Great Britain has been able to adapt its political institutions to meet the needs and changing conditions of their society, the United States is stuck with an antiquated political system that no longer serves its people well. These divergent outcomes are due precisely to the fact that, whereas Great Britain has been governed more by gradually changing political traditions rather than by a rigid legal document, the United States has put its faith in a written document that explicitly sets out the form and functions of the different parts of its government. As has been shown in recent decades, it has become extremely difficult to modify this legal document to reflect the gradual but cumulatively momentous changes that have occurred in American society during the 230 years since its adoption.

The pragmatism of the British has led them to realize that most laws are not immutable, and therefore, rather than trying to set down a set of principles that were meant to guide their society’s inhabitants for all time, as the Americans and their many imitators have done, they have, in their greater wisdom, tried only to guide, in a general manner, how their descendants should behave and what kinds of laws they should adopt. For this way of proceeding is much more in accordance with the gradual, sometimes barely perceptible, and often unintended manner in which, until recently, pretty nearly all societies changed, progressed, and evolved. Given the societal and political conditions that existed at the time, the writers of the US Constitution did the best they could; but to believe that they got everything right for all time is nonsense. It is immensely ironic that, for a nation that believes that it is the freest nation in the world, the Founding Fathers unwittingly made all future generations of Americans subservient to a form of political and legal tyranny – constitutional tyranny – that has seriously hampered and restricted the liberty of their modern-day descendants.

The wisdom of the British Constitution lies in the fact that it permits and encourages a gradual, sober, considered, orderly, and non-impulsive growth of society – along with its political traditions and laws, which latter are the summation of its legal and cultural traditions, behaviours, and standards – from its state at any previous time. It is respectful of the past but without being unduly servile or subservient to it, along with the opinions of those who lived in the past, including those who fashioned their country’s laws. Thus, unlike explicit written constitutions, the British Constitution does not constrain the growth of society by imposing specific rules or principles on the lives of future unborn generations. It recognizes that the primary determinant of a people’s behaviour – the social glue that holds a society together and permits its members to survive and develop – are their traditions, and therefore, it is essential that these traditions be preserved, but without unduly constricting their future development by imposing on their descendants a rigid set of unvarying principles. Another way of stating these important differences is that the British Constitution avoids the potential – and, one might say, the inevitable – tyranny of words, a tyranny that is evident, for example, in the many religions whose sacred texts were written several thousand years ago and are believed by the faithful to contain the unchanging edicts of God.

Perhaps the most serious defect of the US political system is the fact that, apart from the president, every single member of the executive branch of government is appointed by the president. Although Americans have been zealous in their efforts to keep the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government strictly separated from each other, they have been much less vigilant in seeking to ensure that corporate power is kept separated from all three branches of government. At the time the US Constitution was written and promulgated, corporate power was relatively insignificant. But since then, as corporations have grown in size, power, influence, and global dominance, they have become a dominant force in today’s world. It is not the fault of the Founding Fathers that they did not recognize the need to separate both political and judicial power from corporate power and influence. And because no precautions were taken to separate, or shield, political and judicial power – which were meant to serve all people equally and justly, and not only the rich – from the distorting influence of corporate power, corporations have essentially taken over all three branches of the US government, which they have used as a means to protect and promote their narrow ends, while benefitting primarily themselves, meaning their owners and executives.

Due to the separation of the executive from the legislative branch of government, secretaries are appointed rather than elected in the United States. In contrast, in countries with a parliamentary system, secretaries, or ministers, must first be elected by the people, and therefore they are directly accountable to the people. As a result, in the United States, those who hold these important political positions are often recruited from the corporate world, in some cases switching seamlessly from working for a large corporation to working in government, and back again. It is not at all surprising, then, since these individuals are not elected by the people, that they feel little or no obligation and responsibility to the people, but instead feel responsibility primarily to the corporations that formerly employed them, and may very well employ them again after their stint in government, or supposedly public service, but which in reality is often disguised or continued corporate service. Clearly, this is an obvious case of divided loyalties. But the loyalties of many of these individuals who seek to serve both corporations and the people are not at all divided; for while they spout platitudes about their great desire to serve the American people, during their time in office, they quietly go about doing the will of the many corporations that dictate political policy and decide the laws in the United States, at least those policies and laws that directly affect and concern them.

What has become abundantly clear in recent decades, especially in the case of Republican governments, is that you cannot serve two masters: either you serve the American people, by governing in their broad interests, or you serve the corporations, by governing in their narrow interests – but you cannot serve both. And in this contest, which is usually decided by whoever has the most money, it is the American people who have become the perennial losers, a situation that has gravely deteriorated the health of their country’s democracy. In other words, far from being a model of democracy that should be emulated by other countries, the United States has become the primary example in today’s world of a corporatocracy: government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the rich people.

The point I am making is, or should be, obvious: the greatest need today in the United States is to separate corporate power from the political and judicial process. In other words, those who have worked for corporations must no longer be allowed to hold important political positions in the US government. For either you serve the people, or you serve the corporation or corporations that you work for, have worked for in the past, and may work for in the future – often for considerable financial remuneration – but you cannot serve both masters truly and faithfully.

The dominance of corporations in the United States today is largely due to the fact that, in their society, the estimation of a person’s worth is based on the crass standard of how much money and wealth one has. Because the possession of large amounts of money is regarded as a sign of virtue, merit, intelligence, and industriousness, many US politicians have few scruples in selling their votes, voices, services, and allegiance to the highest bidder, or to the highest campaign contributors.[3] In many cases, these are corporations, or the wealthy individuals who own or control them. Hence, it is not at all surprising that corporations receive much money, are given many benefits and exceptions, including tax exemptions, favourable laws, and weakened regulation from the government. The great irony is that corporations are paying less and less taxes, with some large profitable corporations paying no taxes at all. In other words, corporations directly contribute little or nothing to improving the society, such as by maintaining the costly infrastructure, that enables them to create the wealth they create, while they milk the political system to benefit them as much as possible. This process, which has aptly been called “corporate welfare,” takes from those who pay taxes, which increasingly are the less and moderately well-off segments of society, and gives to those who hold the reins of power. In other words, far from being a model of democracy, the United States has resurrected a modern version of the feudal system that formerly existed in many parts of the world, in which the strong ruled over the weak, who toiled and paid taxes to support the opulent lifestyles of the strong. Hence, this undesirable state of affairs could legitimately be called corporate feudalism.

Without doubt, democracy, with its one-vote-per-person formula, is the fairest form of government that has ever been devised. But its fairness is eroded when some individuals, such as the rich or powerful, are able to gain more political influence and control than is warranted by their small, and sometimes very small, number, in order to enact legislation that only or primarily benefits them. What is presently happening in the United States, where the rich continually seek to gain or preserve control over the government in order to protect their narrow selfish interests, has made the American political system a travesty of democracy. And it is in no small part due precisely to the hierarchical system of government which was adopted by the United States that has facilitated this subversion of their country’s democracy.

At the present time, it is an absurdity to claim that the United States is a democracy. According to the definition that democracy means that any one individual has no more influence than any other individual on the decisions made by a country’s lawmakers and the members of government, the United States obviously fails to satisfy this criterion; for clearly the wealthy have far more influence on the laws that are passed and the decisions that are made by the government than those who are less affluent. In other words, the United States is more a plutocracy rather than a democracy. And it is precisely the inherently flawed system of government devised by their Founding Fathers that has begotten this result.

In the early years of the American republic, when the country was young, dynamic, relatively small in terms of population, and not yet set in its ways, its country’s leaders made a number of changes to their constitution when it became clear that some of its features were flawed and therefore should be modified. But now, as the country has grown considerably in size and population, it has become almost impossible to change their country’s constitution, since this requires the approval of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, as well as the approval of three-fourths of all the states. The last time a constitutional amendment was passed was in 1992, a relatively trivial amendment that did nothing to correct this document’s many flaws.[4]

Due to the peculiarities of the birth of their nation, which, rather than being peaceful and non-violent, was born in rebellion and bloodshed, the men who sought to give a new form of government to their infant nation were solicitous to avoid tyranny by not seeking to impose their views, or the majority view, on each of the thirteen states. Hence, states were given considerable independence and power – more than is generally possessed by states or provinces in other countries – in the new confederacy. Without this political compromise, a number of states would probably have refused to join the new nation. The result of this necessary pragmatic compromise was that the uneasy discord and dissonance between individualism and democracy, or collective action, was, at its birth, planted at the very heart of their nation.

The individualism that is rampant in the United States today, so that many Americans regard their country’s government as illegitimate and openly scorn, disobey, or seek to overturn its laws, has resulted in an alarming decay and disintegration of their democracy. One of the effects of contempt is disobedience. This effect is clearly illustrated in their case, for many Americans regard their government, as well as its many laws, regulations, restrictions, and encumbrances, as unjustified infringements on their freedom, which they therefore believe they can ignore, ridicule, circumvent, or disobey while they go about their daily lives.

Unlike in a dictatorship or totalitarian state, where the leader or leaders can imprison or eliminate their critics and opponents, thus terrifying the rest of the citizenry into a mute subservience to their rule, the leaders of a democratic country, having renounced such despotic measures, cannot rule effectively without the consent and acquiescence of the ruled. Furthermore, democracy cannot function if the various minorities are not willing to acquiesce to the decisions of the majority. To accomplish this, it has often been found necessary for the majority to address, incorporate, or bend to some of the concerns and demands made by various minorities. However, the inflexibility and unwillingness of many Americans to compromise on principle have transformed the United States into a highly dysfunctional democracy.

Individualism at the state level has resulted in some states passing legislation that may benefit them, but also causes harm to their fellow Americans living in other states, while it hampers the federal government’s ability to enact legislation that aims to protect all Americans from harmful or unjust practices, or promote the common good.

Historically, the United States regulated lending rates carefully. In 1978, however, a new era began when the First National Bank of Omaha started enrolling out-of-state Minnesota residents in its BankAmericard Plan. At the time the state of Nebraska let banks charge interest up to 18 per cent a year, while Minnesota’s usury limits were 12 percent. Minnesota’s solicitor general wanted to stop the bank charging higher interest rates. Could the Nebraska bank ‘export’ the 18 per cent rate to Minnesota residents? The Supreme Court ruled that it could, and Wall Street noticed. If one state removed interest rate caps, they could export this deregulation across the United States. In March 1980 South Dakota passed a statute eliminating its anti-usury interest rate caps entirely. The statute was, according to Nathan Hayward, a central player in this drama, ‘basically written by Citibank’. Dakota whizzed the laws through in a few weeks. US banks could now, by incorporating in South Dakota, roll out credit card operations across the country, with no interest rate caps. Then came Delaware. The tale of its Financial Center Development Act of 1981 is an account of ten to fifteen powerful people who came together to pass an enormously significant piece of legislation, from which many of them, along with friends and colleagues, reaped huge wealth.[5]

Bankers say the possibility that the Delaware plan could be enacted in other states is a sign of healthy competition among the states and a reflection of the current emphasis on states’ rights. Their critics say it illustrates the ability of powerful private interests to pass laws with national ramifications by singling out and exploiting the weakest and most malleable states.[6]

Such state legislation undermines democracy, by allowing a minority, and in some cases a tiny minority, to enact legislation that would not have majority support at the national level.[7]

Most people are familiar with the legend of the vampire, a human being who, because of one’s desire to cheat death, resorts to the black arts and is thereby transformed into a creature that must feed on the blood of living creatures, in particular human blood, in order to prolong one’s existence. Despite the fascination that this myth has exerted on many people, vampires have, of course, never actually existed.[8]

For a people that values freedom, independence from others, and self-sufficiency, Americans have a curiously strong reverence for the group of men whom they honour by bestowing on them the august title of the Founding Fathers of their Great and Glorious Republic – a reverence that is a form of ancestor worship. Of course, the majority of Americans are not the actual descendants of these men, who, unlike the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, did not beget such a multitudinous progeny.

There has developed in the United States a scholarly tradition of citing the Founding Fathers in intellectual debates on a variety of subjects, especially in political and legal matters, such as in the matter of interpreting their constitution. This tradition is similar to the tradition of the members of a religion who cite passages from their sacred book or the teachings of the founder of their religion as gospel truth. There are a number of curious features about this tradition, such as the fact that those who hold contrary views on a subject both make appeals to the Founding Fathers to justify their views. This is possible because there were a large number of these men who, being free thinkers, were not always in agreement with each other; moreover, they sometimes changed their opinions during the course of their occasionally long lives, meaning that it sometimes happens that those who are on opposite sides of a debate quote the same statesman in support of their views.

Because of the subservient manner in which the American people revere and continually appeal to their Founding Fathers, they have transformed these deceased individuals into political vampires who suck the lifeblood of their living descendants. No truly free people would engage in such servile ancestor worship. To illustrate the absurdity of this custom, who is there today that tries to live one’s life in accordance with the precepts, desires, intentions, and rules of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents?[9] Of course, we should honour our ancestors; but this does not mean that we should also let them determine or influence the way we live our lives today.

The metaphor I have evoked by rechristening the American Founding Fathers as the Founding Vampires is not merely metaphorical. A prominent example is the numerous deaths that are due to the Second Amendment, which declares that all Americans have the right to bear arms. Cumulatively over the centuries, this single so-called “right” has caused the deaths of millions of Americans, along with the injuries of an even greater number of them. It would be hard to find another law passed by a democratic country that has proven to be as deadly as the Second Amendment. One would have to examine the histories of dictatorships, absolute monarchies, communist governments, and other forms of totalitarian rule in order to find comparable deadly legal examples.

No generation or group of individuals, no matter how enlightened they may be, can decide, once and for all, the rules that a society should follow. The only way this could be possible is if that society were to remain static for the whole of its existence, meaning that it never changes its customs, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, or anything else. In a normally developing society, such rules will eventually become a greater and greater burden and impediment on the people as the society changes more and more from its former state. The notion that such universal, time-and-place-independent rules exist was a harmful consequence of the rationality that characterized the Enlightenment, whose practitioners considered humanity in abstract, rather than in concrete or particular, terms, and thus theorized about the best possible political system for a society of rational, idealized human beings. For, generally speaking, it is the Rationalists who make such outlandish generalizations, and claim to have solved humanity’s problems once and for all. Historically speaking, this has been one of the most harmful effects of the belief in the primacy of human reason. Although scientific laws are valid in all places and at all times, no such comparable validity exists in the realm of human laws, which are transient and intimately related to and dependent on the particular society that adopts them, since they are nothing more than generalizations based on the way that its members live and behave. The belief – which goes all the way back to Socrates and Plato, and perhaps even further back than that – that there is one, unique way of living that is best for all people and in all times, is such a ridiculously pompous, erroneous, pig-headed, intolerant, stupid, arrogant, vain, conceited, blind, and plainly false supposition that those who believe such a thing should rather be called narrow-headed, immature, and willful children rather than being mistaken, as they often are, for wise men or prophets.

It is time, once and for all, for the American people to bury those whom they call their country’s Founding Fathers; or, to use another pregnant metaphor, it is time for Americans to sever the umbilical cord by which they are still attached to these long-dead individuals. For so long as they continue to honour these individuals immoderately, as many Americans do, they will not be able to break free of the servile bonds which their too-great subservience to their declarations, beliefs, ordinances, and mistakes has produced. In order to remain viable, political and legal systems must resemble living organisms, adapting and modifying themselves to meet new challenges, problems, and needs. For once such a system ceases to grow and change, it ossifies, just like a dead, preserved, or fossilized organism, which is no longer able to adapt itself to changing conditions, and thus is fit only to be recorded in the pages of a history book or displayed in a museum, along with all the other dead relics, fossils, artifacts, and curios of the past. This need is especially imperative today, when the rates of societal, technological, and economic change have all dramatically accelerated from past ages.

To close, I will propose something that I will call the “Declaration of Independence from the Founding Fathers”: Because the Founding Fathers have all long been dead, most of them for more than two centuries, I will cease evoking their names, whether individually or collectively, in debates and discussions about what we, the living, should do or not do. What they might have intended for the nation that they founded is now a moot point, for life is for the living, and not for the dead. After all, we do not continually ask ourselves what our personal ancestors from their age would have wanted us to do and how we should live our lives. Although we will still honour them as the founders of our country and be inspired by their examples, we will no longer ask what they might have wanted us to do or not do, since the society that we live in is radically different from the society in which they lived. Furthermore, they were not perfect in their beliefs and decisions, and they made a number of mistakes in the design of our country’s constitution and political system that have produced very serious problems. It is time, then, for we, the living, to correct their errors in order to reduce the harm caused by them, so that we may improve and ameliorate the society we live in, for the good of all of its inhabitants.

[1] Originally, the American people did not directly elect their president. Instead, each state nominated electors who then cast ballots for their choice for president and vice-president. A number of changes were made to this system, eventually enabling Americans to choose their president. But because by then the electoral-college system had become an established political tradition, rather than simply discarding it, as they should have done, they retained it while seeking to correct its more serious defects. This example shows that, when one begins with a bad or faulty design, no amount of changes will be able to correct all of its flaws. The only remedy is to discard it and adopt a new design or system. However, Americans, who are generally so open to change and innovation, have not been able to do this because of their slavish devotion to their country’s constitution and the very small number of men who wrote and signed it.

[2] In the past, this gap was even longer, being around four months. It was only with the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term in 1937 that the inauguration date was advanced from its traditional date of March 4 to January 20.

[3] The reality is more complex than this. There are candidates or incumbents who have dared to criticize or oppose an act of legislation that was supported by one or more corporations. As a result, they have faced a ferocious, nasty, or dishonest campaign against them, which has often resulted in their defeat. Hence, those politicians who are elected learn the important political lesson that it does not pay to oppose the corporations’ collective will, or, in some cases, even the will of an individual corporation.

[4] Even the amending formula, whose aim was to make more difficult the process of making changes to their country’s Constitution, illustrates how changing conditions, in this case the vast increase in both the country’s population and the number of states, has changed what was formerly a difficult task into an almost impossible one.

[5] Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson, chapter 9. Vintage, London, 2011.

[6] Ibid, chapter 9 (excerpted from ‘New York Banks’, New York Times, 17 March 1981).

[7] As Nicholas Shaxson, the author of the book from which the two excerpts are taken, has pointed out, this degradation of democracy, due to the ability of small minorities to impose their will or practices on much more populous majorities, is taking place not only within countries, but also internationally, such as between larger countries and small tax jurisdictions that have much lower tax rates.

[8] However, these kinds of false beliefs or silly superstitions do have real-world consequences, in this case by encouraging many ignorant people’s negative attitudes towards, and their completely irrational fear of, bats. To humans, the great majority of bats are completely harmless creatures; and because some species of bats feed on insects like mosquitoes and those that eat plants that are grown for food, they are actually beneficial to humanity. It would be much more true to say that we humans have done far more harm to bats than they have ever done to us. If another species of creatures were to depict humans as ravenous, bloodthirsty, demoniacal creatures that despoil and pollute the land, while appropriating more and more land and natural “resources” for their selfish purposes, I suspect that most humans would strenuously object to this depiction.

[9] Based on an average reproductive age of twenty-five years, this is how far back the generation of the Founding Fathers is in relation to the present younger generation.