It’s obvious that American democracy isn’t working. The question is, what to do about it?
Consider these two examples.
The national debt has tripled in the past decade and a half to $21 trillion, even though we all know that no entity can spend more money than it collects forever. Not a family, not a business, and no, not the government, either. And we’re headed in the wrong direction. As was announced by the Treasury Department this week, the recent tax cuts and spending increases made February’s budget deficit the worst it has been for that month since 2012.
Meanwhile, Congress can’t create a solution for the 1.8 million young people brought to America illegally as children “through no fault of their own,” as even immigration hardliner Sen. Tom Cotton describes them. That’s happening despite the fact that the compromise solution is fairly obvious: Give the young people a path to legal status while strengthening border security and immigration enforcement.
So what’s next for the world’s oldest democracy? Here are five options to fix this mess.
• Option 1: Keep doing what we’re doing and wait for sanity to return. This system has served us well for more than two centuries. Eventually, Democrats and Republicans will move back to the center and engage in common-sense, principled compromise. Right?
• Option 2: Keep doing what we’re doing even if sanity never returns. Then we’ll rebuild after the eventual train wreck. It’s an option.
• Option 3: Reform the system by electing different kinds of officeholders: less partisan Republicans and Democrats along with independents, Libertarians, and other third party candidates. A group calling itself Unite America is trying to elect enough independents to the U.S. Senate and other closely divided legislatures to prevent either party from gaining a majority. Then they could use their leverage to force commonsense change. Meanwhile, several third parties are trying to gain traction, but it’s an uphill climb.
• Option 4: Make whatever structural changes we can, such as a balanced budget amendment and/or term limits. The Constitution includes mechanisms to change it; it’s just really hard to do so. Perhaps Congress will embrace one of those options that would limit its own power. Perhaps pigs will fly. The Constitution allows states to call their own convention to suggest amendments, and there is an active Convention of States effort in Arkansas. No amendment has ever been enacted this way, but it’s available.
• Option 5: Re-emphasize the 10th Amendment, the one that grants powers to the states. Arkansas and California are not the same, and that’s OK. Americans are bitterly divided over certain issues but still share common ground on many others. For example, even critics of the free market generally enjoy profiting from it. Unfortunately, the divide over some issues contributes to gridlock everywhere else. Moreover, state governments have smaller, more workable legislatures and already have balanced budget requirements. So let’s take more of the arguments down to the state level, where consensus is possible, and argue less in Congress. Granted, this would entail a challenging power transfer, and some people would not trust the states to exercise power given their histories with race and other issues. On the other hand, the federal government’s history with some of those issues isn’t so great, either.
If you have other options, I’m all ears. Unfortunately, the options most likely to succeed (3, 4 and 5, or more likely some combination of all three) require breaking through the same status quo that put current elected officials in power. Option 1 would work, but it may not be possible in a country as divided as this one has become.
So either American democracy will reinvent itself as it has before, or we may be stuck with Option 2.
The worst one.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.