Reimagining Democracy – Q&A with Hendrik Hertzberg

Hendrik Hertaberg in conversation with Chrystia Freeland

Constitutional Questions

On the final day of the inaugural Spur Festival, Hendrik Hertzberg and Chrystia Freeland discussed the growing influence of vested interests in modern democracies. Afterwards, PEN Canada asked Hertzberg why it has become so difficult to rein in these interests in the United States, and to negotiate the constitutional hurdles to progressive legislation on gun control, healthcare, and campaign finance reform. 

Canadians are less prone to ancestor worship than are your neighbors to the south

In the Vested Interests discussion with Chrystia Freeland, you spoke about the imperfect origins of the U.S. Constitution – particularly its accommodation of the slave power in the South – and the difficulty of re-imagining a document that has long been treated as though it were a piece of secular scripture. Given the political and cultural inertia produced by this reverence, is it safe to say that the Constitution’s most important quirks and biases – the electoral college, acreage trumping population in political representation – are now practically irrevocable?

Most of the big ones are indeed practically irrevocable. Barring a revolution or a Latin-style military coup by “enlightened” officers, we are stuck with the so-called separation of powers — i.e., a three-headed monster of a federal government, with a Presidency, a Senate, and a House of Representatives. (The monster actually has four heads if you count the Supreme Court, but more on that later.) Each of the three is separately elected, in a grand total of 585 separate, staggered elections: 435 for the House, 100 for the Senate, and the 50 winner-take-all statewide elections that combine to pick a President. None of the three is dependent on any of the others for its political survival, and the concurrence of all three is required for anything significant to get done, especially in domestic policy.

In particular, we’re stuck with the political inequalities built into the U.S. Senate, which have grown more grotesque with time. In 1789, the population ratio between the most and least populous state was 11 to one. Now it’s 66 to one. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton absolutely hated the idea that each state should be entitled to the same number of senators regardless of size. Hamilton was withering on the topic. “As states are a collection of individual men,” he harangued fellow-delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter.” In the end, he and Madison accepted the deal only because without it the pipsqueak states like Rhode Island would have bolted. It gets worse. In the Constitution’s Article V, the one outlining the process for amendments, only one type of amendment is absolutely forbidden: “[N]o State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

There is, however, one huge change that is possible — and almost within reach. Without changing one word of the Constitution, and without abolishing the electoral college, we could pick the President the way we pick virtually all our other elected officials: by the vote of the people, with the winner being the candidate favored by the largest number of voters in the entire nation. It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV), and if you’re interested in the details you can find them at www.nationalpopularvote.com. This state-based reform is already halfway to its goal, and its effects would be seismic: no more “battleground” states and spectator states; no more “wrong winners” à la 2000; higher voter turnout; a dramatic reduction in the relative power of money and a corresponding, even more dramatic increase in the power of grassroots organizing and mobilization in every corner of the United States.

We need to abolish the filibuster, it’s a scandal and a disgrace that the United States Senate is the only legislature in the advanced democratic world in which the minority has veto power over the majority

Absent the effectively sovereign declarations of the Supreme Court, how might the U.S. resolve some of the Constitutional questions that retard progress on big issues like healthcare, gun control, and campaign finance? Or will the foreseeable future remain mired in endless small–bore political squabbles?

Unfortunately, the effectively sovereign declarations of the Supreme Court are anything but absent. They are ever-present, and there is nothing to be done about them except to change the composition of the Court by electing Presidents who will nominate Justices who understand that there is a difference between human beings and corporations, that money and speech are not identical, that the words “well-regulated militia” in the Second Amendment actually have meaning, and that health care in the 21st century is inseparable from interstate commerce.

Short of that, or in addition to it, we need to abolish the filibuster. It is a scandal and a disgrace that the United States Senate is the only legislature in the advanced democratic world in which the minority has veto power over the majority. Absent the filibuster, the Senate would at least be democratically undemocratic rather than, as it is now, undemocratically undemocratic.

Freeland said that although business has gone global, politics remains stubbornly local. In view of the largely ad hoc response to recent financial crises in Europe and the US, is this likely to change?

Europe’s current travails suggests that bad things happen when international finance outruns the ability of strong, democratic, and legitimate governance to rein it in. Chrystia is the expert on the global economy, and she said during our conversation that something simply has to happen. I defer to her wisdom and share her hopes. Or is it her hopelessness?

You suggested that money was less of a “monster” in Canadian politics because our unitary system of governance allows for relatively coherent policy making. Does Canada’s recent proclivity (current administration notwithstanding) towards electing minority governments change this dynamic at all?

Canada is halfway to effective democratic government, which is halfway more than I can say for my beloved (I mean that) country. Your unitary system means that an administration can carry out a coherent, energetic program and be judged by the results. But your single-member-district, first-past-the-post, Westminster-style electoral system means that there is no guarantee that your government’s policies have any relation to the wishes of the majority of the Canadian people. The good news is that Canadians are less prone to ancestor worship than are your neighbors to the south. Democratic political technology has come a long way since the age of the horse and the sail. There are many proven systems of proportional representation, some of which are perfectly compatible with federalism. Check out the German constitution. Some version of it would be perfect for Canada.

Canada’s Westminster-style electoral system means there is no guarantee that your government’s policies have any relation to the wishes of the majority of the Canadian people

One area of political reform that you have focused on is campaign financing (particularly in the U.S.). What changes might lessen or democratize the effect of money on politics?

See my answer to the Supreme Court question above. But while we await the coming of a sane Supreme Court majority, we could, at least, experiment with public matching funds for small private campaign contributions, requirements for transparency in so-called “independent expenditures.” We probably won’t do any of these things. But, as I also said in my first answer, electing the President by national popular vote would at least dilute the power of money in Presidential campaigns by encouraging it to be spent in all 50 states rather than, as now happens, guaranteeing that it will all be funneled into a tiny handful.

You suggested that vested interests have quite deliberately prevented meaningful political reform–especially through the Orwellian syndrome of ‘cognitive capture’ by well-funded think tanks.  How does this play out in practical terms on issues such as gun control?

That was Chrystia’s point, and I heartily agree. On guns, right-wing opinion tanks (thinking tends to be secondary) played an indispensable role by pushing the novel, formerly fringe, and now almost universally accepted fallacy that the Second Amendment establishes a purely individual “right to bear arms.” Even so, that wasn’t the key factor in the recent failure of gun control legislation; the key factor was structure, especially the Senate filibuster. But conservative “cognitive capture” certainly helps explain the tendency of élites, including “centrist” and even some center-left élites, to take it for granted that debt is a far greater menace to the commonweal than unemployment and that “entitlements” — i.e., social insurance — must be severely reduced.

Hendrik Hertzberg has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. He is the author of Politics: Observations & Arguments, named a best book of the year by The New York Times, and ¡Obámanos!: The Birth of a New Political Era. He has been an officer in the U.S. Navy, President Jimmy Carter’s chief White House speechwriter and editor of The New Republic.