Ill fares the national political system of the United States. In 2016 its major political parties nominated the two least popular candidates for president since the beginning of systematic polling, and almost as soon as the winner took office he became the subject of a “resistance” against his presidency, including efforts to have him removed from office. The Congress has difficulty performing its most basic tasks, notably including passing an annual budget. The most recent hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court turned into a cross between a circus and a particularly ugly trial. Unsurprisingly, public confidence in the federal government has plummeted. A 2013 study found the Congress to be “less popular than root canals, NFL replacement referees, head lice, the rock band Nickelback, colonoscopies . . . traffic jams, Donald Trump, France, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen and Brussels sprouts.”
Something, Americans increasingly feel, has gone radically wrong with the system, which leads to the conclusion that radical measures are needed to fix it. The word radical means “concerning the root” of something, and the root of the American political system is the Constitution of 1788. Predictably, calls for changing that document and proposals for doing so—including junking it entirely and starting from scratch with a new constitutional convention like the one in 1787 that produced it—have begun to proliferate.
Robert S. Singh begs to differ. A professor at Birkbeck College of London University and one of Great Britain’s leading authorities on both American politics and American foreign policy, he has written an elegant and persuasive book whose title announces its purpose: In Defense of the United States Constitution. In the tradition of two classic 19th-century studies of the United States, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The American Commonwealth by the Englishman James Bryce, it combines deep knowledge of America with the detached perspective of a non-American.
The defense Professor Singh presents rests on three broad, well-argued propositions. First, over the 230 years that it has been in effect the Constitution has, by reasonable standards, performed well. Second, while the American political system undoubtedly has problems, some of them serious, they do not arise from its foundational document, from which it follows that substantially altering that document or discarding it altogether would fail to solve these problems. Third, a few changes to the Constitution do have the potential to improve the working of the national political system, although all would affect the system at the margins and none would be easy to enact.
Singh begins by setting out four goals that a democratic constitution should be expected to achieve: channeling social conflict into normal, nonviolent political conflict; enacting majority preferences while protecting the rights of minorities; ensuring the peaceful transfer of power; and permitting revisions and adjustments when necessary. On all four of these criteria, he concludes, the 1788 Constitution has a good if not perfect historical record, especially in comparison with the experiences of other countries. He also assesses it by its own standards. Its Preamble states its framers’ expectations for it: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty. . .” Over more than two centuries in which the Constitution has served as the supreme law of the land, Singh argues in a stimulating chapter, the United States has done well on all six criteria. Overall, the Constitution has provided a clear and sturdy framework for governance that has at the same time proved flexible enough to permit the transformation, over the course of its existence, of a collection of thirteen small, weak, agrarian, mainly British settlements on the east coast of North America into a multiethnic continental super-power with the largest economy, the most powerful armed forces, and the widest international influence in the world. That is no mean achievement.
Professor Singh does not insist that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds in the United States in 2018. He does believe, however, that the causes of the distempers and dysfunctions that the country is experiencing do not lie in the details of its Constitution. To be sure, its particular institutional design does matter in the public life of any political community: that is one of the founding principles of the discipline of political science. Whether a democracy chooses its representatives through a system in which the winner of the highest vote total in geographically defined districts is elected, as in the United States and Great Britain, or by a nation-wide system of proportional representation, as in Israel, or through some combination of the two, which is the German practice, does help to shape its politics and government.
While the rules of the political game matter, however, the characteristics of the players and the nature of the stakes for which they are playing usually matter more; and that, in Singh’s view is the situation in the 21st-century United States. The features of their country’s politics that dismay so many Americans do not stem from the separation of powers that the Constitution decrees, or the Bill of Rights that it includes, or any of its other basic provisions. They are instead the products, according to the author, of the rapid and sweeping technical, social, and demographic changes that America is undergoing, which both contribute to and are aggravated by unusually severe political polarization.
This is not to say that the Constitution embodies perfection and needs no changes at all. To the contrary, Professor Singh carefully assesses the proposals that would-be Constitutional reformers have offered and, while finding most of them either irrelevant to the country’s current shortcomings or likely to be counterproductive in addressing them, he does call attention to several that would help to disperse some of the toxic fog of anger that has come to surround the transaction of public business in the United States.
For presidential elections, while he favors retaining the Electoral College, he suggests changing the allocation of votes within it from the present system, whereby the winner of each state receives all of its electoral votes, to one in which each candidate receives the number of such votes proportional to his or her share of the popular vote. This would expand the scope of presidential campaigns. Currently candidates devote virtually all of their time and resources to the handful of “swing states that each side has a chance of winning. The change would provide an incentive for candidates to campaign everywhere—Republicans in California, for example, which they now avoid, and Democrats in Texas.
As for the Congress, Professor Singh suggests that the inequality in representation in the Senate stemming from the fact that each state has two senators—a feature of the Constitution from the beginning—has become unacceptably extreme. Now Wyoming has one Senator for every 293,000 people while California has one for every 19.5 million, a disparity all the more glaring because unlike the upper chambers in many bicameral legislatures, the United States Senate has considerable power: it has exclusive jurisdiction, for example, over presidential appointments and the ratification of foreign treaties. “Some kind of reckoning is likely to occur,” he writes, “once sufficient Americans begin to remonstrate about the profound democratic deficit that is institutionalized on Capitol Hill . . .” He recommends giving the larger states more representation in the Senate.
He suggests, as well, that federal judges not be appointed for life—a standard established when the American life expectancy was 40 years (it is now twice that)—but rather until a mandatory retirement age. Finally, he believes that the process for amending the Constitution should be made modestly more permissive and proposes the rules for constitutional change in effect in Canada and Australia—in neither of which constitutional revision is easy or frequent—as a substitute.
He acknowledges, however, that none of his proposals would be easy to adopt. For all the criticism that it currently attracts, the Constitution, in its original form, has shown remarkable staying power. In its 230 years of life it has been amended only 27 times, and the first ten of these were created together immediately after it was adopted. So it is altogether likely that seventy years from now the document written near the end of the eighteenth century will celebrate its 300th birthday in more or less the form that its framers gave it. It is one of the several achievements of Robert Singh’s book that it leaves the reader if not delighted then certainly more or less content with this prospect.