(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)
The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.) Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.
One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.
Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising. No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force. Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.
Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.
Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.
The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.