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The Constitutional Crisis

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Robert B. Reich, among others, in a recent article points out the many ways that President Trump's actions have created a constitutional crisis. Long before Trump, we were already in a crisis of constitutional dysfunction.

As I understand, in a democratic government the constitution is a contract among the people granting themselves specified rights and protections, and providing by the elective process a system of justice and administration to secure those rights and protections. The constitution was meant to be a living document that could be amended to correct any deficiencies and meet new crises as they arose with changing social conditions. It has served this purpose well in several major historical steps, e.g.: the early amendments constituting the Bill of Rights as to free speech, freedom of religious belief, protections of privacy, etc.; the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, the 22nd amendment limiting the presidency to two terms of office.

Aside from those major developments, the constitution has failed to keep up with rapid social, economic and political changes occurring with accelerating rapidity over the past century. Some of the fundamental disparities that have existed even before that time have not been addressed by the constitutional process, which, ultimately, is the bond that holds our nation together politically.

Any social, political, or economic change may have the potential for good and harm, resulting in winners and losers; so there will always be people for and against it. The most weighty issues dividing us are those related to the basic interests of each class of society. These interests are represented primarily by political parties.

Our constitution was an attempt to mitigate the influence of powerful parties whose interests do not correspond to those benefitting the general public. It designed the government into three supposedly independent legislative, administrative, and judicial branches with balancing powers, each subject to an elective process, the first two directly by the general public. The constitutional crisis arises from the defect of this arrangement - when one party succeeds to dominate all three branches.

In today's morass of government dysfunction, it is easy to see the shortcomings of this system. The complexities of modern society dictate a need for the most competent leadership possible.The quality of democracy can be no better than the quality of the elected leaders and their devotion to democratic principles.

The problem starts with our system of elections. There are relaxed standards of integrity and reliability in the system. The constitution requires only citizenship and age limits for candidates for the highest offices.There are no other qualifications. The election process should not only screen out unsuitable candidates, but also enable highly qualified candidates to compete on equal terms. Instead, elections become a contest between partisan viewpoints which are promoted mainly by a competition of advertising in the popular media. In this format, serious issues are reduced to simple slogans. The reliability of the voter-qualifying and vote-counting methods is poor. Ultimately, the preparation of the people to vote intelligently is minimal. These matters cripple our democracy.

Equally important may be the lack of true independence of the three branches of government and their subjugation to party politics. Although the judicial branch is independent in the sense that it can rule upon the constitutional legality of congressional measures or acts of the administration, the judges of the federal court system, including the Supreme Court, are appointed by the administrative branch and approved by Congress. Thus, as we witness, this branch is not exempt from party politics.

One idea to correct this defect would be to establish a professional advisory board, such as may be selected by the American Bar Association, consisting of distinguished lawyers and judges of reputable impartiality who, in turn, would select proper candidates for judgeships, subject to approval by Congress.

Within Congress, we see other degradation's of democracy. Many states have a party dynasty that returns the same congressmen to office, term after term, and are given crucial roles based upon party loyalty. Thus we may have a southern dynasty controlling the passage of legislation for years on end, giving disproportionate influence to a small percentage of the general population.

The cure? Require rotation of officers and chairmanships of committees, or by random selection regardless of party affiliation.

Beyond all these considerations lie larger issues which throw in doubt the feasibility of effective democracy in the world of today. Democracy, as we know it, is the product of centuries of philosophical discourse, reduced to the simple phrase of the Preamble of our constitution: "to promote the general welfare". This is the guiding principle that should stand above all other purposes and incorporates the highest ideals of mankind as taught by our educational and spiritual mentors.

Today, our guiding principles are in disarray. Government has been taken over by purely economic interests Everything else is secondary. The economy is nominally self-regulating in the imperfect model of laizzez-faire capitalism, with all the advantages going to owners of large corporations. They dictate how much of their gain goes to the workers and to the government as taxes. This follows the notion pronounced by Charles Wilson, CEO of General Motors, during a speaking tour in the 1950's that "what's good for General Motors is good for America."

It should be self-evident that capitalism, as practiced in most countries, is not compatible with good democracy. As I understand it, China has adopted the spirit of capitalism in supporting private ownership, but the government retains a partnership in many enterprises and determines overall policy. This policy resembles the cooperative movement in Scandinavia, as described in "Sweden: The Middle Way" by Marquis Childs (1936). The government effectively regulated corporations by starting cooperatives in competition with them. Good democracy requires rigorous regulation of the economy to balance it with the humanistic goals embodied in "to promote the general welfare".

Lacking a Supreme Being that actively overlooks the affairs of mankind and steers them in the right direction when they get off-course, I would propose that we need an independent wise council that can actively oversee and over-rule the three branches of government when they stray from progressive democratic principles to which they are constitutionally committed. The members would come from outside government and party affiliations. They would be selected by their professional colleagues from the highest echelons of enlightened intellectuals, faithful to democratic principles, and would function as a proxy world government. Put that down on your list of pending constitutional amendments - or something like that.

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Veteran, retired from several occupations (school teacher, technical writer, energy conservation business, etc.) long-time Sierra Club member

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