In his November 23, 2016 talk, “Trump’s Election and the Need for a Mass Movement for Constitutional Reform,” Anatol Lieven, Professor of International Politics at Georgetown University in Qatar, spoke about the recent US elections in the broad context of the United States Constitution. Today, many Americans consider the Constitution “sacred,” and would reject even the smallest changes to it, even though it has undergone twenty-seven successful amendments over its history. This passionate attachment comes from the Constitution’s central importance to American civic nationalism and national identity, and its success in framing the United States as it grew to become the most powerful country on earth.
This is not really a problem if a system delivers good government and basic, consensual civic peace, however, Lieven said: “I fear that the US Constitution is, as it presently exists, less and less able to do this.” As things stand today, “the Constitution is beginning to work massively in favor of one section of the American population and American politics, namely white conservatives, who are not anxious to give up the advantages that this system gives them,” he said.
Other western democracies have made changes to their constitutions over the years, but systems that have been as successful as that of the USA over a long period will find it more difficult to change. But however successful it may have been in the past, “A system which is not capable of even limited and pragmatic change may be in serious trouble,” Lieven cautioned. Because of the way that US presidential elections work, and because of the institution of the US Electoral College, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in this election, but Donald Trump won because he secured the Electoral College votes. The same thing happened with Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. “As far as I know, the United States is the only presidential democracy in the world that operates in this this way,” he said.
The US presidential election campaign has essentially been reduced to fifteen states, those needed to win the Electoral College, according to Lieven, and the other thirty-five states are ignored to a considerable degree. This has created a somewhat odd image of American democracy in the world. Lieven asked, “Is the United States, in fact, a democracy? Well, the obvious answer is no, of course it isn’t, because it wasn’t intended to be.” The founders were notoriously suspicious of democracy, which they associated with the threat of anarchy and mob rule leading to tyranny, according to Lieven. They put barriers against democracy into the Constitution, and it was almost forty years later that the US actually became a more or less democratic country in the (then) sense of a country where all adult white males had the vote.
The founders’ intention was to create a system that would prevent tyranny while providing reasonably good, though very limited government. “It was, above all, to create a system that would last, that would create institutions that could mediate and reconcile different interests,” among thirteen very different states, Lieven said. This balanced state powers against those of the central government. The battles of states’ rights remain critically important to this day, especially when it comes to racial and cultural issues, Lieven said. This is what led to the secession of the South before the Civil War and the battles over states’ rights in the 1940s–60s, as the white South fought to retain racial segregation and discrimination.
While some of the workings of the Constitution have been transformed, formal institutions such as the Electoral College remain in place. The founders saw it as a kind of temporary parliament, a national assembly of elected, independent legislators who had made promises to their electors, but were also free to choose the president as they saw fit. In this context, direct democratic election was secondary, according to Lieven. “Today we have a situation where the Electoral College remains in certain respects highly undemocratic, but is democratically nailed to the candidate to whom they have promised their vote in advance,” he said.
When the Constitution was formulated, the smallest state had roughly one-twelfth of the population of the largest state, and most states had roughly similar populations. In 2010, there were seven states with more than 10 million people each, and they had fourteen US senators. These are the big, urban states, multi-racial and largely Democratic in their leanings, and they account for approximately 45 percent of the US population. There were seven states with fewer than one million people in 2010, accounting for about 2 percent of the total US population. These are overwhelmingly Republican leaning states with white conservative populations, and they also have fourteen US senators. Basically, this means that California has roughly 40 times less representation than a state like South Dakota.
The problem of democracy in the House of Representatives is a different one. Currently in the House of Representatives, due to the rights held by the states under the Constitution, forty-three out of fifty states have their constituency boundaries for the House determined by state legislatures and state executives, and they are politically manipulated. This despite the fact that the House was always conceived as a national popular legislature, popularly elected. The drawing of constituency boundaries to produce solid, unchangeable majorities for one party or another is favored not just by Republicans but also by black Democrats, who see this as a way to guarantee black representation in Congress (and their own seats).
As a result of this effectively rigged system, in this year’s election, Republicans won the national popular vote, but by a margin vastly smaller than the number of seats won in the House. In 2012, Republicans lost the popular vote by a wide margin but gained a majority of seats. “This raises not just questions about democracy, but it creates additional problems in America, especially a polarized America,” said Lieven. Only around seven per cent of House seats were really contested in the last four elections. The result of this is to push the real political contest for the House from the area envisaged by the Constitution (elections) and into party primaries, in a way that inevitably favors extremists and increases polarization—since there is no longer any need for candidates to try to win candidates from the middle ground or the opposing party. “Battles in party primaries always, always—in every country—tend to favor active activists and extremists,” said Lieven.
The courts have challenged individual cases of drawing district maps, but Lieven said, “It seems obvious that this should be done the way it is done just about everywhere else in democracies, which is to have an impartial national—not politically chosen—electoral commission that will distribute the seats, and be subject always to judicial review,” Lieven said. “The Supreme Court has to judge according to the Constitution, and it is very difficult to challenge the system as a whole constitutionally, given the power of states’ rights. Additionally, there is the pretty strange provision under the Constitution that the Supreme Court has far greater powers than those of any other Supreme Court that I know of in the world. Powers that are, in effect, legislative—not just judicial,” said Lieven. “And the Supreme Court has repeatedly made laws—not interpreted them—made new laws that have radically changed aspects of American life,” he said. When to this are added the Constitutional provisions that Supreme Court judges are chosen by the President, and for life, there is a very real possibility that (with a number of Democrat judges nearing the end of their life), President Trump could ensure a Republican grip on the Supreme Court for a generation to come, putting the Republicans in a position constitutionally to block large parts of a future democratic president’s legislative agenda—completely irrespective of the popular vote.
Lieven predicted that as America changes demographically and whites sink from a majority to a plurality of the population, the effective disenfranchisement of millions of urban Americans and the demand for constitutional reform are going to become a much bigger issue in the future. However, he said it is highly unlikely that the Democrats under their existing leadership will raise this issue effectively.
Due to the Senate distribution, the way the House is arranged, and the certainty the Supreme Court would do nothing about it such a demand for change would have to be pushed for by a mass popular movement—as in the struggle against slavery and for civil rights. The Democratic leadership that produced Hillary Clinton is far too cautious and intertwined with the US economic elites to consider such a radical step. Fortunately, Bernie Sanders has shown the deep desire among much of the rank and file of the Democratic Party for a more radical path.
However, Lieven cautioned against a movement for Constitutional reform couched in terms of democratic rights for racial minorities, as this would be sure to drive many moderate working class whites into the ranks of the reactionary opposition. Instead, he summoned up the examples of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King when in his last years he campaigned for social and economic justice for all Americans. Lieven called for “A movement for democratic reform, linked to economic justice, appealing to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised urban poor of all races, and couched in terms of the need to renew American democracy in the name of American nationalism and America’s national image in the world.”
Anatol Lieven teaches International Politics at Georgetown University in Qatar. He received a BA in History (double first) and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge. Before joining academia, he spent most of his career as a foreign correspondent for British newspapers, and later as a member of think tanks in Washington DC. Between 2007 and 2014 he worked in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, where he remains a visiting professor. His main project at present is a book on the history of the Pashtun ethnicity in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the context of the wider history and theoretical analysis of modern nationalism (commissioned by Yale University Press). His taught courses at Georgetown in Qatar include international security issues; US foreign policy; war and diplomacy in Afghanistan and South Asia; comparative political systems and the history, theory and comparative study of nationalism. He is author of numerous books, including Pakistan: A Hard Country (2012); America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (second edition 2012); and Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry (1999).
Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.