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Chaos, Confusion, and Other American Glories

by Steve Chapman

A Rube Goldberg scheme, but a sensible one
In the time since the presidential election, critics have been charging that our system of government and elections is an antiquated, fragmented, irrational and sometimes undemocratic contraption guaranteed to frustrate anyone looking for clear, speedy implementation of the will of the people. Well, it is. You got a problem with that?

Right now, of course, the nation and the world are presented with what looks like mindless chaos. The biggest vote-getter may lose, the outcome may be determined by ballot designers, and we not only don't know the winner -- we don't even know when we will know.

Chaos this may be, but mindless it isn't. The American republic is not a sleek, efficient machine that infallibly converts popular sentiment into government policy. That's because it is not supposed to be. Just the reverse, in fact.

From the federal government down, our system incorporates a variety of mechanisms that are meant not to facilitate action and empower the people, but to prevent action, slow things down and ward off the excesses of popular rule. The founders of the republic were familiar with efficient government: They knew it as monarchy. And they had deep reservations about democracy, which they feared would degenerate into tyranny by the majority.

So they didn't want too much efficiency or too much democracy. The institutions they created were designed so it wouldn't be easy for anyone, elected or electorate, to get things done. The government had limited powers, spelled out in the Constitution, and those powers were divided among three branches of government.

Countries like Britain, which operate on a parliamentary system, can have an election one day, a new government the next, and a 180-degree change of policy the day after. Americans, by contrast, do not expect instant gratification in the political sphere.

Here, the president-elect has to wait two and a half months just to take office, and he can implement much of his agenda only if he can get consent from Congress -- which may be controlled by the party he just defeated in the presidential race. He is checked by Congress, Congress is checked by him, and both are checked by the courts -- which in turn are checked by both of the other branches. There is no such thing as unbridled power in our system.

Besides being contained by checks and balances, power is not concentrated in one place but scattered among thousands of government bodies from coast to coast. We have an electoral college, which can deprive the people of their choice for president, because ours is not a single democracy but a collection of democracies. We are the United States of America, not the United People of America.

So some powers, like supervising elections, reside at the state level, while others are lodged in Washington. This prevents either the federal government or its state counterparts from having too free a hand. As the Supreme Court put it in a landmark 1995 decision, "A healthy balance of power between the states and the federal government will reduce the risk of tyranny and abuse from either front."

The electoral college, like the United States Senate, is a check on the power of large states to impose their will on small states. It encourages presidential candidates to heed not only the desires of people living in New York and Chicago but those living in Las Cruces and Cedar Rapids.

Without devices like these, states would be weaker and less able to resist the centralizing impulses of the federal government. They would be little more than administrative vestiges, as puny and superfluous as an appendix.

As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, the founders had a clear idea how to prevent oppression and injustice: "Society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens that the rights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority." Bad people or bad causes might come to dominate one level or branch of government, but like Gulliver being restrained by the Lilliputians, they would find themselves foiled by a multitude of tiny obstacles.

So what looks like a senseless Rube Goldberg scheme that merely complicates things which ought to be simple is actually a sensible Rube Goldberg scheme that serves reliably to protect our liberties. And if, this one time, it also means that the next president may not be known for days or weeks and may be unable to do much of anything once he takes office -- well, just consider that a bonus.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 20, 2000 (

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