Reform Everything At Once


“Why is our system of government so dysfunctional?” we ask ourselves periodically, decade after decade, without ever changing it. The solution, I think, is to round up all the biggest problems and kill them with one shot.

Politics, which depends to a large degree on mobilizing the interest of the bored, busy, and easily distracted public, focuses on intermittent issues far more than it ever focuses on the structure that underlies and causes those issues. Structural reform of our political system—as opposed to just attacking whichever problem came up most recently—is difficult to pull off because it doesn’t align with the political incentives we have created. In general, the only time people care about a structural flaw is when it is visibly manifesting itself by creating a problem. In other words, when it is not possible to fix it. When things subside and the flaw lies dormant, everyone forgets about it until next time. You can’t fix the poorly designed bridge while it is collapsing. You have to fix it while it’s not.

It’s hard to get politicians and interest groups to spend political capital on structural reform because there is no clear, immediate political payoff (unless reform happens to coincide with the interests of one party, in which case it will be dismissed as partisan hackery by the other party, and never happen). Everyone is mad about the Electoral College when it puts the candidate who lost the popular vote in office; but then, when the election is over, attention turns to issue-by-issue fights rather than fixing the structural problem, and so it happens again. “Why put forward the effort to fix it when next time it might benefit my candidate?” This is human nature, and it is very stupid.

What we need is one big political reform bill to fix it all at once. Do it in one throw. Capitalize on people’s momentary focus. History shows us that taking these issues one at a time will never get them fixed. We still have the same damn flaws that we had a generation ago, and a generation before that. The bright side is that the biggest structural problems with our political system are not secrets. Honest people who are trying in good faith to achieve a well-functioning democracy know what they are, no matter what their political persuasion is. All we need to do is get them all in once place and fix them during one of the brief windows when the public is actually angry enough to give a fuck.

So I suggest that we take advantage of our current national outrage over the perverted spectacle of our Supreme Court confirmation process to push through a bill that does the following:

  • Ends lifetime Supreme Court appointments and limits judges to one term of 20 (or 15, or 12) years.
  • Abolishes the Electoral College in order to ensure that the winner of the popular vote becomes president.
  • Outlaws gerrymandering and assigns the drawing of political districts to a nonpartisan commission or, even better, to a nonpartisan computer program.
  • Automatically registers everyone to vote when they reach voting age.

Nobody who genuinely wants our democratic system to function justly in order to represent the will of the people disagrees with any of these measures. Everyone who opposes these measures is a dishonest, power-hungry hack. That unfortunately includes most of the Republican Party, and probably a fair chunk of Democratic senators too, once the lobbyists get done. But if the Democrats are able to retake Congress and the presidency again, they should just ram this all through. The public, though not that smart, is smart enough to get behind having a somewhat more fair government.

These, of course, are not the only improvements you could make to our system. The two biggest reforms that I would love to add to the list above would be campaign finance reform (in the form of some formula for public financing of elections) and abolishing the U.S. Senate (a grotesquely undemocratic body that gives the same amount of power to 600,000 citizens of Wyoming that it gives to 40 million citizens of California, warping our democracy irreparably). I did not include these in the first list because their inclusion would surely kill the bill. Campaign finance reform is too threatening to the self-interest of the people who would need to pass this bill, and the Senate is unlikely to pass a bill abolishing itself. Both of those reforms will need to be dragged into existence by scary, howling public mobs. And I hope they are.

Until then: please fix the other stuff before it comes back to screw us all again. Because it will. Over and over and over and over.

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