As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but what if it is broke? What then?
And so, a minority of Senators representing 116 million citizens thwarted a majority of Senators representing 193 million citizens by insisting on a 60-vote threshold for passage of the gun background check bill introduced in the Senate last week – this despite the strong and steady indication by various polls of popular support for the measure. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but what if it is broke? What then? What can Americans, who seek a functional and responsive federal -government do in response to the obviously broken nature of the Senate and other governmental institutions?
It is quite one thing to respect and protect the rights of the minority as was originally intended by the Framers at a time when the ratio of the largest to the smallest state (by population) was 12-1, and quite another to tolerate that protective feature 225 years later when that ratio has ballooned to 70-1. And even quite another when the minority attempts by means of a procedural device known as the filibuster to further enhance its ability to paralyze the majority, ignore the popular will, and generally offend the proper functioning of government, which is to get things done. Needed things done.
The relationship between minority and majority is a two-sided coin. It requires indulgence of the minority view, but also recognition of the majority will. It cannot survive a lack of consideration or abuse by either side without frustrating large segments of society to the point of political disgust and apathy, which threatens the very roots of our participatory democracy.
The Framers, as prescient as they were, were not infallible in devising the course of action to be taken by those who might seek to remedy such dysfunctions as a dysfunctional Senate. That course of action (i.e. the amendment process) is spelled out in Article 5 of the Constitution, but what does that mean for proponents of change in 21st century America? It means that change can almost never occur. While even the most progressive of Progressives would acknowledge the need for continuity and stability in a nation’s customs and laws, the status quo remedy for changing the Constitution requires, among other hurdles, the support of three-fourths of the states. That means that 38 states must ratify any Constitutional amendment – let’s say revoking or revising the 2nd amendment or changing the apportionment of two Senators per state – before it can be enacted. Potentially, that means that as few as 13 states representing 13 million citizens could thwart the will of 37 states representing 300 million citizens. That this is even a possible result should be cause itself for amending the amendment process.
18th century America was an emerging, cautious, and experimental nation recently detached from a non-representational and supreme foreign power. Despite the atmosphere of change, things moved slowly. The security and surety provided to small states and minority factions was then and continues today to be a worthy goal of our guiding principles. But what was once a slow-paced, unproven nation with shallow democratic roots and an unknown future has been supplanted by a ferociously fast-paced, stable, and eminently successful Constitutional democracy. These facts plus the enormous disparity of population across our land call out for a re-examination of many aspects of our Constitution, especially in the areas of procedure and small-state protections, which serve mainly now, not to limit and protect, but to simply frustrate the vast majority.
To the extent that we admire and respect the Constitution for its many wisdoms is a good thing. To the extent that we worship it as an unapproachable and sacrosanct thing we condemn ourselves to a future guided by an exceptional but increasingly weary set of procedures and protocols whose “quaintness” will inhibit rather than serve the needs of our modern society.
Ironically, in the world’s first democracy, which implies power to the people, we remain in our passivity to act, afraid of ourselves.