The Chilean solution

It’s a living document. We can change it if we want to.

There are many reasons you might be jealous of Chile: six hundred miles of coastline, mariscos and avocados, swell Mediterranean climate, a great pop scene in Santiago, etcetera. Me, I am jealous of Chileans because of what they managed to accomplish last week. By a landslide – more than three quarters of votes cast – Chile voted to revisit their constitution.  They’ll have a new convention, and they’ll write fresh rules for the governance of their country.

This was overdue. Chile’s constitution was written in the 1970s during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet has apologists in the United States and elsewhere – mainly because he was open to the advice and influence of American monaterist economists. But he attained power after a CIA-backed coup, ruled as a military dictator, interned tens of thousands of dissidents, and left office in the late ‘80s as a globally recognized violator of human rights. The Chilean constitution reflected his personality. It entrenched and fully ratified the inequality that his policies exacerbated. 

The men who wrote the United States Constitution were better people than Augusto Pinochet. But they were – as we all are – prisoners of their own time. Most of them were active slaveholders. They held views that we’d now find abhorrent. No women were invited to the jam session. No Latin Americans were in on the composition of the Constitution, nor were Asians, or Native Americans, or anybody who wasn’t a wealthy landowner. You might expect that a Constitution written under these conditions would clash with the realities of the polyglot and protean society that America has grown up to be, and over time, it has. It’s a testament to the creative powers of the drafters, and the egalitarian spirit that animated their writing, that the constitution has held a fractious country together for more than two centuries.

Yet distortions in the Constitution, and a profound disjunction between the way its writers lived and the way we do, have begun to cause serious dissonances – and it’s not disrespectful to the document, or to American history, to say that a reassessment is in order.  The U.S. Constitution is something like a well-made suit that has been handed down through generations, and it’s fraying from hard use, and it probably doesn’t fit you as well as it might have fit your great-grandfather. If we don’t take this thing to the tailor for alterations soon, it’s going to rip to shreds.

Eventually, all political systems are judged by the results they produce. Lately, our electoral democracy hasn’t been doing very well.  We keep returning people to power who are, by any standard of assessment, dim bulbs. This has not been good for the country. It’s not the fault of the drafters of the Constitution that we’ve chosen for a leader a lowlife who owes hundreds of millions of dollars to international gangsters; that’s absolutely on us. But regardless of our habitual inattention to reality, that outcome could not have been realized if the Constitution wasn’t coming unstitched around us. Problems with the way we assign and apportion power were exploited by unscrupulous people, and if we don’t fix those issues, those same people are going to keep us over a barrel. The Constitution has become an obstruction to representative democracy. And if representative democracy is what we want, we’re going to have to make like Chile and demand some alterations.

By now, even those who flunked civics know that the Electoral College is unfair. During this millennium, the Republicans have only won a national majority once. Nevertheless, they’ve held administrative power for twelve years and counting, and established the direction of the country and the composition of the court system. The current Republican president isn’t even trying to win a majority of votes: instead, he and his allies are relying on the Electoral College to entrench a permanent-minority government, composed of people from certain parts of the country, and run at the expense of those from other parts. California is the most populous state in America. Nevertheless, Californians will have no say in the selection of the next Presidential administration. The Electoral College has rendered the votes of Californians virtually worthless. 

For some reason, even those affected by this soft disenfranchisement underestimate the damage it’s done to national cohesion. For one thing, it has forced those who’ve depended on the Electoral College to resort to all manner of bullshit to justify its existence, and it’s caused the rest of us to lose all respect for the bullshitters. The more rational actors who defend the Electoral College argue that without it, politicians would never pay any attention to smaller states. That’s a legitimate concern that ought to be addressed. Inherent in that complaint, though, is an acknowledgement that it is only by the grace of the Electoral College that those states have any political relevance at all.  Representatives of those states have overcompensated by governing as if they’ve got a massive mandate, rather than a loophole to exploit: they pretend that they’re the real Americans, and Californians and New Yorkers, and Jersey people like you and me, are wayward Moroccans visiting the hemisphere for the weekend.  

After decades of this nonsense, it’s apparent to me that the federal cardhouse is about to fall. What’s going to happen – and it may happen very soon, no matter who wins on Tuesday – is that people from California are going to decide that this arrangement isn’t in their interest to maintain. They’re going to say, hey, we’ve got wildfires eating up Sonoma, coasts eroding away, and sun and saltwater drying up our crops, and a science-denying government we didn’t elect is indifferent to our predicament. They’re going to count the money they’re contributing to the commonwealth, and they’re going to demand more leverage – and if they don’t get that leverage, they’re going to start pledging allegiance to the Golden Bear rather than Old Glory. I’m using California as the example here, because they’re the ones who are really getting screwed by the Electoral College, and they’re sufficiently far from Capitol Hill that they’ve established their own centers of political gravity. But it’s easy for me to imagine a nullification crisis beginning in Sacramento and spreading to Albany, and Olympia, and Annapolis, and Trenton, too.     

This would be a disaster. It would make the last four years of turbulence look like a field day. Yet it’s clearly the direction we’re heading, and the irony is that the drafters of the Constitution would understand exactly why: the same old problem of taxation without representation that prompted the American Revolution in the first place. There are sixteen times as many people in the Los Angeles metropolitan area than there are in the state of North Dakota, yet North Dakota elects two senators, and Los Angeles must share its senators with the rest of California. The population of Washington, D.C. exceeds that of the state of Wyoming. Wyoming is allotted two senators; Washington gets no representation at all.

This would be unfair but vaguely tolerable if the senators from Wyoming, and North Dakota, and Idaho, and other regions gifted by the Constitution with disproportionate power would govern with sensitivity to the needs of places like D.C.  They haven’t done anything of the sort. Under the leadership of the senior Senator from Kentucky, they’ve banded together to obstruct and deny everything that the representatives of more populous states want for the country. If they had the will, or capacity, to compromise, it might not be as bad as it’s been. Yet those in the permanent minority have cultivated a self-righteous refusal to acknowledge that it’s only by a trick of the Constitution that they’ve got the power they do. This is a defense mechanism. That’s understandable, I guess, but it’s no excuse. 

Kentucky is more than 90% white. There are more African-Americans in the Springfield-Belmont neighborhood of Newark than there are in the entire state of Idaho. Less than one per cent of Wyoming is black. You get the picture. Shielded by the Constitution, representatives of ethnically homogenous states are making all the decisions for a multi-ethnic country. This isn’t merely unfair. It’s racist, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand what that loaded word actually means. Racism isn’t a gaffe, or a funny vibe from a stranger, or digital hillbillies throwing around the n-word on an Internet forum. It isn’t Archie Bunker looking askance at the Jeffersons next door, or Pino Frangione in Do The Right Thing sneering at the moulinyan. All of that stuff is bigotry. Bigotry sucks, and it’s an inevitable consequence of a racist society.  But even if everybody in the country were to scrupulously monitor their language and behavior and avoid outward displays of discrimination (unlikely), it still wouldn’t lay a glove on American racism. Racism is systemic. It’s the deliberate disempowering of one group of people at the expense of another. Some expressions of racism are illegal, but most, sad to say, are legal. In modern America, racism is a gang of white Senators staffing the court system with white judges. Racism is the assignation of the first and most decisive Presidential primaries to states dominated by white people. Racism is police officers busting into the houses of black people, shooting to kill – and getting away with it, because that’s how the deck is stacked.  

How long can a racist government stand?  Way too long, I’m afraid. Apartheid in South Africa lasted for fifty years. Chattel slavery was the law of much of the land in America for centuries, and other forms of legal discrimination persisted for years after emancipation. Americans all over the country are waking up to the realization that the Civil War never really ended. Yet as the demographic realities of North America shift, there’s good evidence that the system is weakening. Over the last few years, American racism has been overt in a way that wouldn’t happen if things were running smoothly. People invested in the perpetuation of a racist system have felt the need to operate blatantly, right out in public for everybody to see. While certain white yokels waving Confederate battle flags applaud this, it reeks of desperation to me. It the sort of behavior you’d expect to see right before the tower crashes. The outright panic demonstrated by old white guys at the presence of a few outspoken Latinas and Muslims in the House of Representatives tells you all you need to know about the siege mentality that’s gripping the permanent-minority government. They’re digging in fiercely because they know they can’t hold on forever. They’re playing a very dangerous game, risking insurrection, emboldening well-armed people who are itching for confrontation. 

Nobody wants a fight less than I do. I can’t take a punch, and I cry when I step on a bug. If you’re like me, I hope you’ll agree that constitutional reform is the best bet for peaceful resolution. We can sweep aside many of the rules that have been used to maintain an unfair distribution of political power, and replace them with healthier ones written to accommodate the realities of life in the 21st Century. This is something that the original writers of the Constitution expected us to do. Many of them were deeply invested in a racist system, and every one of them was what we’d now call sexist, but it’s obvious to me that if they were to return to life today and see how certain members of the Republican Party were using the civic machinery of the Constitution to prop themselves up at the expense of their fellows, they’d vomit. They most certainly didn’t intend Supreme Court justices to be wheeled out of the chambers on their gurneys. They did not mean to create a super-legion of infallible, un-malleable judicial gods. (And if you don’t believe that, just read some of the then-contemporary discussion around the Marbury vs. Madison case that effectively established the Court’s function and personality.)

We need reasonable term limits on all Presidental appointees. We require a legislature that accurately reflects the composition of the country. We need to un-gerrymander districts, and overwrite lines that a child could recognize as exploitative. We need to acknowledge that the Electoral College is making us mean, and polarized, and terrible listeners, and we need to replace it with something more survivable. We need to stop our own institutions from eating away at the Union.  Chileans did what they needed to do. They’re trying to save their country, just like we ought to be trying to save ours. I believe we still can, and I believe that if reform is possible in Santiago, it’s possible in America, too. It beats the hell out of disunion, or fistfights in the streets, or a shooting war.