Can a political elite hold itself accountable? Left to its own devices, absent a virtuous citizenry, a political elite is able to exploit a conflict of interest in both wielding the authority of government and using that power even to constrain the elite itself. Unfortunately, even where an electorate is virtuous, the dispersed condition of the popular sovereign is an impediment to galvanizing enough popular will to act as a counter-power to that of a political elite, which is relatively concentrated and well-informed. In early 2017, the problem was on full display in the E.U. state of France, with little the federal government could do given the amount of governmental sovereignty still residing at the state level. So the question is whether an electorate can galvanize enough power to counter that of a political elite.
François Fillon in trouble for corruption amid an ensconced political elite. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
The full essay is at “François Fillon.”
While he was running for the U.S. presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon told H.R. Haldeman “that they should find a way to secretly ‘monkey wrench’ peace talks in Vietnam” by trying to get the South Vietnamese government to refuse to attend peace talks in Paris until after the U.S. election.Specifically, Nixon gave instructions that Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser, should keep “working on” South Vietnamese officials so they would not agree to a peace agreement before the U.S. election.“Potentially, this is worse than anything he did in Watergate,” said John Farrell, who discovered evidence of Nixon’s involvement from Haldeman’s notes on a conversation with the candidate. That Nixon committed a crime to win the election is itself an indication that the way Americans elect the federal president was flawed. That he went on to cover up the Watergate crime committed during the 1972 campaign only to win by a landslide should give pause to anyone having faith in an unchecked popular election. I contend that the American Founders had designed the Electoral College in part to catch such a candidate from becoming president, even if the College had never operated as such. Yet it could.
The full essay is at “The Case of Nixon’s Treason.”
1. Peter Baker, “Nixon Sought ‘Monkey Wrench’ in Vietnam Talks,” The New York Times, January 3, 2017.
. . . → Read More: The Electoral College Hampered: The Case of Nixon’s 1968 Campaign Treason
The matter of how the U.S. President is to be selected was a tough nut for the delegates in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to crack. Mason observed the following in convention, “In every Stage of the Question relative to the Executive, the difficulty of the subject and the diversity of the opinions concerning it have appeared.”The alternative proposals centered around the Congress, State legislatures, the governors, the people, and electors designated for the specific purpose as the possible determiners. Although the delegates were men of considerable experience, their best judgments about how the alternatives would play out were subject to error as well as the confines of their times. In re-assessing the Electoral College, we could do worse than adjust those judgments and rid them of circumstances pertaining to them that no longer apply. For example, the Southern States no longer have slaves, so the question of whether those States would be disadvantaged by going with a popular vote no longer applies; the alternative of going with the popular vote nationwide no longer suffers from that once-intractable pickle. Yet lest we rush headlong into a popular vote without respect to the States, we are well advised not to dismiss the points made by the convention delegates, for we too are constrained by our times, and we may thus not be fully able to take into account points that have been forgotten.
The full essay is at “The Electoral College.”
1. James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966): 370.
Continue reading The Electoral College: Beyond the Conventional Wisdom
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As the U.S. Supreme Court began its 2016 term with eight justices, the Court stood “at the threshold of an ideological transformation unmatched in nearly a half century.”Not since 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected U.S. President, had such an opportunity presented itself. Nixon’s four nominations ended the liberal majority begun by Franklin Roosevelt’s eight.The conservative majority begun with Nixon’s nominations was up for grabs with the 2016 presidential election. I submit that the legitimacy of the ideological dimension itself dwarfs the matter of which ideology is dominant on the Court.
The full essay is at “Political Ideology in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Richard Wolf, “Court at Brink of Transformation,” USA Today, September 30 – October 2, 2016.
Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office at the end of August, 2016. The state’s senate voted 61-20 to convict her on charges that she used illegal bookkeeping maneuvers to hid a growing budget deficit.Her defense that she did not enrich herself through public office—that she did not steal public money for her own account—can be regarded as an attempt to deflect the legislators from the existing charges.Only 56 legislators were necessary for a two-thirds majority. Given the problems of hyperinflation and fiscal mismanagement, including a growing public debt, her offenses were “deemed an impeachable crime.”Although Brazil was hardly the only country where the chief executive has sought under political pressure to make a budget deficit look smaller than it actually was, enforcing deterring consequences even just in this case is laudable—while other, partisan motives, detracted from the vote’s legitimacy.
The complete essay is at “Partisan Impeachment in Brazil?”
1. Paulo Trevisani and Reed Johnson, “Brazilian President Rousseff Ousted,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2016.
Even as the Electoral College has never performed as intended, that the delegates at the U.S. federal constitutional convention devised it can help us to flesh out some of the hidden, or overlooked, deficiencies in how a U.S. president is selected in t… . . . → Read More: Picking a U.S. President: Excessive and Insufficient Democracy
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.
The full essay is at “A Homework Assignment for ‘We the People’.”
Only days after appealing to the will of the people, Greece’s prime minister put forward a proposal to the state’s creditors that contradicts the people’s rejection of further austerity. To be sure, the referendum was nonbinding, and the need for compromise was well justified by the seizing up of the state’s banking system and economy after the “No” vote. Furthermore, one of the virtues of representative as distinct from direct democracy is that officeholders can pursue policies contrary to the immediate will of the people but in line with their best interest. Alexis Tsipras faced immanent economic catastrophe, and so he can reasonably be credited with acting in his constituents’ best interest. Nevertheless, the sting of betrayal (and the larger theoretical point of governmental sovereignty being subordinate to popular sovereignty) warrants attention in this case.
The full essay is at “The Greek Proposal.”
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced a referendum on austerity demands from foreign creditors on June 27, 2015, “rejecting an ‘ultimatum’ from lenders and putting a deal that could determine Greece’s future in Europe to a popular vote. ‘Our responsibility is for the future of our country. This responsibility obliges us to respond to the ultimatum through the sovereign will of the Greek people,’ Tsipras said in a televised address.”Prime Minister George Papandreou had been ousted in 2011 because he had announced a referendum on budget cuts that lenders were demanding. Essentially, the sovereign will of the people was eclipsed by an incoming government by technocrats. Four years later, Tsipras was on much firmer ground, democratically speaking, even as his state was facing a financial crisis manifesting in a slow bank-run. Nevertheless, reaching the popular sovereign (the Greek people in this case) involves obviating some serious distortions and roadblocks.
Greece’s PM Tsipras looking rather fatigued after meetings on the bailout. (John Thys AFP/Getty)
The full essay is at “A Greek Referendum.”
 Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou, “Greece’s PM Tsipras Calls Referendum on Bailout Deal,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2015.
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