Our Constitution created our laws, economy and society. We honor ourselves as “The world’s oldest democracy” and, surely, as something marvelous.
Yet the Constitution established a republic, not a democracy. Written by aristocrats who mistrusted majority rule, it requires concurrence of the Congress and the president to write a law, three-fourths of the states to pass amendments and gives residual power in the states. No other country does that.
When writing constitutions, many countries have drawn upon ours. So it is fair to ask: how have their constitutions benefited their countries compared to how ours benefits us?
I was drawn to this question when a dear friend, Alfred Stepan, died last month. Al was a highly esteemed scholar in comparative politics at Columbia University, a discipline which analyzes how political systems behave worldwide. An obituary cited one of his more respected works which considered economic equality and inequality in 23 advanced democracies. In it the United States, economy turned out to be the most inequitable of them all, Stepan and colleague Juan Linz concluded.
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Our mythology notwithstanding, it is harder for a poor person to become rich in this country than elsewhere. We have more poor children, mothers, and elderly; vastly more prisoners; worse health care; and, surprisingly, the lowest proportion of 25 to 35 year olds with a college degree.
Why is this? It stems from how our system has the most actors who can “veto” what citizens want, with particular emphasis on the role of the Senate. When every state has two senators, national needs are more easily ignored. Moreover, important Senate votes require a 60 percent majority. It is the least representative upper house of the 23 countries studied.
Then there’s money. The Constitution’s writers expected people like themselves to protect against majority rule, but a recent Supreme Court decision equating money with free speech pours billions into politics like never before. Whose interests, do you think, the rich favor?
Our health system recently became more equitable, provided 20 million people with health insurance, yet the Senate came within one vote of taking that away without a substitute.
Do a majority of Americans want a tax plan favoring the wealthy, as Congress is now considering? No, they do not. Yet that is consistent with our mostly marvelous, if inequitable Constitution.
Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, and is a lawyer who practiced international trade law. firstname.lastname@example.org.