Politics: America’s Missing Constitutional Link


It’s manifestly obvious. The last thing the United States needs is more politics. Or so the American people, who hate politics, believe. And on this point, alas, they are very wrong. One reason citizens dislike politics is that the political system doesn’t work terribly well, but it doesn’t work well because we have neglected to create wise rules to govern it. We can place the blame for this deficiency squarely on the shoulders of the Founders.

In so many respects, today’s political system is broken, and there is currently no reasonable prospect of fixing it. Our schedule of presidential primaries and caucuses is a front-loaded mess, and the Congress, the parties, and the states refuse seriously to tackle its reform. The Democrats are currently tinkering at the edges of reform, just as the Republicans attempted to do in prior years, but little will come of it because of the powerful interests with heavy investments in the status quo. Our scheme of campaign financing incorporates the worst of several worlds, and with each election cycle the process deteriorates further. Our partisan procedure for drawing legislative districts enforces vicious polarization rather than encouraging moderation and compromise. Are these calamities our fault? Certainly. But all these disasters can be traced back to the writing of the Constitution–not so much what was included in the text, but some items foolishly or thoughtlessly excluded from it.

The Founders preferred to think of themselves as statesmen, not politicians, and in the statecraft of their times there was remarkably little formal role for politics. Even more than in the current day, politics was viewed as a disreputable business, and the perfidies of “factions” (the Founders’ name for political parties) were detested and dreaded. George Washington famously warned the new nation against them in his Farewell Address:

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

But as the years rolled by, even during Washington’s own administration, most of the Founders came to understand that politics and its institutions were necessities for a successful Republic. Adams and Jefferson helped to create rival political parties. Their Electoral College deadlock in the 1800 presidential contest led to a constitutional amendment that acknowledged the inevitable political relationship between the president and vice president. Citizens grew restive at elite rule and began demanding the opportunity to cast popular ballots for president to instruct their electors. And the American system, in fits and starts and the occasional piecemeal constitutional adjustment, adapted to include these political changes.

The fundamental problem, though, has never been corrected. The Constitution was written by the Founders when they had not yet realized the vital necessity of politics and parties in the process of our elections. Further, the enormous transformation of politics from the part-time avocation of public-spirited gentlemen to the multibillion-dollar enterprise of electoral institutions in a rich, diverse, continental Republic has not been matched by constitutional adaptation. The absence of modern politics in the Constitution–from the structure of presidential selection to the manner of congressional elections to some critical aspects of electioneering, such as redistricting and campaign finance–has caused no end of difficulties, which can only be corrected by the inclusion of thoughtful provisions in a new twenty-first-century Constitution. It is long past time to do so…(Continued)

Read the rest of “Politics: America’s Missing Constitutional Link,” by Larry J. Sabato in the Summer issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.