Balance of power

The chaos of Presidential primaries this year is a far cry from what the writers of the United States’ Constitution intended.

First, let’s skip the nonsense of asking whether the United States is a democracy or a republic. It can be both, and it is both. The United States is a republic because it has no hereditary leaders; it is a democracy because power rises from the people, who have the opportunity to choose their leaders. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to a party that called itself Democratic-Republican. Those three men (as any student of American history knows) had considerable influence and involvement in the formation of the United States government.

But the creators of that government did not trust the general population to make good choices. They feared that voters would be easily swayed by appeals to emotion rather than by good and responsible leaders. Therefore, the Constitution (as first written) allowed voters to choose the members of the House of Representatives but not members of the Senate. Senators were chosen by state governments until the twentieth century. As part of the balance of powers envisioned by the writers of the Constitution, Representatives serve two year terms, making them interested in immediate issues; but Senators serve six year terms, making them interested in longer term issues. The entire House of Representatives can change in a single election, but in any election no more than one third of the Senate can change.

The writers of the Constitution also did not trust voters to choose the President of the United States. Voters only choose electors from each state, and those electors then meet to choose a President. By Jefferson’s time, electors already were making their intentions known to the voters, so voters who favored one elector over another decided on the basis of how that elector promised to vote. In the general election in November, voters still will be choosing electors, but probably not one in a thousand voters will know the names of the electors they choose. They will be considering the candidates for President, not the candidates to meet together to choose the President.

The Constitution says nothing about political parties. Even though all the Presidents after George Washington have been members of a party, even Jefferson and Madison were at first opposed to party politics. By 1800 the first political parties had been formed in the United States, and ever since that time parties have selected candidates to be presented to the voters in the November general election.

Even then, primaries were not used to winnow the field of candidates. Leaders of the parties gathered in convention to select candidates for the highest offices and to form platforms (statements of the political positions of the party). Even in the middle of the twentieth century, few states held primaries to choose among candidates for President. The cliché of the “smoke-filled room” in which a few influential men decided what choices would be offered to the voters was, at that time, still a reality. Politicians decided to change the process leading to the nomination of a candidate for President after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. In that convention, notorious for its disorder, Hubert Humphrey won his party’s nomination without having placed first in a single primary election. By 1972, both the Republican and Democratic parties had designed a new system in which the voters of the various states had a larger voice in determining which candidates would be nominated by the major parties.

The winnowing process has begun, as a few men and women travel around the country, seeking approval from the voters. Some states have caucuses and others have elections; some states bar voters who have not previously declared a party loyalty, others allow a voter to declare a party loyalty while receiving a ballot. Millions of dollars are spent by candidates and their committees advertising in every forum, hoping to get the attention of voters, and hoping eventually to get votes. In their speeches and on their web sites, all the candidates announce what they hope to do if they are elected President of the United States. Yet when an informed voter hears those speeches and reads those web sites, he or she might wonder whether or not the candidates are familiar with the United States Constitution.

The writers of the Constitution did not trust the voters, but they also did not trust the government. In various ways they worked to balance the government so that changing the laws would be difficult. All the states have equal representation in the Senate but proportional representation in the House, and most major decisions must be approved by both bodies. This prevents large states from dominating all the decisions without giving overwhelming power to the small states. The President cannot propose laws; only a member of Congress can propose a law, and then Congress discusses and debates the proposed law before voting whether or not to approve it. The President can sign the law, but only if Congress has approved it. If the President disagrees with the law and refuses to sign it, the President may veto the proposed law; but the two houses of Congress can overturn the veto by a supermajority.

Nearly all the promises being made during the primary elections by the candidates concern laws that can only be made by the Congress. A candidate might make glowing promises to win votes, but without the action of Congress, those promises are only empty words. According to a political theory first proposed by European philosophers but first tried in the United States, government is limited by having a legislative branch that creates laws but cannot enforce them, an executive branch that enforces laws but cannot make them, and a judicial branch that interprets laws and can overturn them, but only when a citizen opposes a law and has brought it to the courts—often by intentionally breaking that law.

A candidate for President should promise to do the job of the President. This includes being Commander in Chief of the armed forces, representing the United States to other nations, and using the power of the executive branch to enforce the laws made by Congress. Voters who want to see changes in the laws of the United States—such as changes in the tax code, more benefits for the poor, or different immigration policies—need to pay attention to the candidates for the United States Senate and the House of Representatives rather than to the candidates for President.

For this reason, Abraham Lincoln was the only notable President after Andrew Jackson and before Theodore Roosevelt. Generally in the nineteenth century, Congress did what the legislative branch was supposed to do and the President did what the executive branch was supposed to do. For a number of reasons, Americans began to pay more attention to their Presidents in the twentieth century. As a result, people who wanted to be elected President began to make more promises to the voters, even though they knew that they would not have the power to keep those promises if they were elected.

It matters who is elected President of the United States this fall. It matters who the major parties nominate this summer. It matters because the next President will represent the United States to the other countries in the world. The President will oversee foreign policy. The President will be in charge of the armed forces. The President will approve or veto laws passed by the Congress. Those who vote in the primaries this winter and spring had best consider which candidate will best perform in those roles, not which candidate can make the most inspiring and generous promises. J.

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