Less than 200 years later, the US again finds itself facing conditions that could lead to a civil war. Like last time, the nation is starkly split over a ticking time bomb of demographic change that threatens to permanently undermine one of the two major parties.
Trump’s victory allows some chance to establish a workable status quo, but the problem is systemic. There are certain contradictions the US constitutional system has never been able to deal with and which have been major issues since the framers were debating anti-federalists who (rightly) feared an excessively strong central government.
At this point it is clear that highly centralized rule of America is untenable and it is only a matter of time until there is bloodshed. How might we prevent it?
1. Repeal the 17th Amendment
Until reading the constitution I never even knew senators were supposed to be elected by state legislatures, not the popular vote. The whole point of 6 year terms was that senators were supposed to be experienced leaders who would counterbalance the more transient popular representatives of the house.
The founders wisely distrusted complete mob rule. They never seem to mention in social studies class that the system worked like this until 1913 under Woodrow Wilson.
This was done in part as a reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age in the late 1800s when monopolistic robber barons would try to buy out state legislatures so they could pick senators. Corruption is a legitimate concern, but by making senators elected by popular vote, the very purpose of having a senate was undermined. Most importantly, the states were finally completely deprived of any say in the federal government.
2. Make A New Amendment That Allows States To Secede From Each Other
In 1848 Switzerland made a constitution inspired by that of the United States. They may have done a better job of it.
One of their key innovations was to allow their states (cantons) to have referendums to split up. They’ve had a state secede from another state as recently as 1979! In the present US it’s clear regions like Southern Illinois, Upstate New York, or Northern California should be their own states. At present they get little representation with their interests over-ruled by big cities that happen to be included within the same political boundaries.
As far as the number of senators getting out of hand or one party using subdivision as a tool to seize a majority, the Swiss thought of this too. Sometimes the splitting states are made into half-cantons that get one senator each.
An obvious objection is Switzerland is small while America is an enormous empire. This is a good criticism when looking at homogeneous countries like Sweden but Switzerland has multiple official languages and ethnic groups. Furthermore, the individual states that make up Switzerland were a loose alliance for centuries before they became a federal republic like the US.
They held together through the Protestant Reformation even though some states became protestant and others stayed catholic. Others had local forms of direct democracy for centuries while Geneva under John Calvin may have bordered on becoming a theocracy. In some ways Switzerland had more differences to deal with than the US.
The Swiss finally drew up a federal constitution because a civil war had just broken out between protestant and catholic states. They dealt with the problem constructively and decisively when just over a decade later, Americans ended up instead with a years-long bloodbath that scarred the nation forever.
It’s time to get past American exceptionalism and the insistence that America does everything the best. In practice, that just means choosing to stay ignorant of the possibilities that are out there
3. Amend The 10th Amendment
The 10th amendment just says powers not specifically given to the federal government go to the states, or the people. Apparently that wasn’t clear enough. Our modern system is characterized by opposing coalitions of states trying to use the power of the federal government to bludgeon each other into submission.
It’s a tyranny of the majority, or even an influential minority. It’s the nightmare of the founders come true when Californians live in fear of having religion taught in schools and Kansans are oppressed by Californian ideas of marriage. It’s the worst of all worlds for everyone and it sparks incredible tensions many of which culminated in the 2016 election.
Clearly the 10th needs to be amended so it is more specific. States should be prohibited from legalizing a few unreasonable things that would force federal intervention like slavery or murder but need never fear that the culture and civic institutions of another region will be forced down their throats. The reason mountain state evangelicals care so much about gay marriage is that a policy they disagree with has been forced on them.
It would also be necessary to close loopholes such as abuses of interstate commerce laws. Without clear limits the feds can reinterpret the letter of the law to effectively blackmail states with tactics such as threatening to revoke highway funding.
Once the people of each state felt secure that their local customs and laws would be protected from outside power, many of the national tensions that we see approaching a climax could be easily defused.
The whole point of having states is that each can have policies that suit local needs and with many different approaches being tried, there is a natural process of trial and error to find out what works best.
If it means some regions choose to be “backwards” or “vote against their own interests” according to people of another region, so be it. Most Americans see obvious benefits in market competition but do not think about how healthy competition between polities can also produce new solutions.
Right now, states like Colorado are trying out the legalization of pot and if it works for them, other states may adopt it as well. That’s the way the system is supposed to work. We need more of that while reducing heavy handed coercion from the central government.