Thursday, November 4, 2010

Constitutional Couch Potato

I suppose I've been watching too much cable news again--too much pontificating about the implications of the Republican (and Tea Party) takeover of Congress, too much yammering about the inability of American "democracy" to rise above greed and irrationality in order to "get anything done."

Anyway, last night I had a dream about WESTMINSTER.  Yes, about the British Parliament--and about parliamentary "democracy" as it has evolved and continues to be practiced in the U.K.  And, particularly, about what the British call their "Constitution."

Curious subject for a dream!

But it wasn't a nightmare at all.  Quite to the contrary:  as the "narrator" (myself, I suppose) of this vision lucidly pointed out, the British system is both more efficient and more democratic than the American system.  Because Parliament is supreme, the legislative and executive powers are essentially identical.  The Prime Minister and the cabinet propose legislation and their majority in Parliament ensures that these measures will be taken.  If severe disagreement arises, the government falls and a new one takes over.  That's it.  Done!

No acrimonious conflicts between House and Senate; no threats of Presidential vetoes; no filibustering in order to avoid a democratic vote; no endless attempts to reconcile the concerns of the executive with those of the legislature. It's all the same.  Done!

And, by and large, done by the House of Commons--a unicameral legislature (the House of Lords is pretty irrelevant) with seats apportioned according to population, not geography (OK, so Scotland and Wales are slightly over-represented:  that's nothing like the insanity that gives deserted Wyoming the same number of senators as teeming California).  More equitable, more democratic.

I like it and I often wish that the Brits had been a bit quicker in allowing their colonies to establish similar national parliaments (as they ultimately did in Canada and Australia and New Zealand).  But it took the American Revolution for them to see the wisdom of such a policy, by which time it was too late for US.  Instead, we wound up with a Constitution that deliberately instituted an "anti-government" government, one in which checks, balances and redundancies virtually guarantee that nothing at all will be done by anybody in power unless nearly universal consensus can be achieved (i.e., in the direst of emergencies).

In other words, the Founders endowed America with a "government" that is essentially REactive, not PROactive, that generally does nothing at all, and that certainly does nothing gradually.  Any problem must be allowed to fester until the infection is so great that the very survival of the Republic is in jeopardy.  Only then, in desperation, are we willing to seek the aid of  Doctor Government--to rally behind a Lincoln or a Roosevelt and, counting on their vision and skill, submit at last to painful change.  At the eleventh hour, completely discombobulated, we finally resolve to DO something--almost anything at this point--in the hopes of pulling through the crisis.  But what if, in treating the cancer that we are currently allowing to metasticize, we put our faith in a "surgeon" who lacks the competence of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt?  Will we die on the operating table, merely another statistic in the history of nations?

The Westminster system, of course, because it allows for swifter response to incipient illnesses (before they have a chance to develop into full-blown, organism-threatening diseases), generally ensures that necessary reforms can be made without such excessive violence to the body politic.

Still, I'm not naive.  I realize that parliamentary government, because of its very democracy and efficiency, runs the risk of degenerating into mob rule, into a tyranny of the majority which could threaten the individual liberties of those whose only shortcoming is that they disagree with prevailing sentiment. In such a system, what is to protect the the rights of such fundamentally benign but disdained minority groups?

In the U.S., of course, normal governmental gridlock generally prevents any single ideological faction from gaining absolute power.  And, in the few instances where the intolerance of the majority DOES find its way into law, an appeal can yet be made to a written document that guarantees the rights of ALL:  the Constitution.

Britain, on the other hand, lacks such a clear, written, codified Constitution.  So what's to prevent a looney Parliament from abolishing free speech, suspending habeas corpus, forbidding blacks or Muslims from voting, incarcerating all homosexuals, requiring everybody to join the Anglican Church?

Technically, nothing, I suppose (unless it be the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain has legally bound itself).

But, in actual fact, any of these acts would (at this point in history) be regarded as blatantly unconstitutional by the courts.  Because there IS a British Constitution, and it's the BEST kind of constitution--a constitution comprised, not of written text susceptible to frivolous exegesis and hysterical amendment (like Prohibition), but of commonly-accepted rites, conventions and traditions that have evolved over centuries.  This unwritten Constitution is wonderfully supple (constantly undergoing almost imperceptible changes, like our species itself) and yet comfortingly stable (taking years, even centuries, to undergo any deep or remarkable alteration).

So, in Britain--and in the other Commonwealth countries, too (even in those, like Australia and Canada, that have a kind of written constitution), the fundamental social contract is shared traditions and practices.

All of which find a human embodiment in the figure of the monarch.  The Queen is, in a very real sense, the living, breathing, purse-toting Constitution.  Recently, I watched the State Opening of Parliament and the Speech from the Throne.  Absolutely fascinating.  And silly and boring (especially the horrible laundry-list speech), of course--at least to an outsider.  But to a participant in the British Social Contract, this was a sacrament--a celebration, in ritual and symbol--of the Constitution that binds all of Her Majesty's subjects to one another and to their mutual ideals and aspirations--a Credo that has evolved over nearly 1,000 years of pushme and pullyou.  The Norman Steps, the Robing Room, the Imperial State Crown, Black Rod, the Mace, the Sword, the Silk Purse for the speech--all of this seeming falderal serves to reassure the British people that the order and texture of their world is intact, that there, in their little island at least, civilization and the accumulated wisdom of the race are still working to stave off the natural anarchy of the universe.

I hope I'm not waxing too eloquent and overstating the case.  The recent results of the 2010 midterms here in America have been indeed sobering to me, a left-leaning progressive.  Because if the U.S. had a functioning Westminister system, John Boehner and his right-wingers would be forming a government--a government which might choose to enact any or all of the following legislation:  a) outlaw abortion, b) continue the ban on gays in the military, c) build a wall to "keep out" Mexicans, d) extend even further tax cuts to the very wealthy,  e) repeal Obama's healthcare reforms, f) privatize (i.e., eliminate or severely restrict) Medicare and social security, g) outlaw same-sex marriage everywhere, h) require prayer and creationism in schools.

Such  "reforms" would not be the modest, gradual, rational changes that I suggested typify the British approach.  On the contrary:  a John Boehner government effectuating the program outlined above would profoundly and cruelly alter the social and economic landscape of the U.S.

Question is:  if the Republicans actually had the power--and KNEW they had the power--to enact these changes, would they do so?  Or would they act more responsibly, realizing that many of those measures--though popular with their "base," would, in the long run, be judged unconstitutional and, in the short run, be enormously disruptive to the commonweal.

In other words, the Westminster system requires something of legislators that our American "checks/balances" system does NOT require:  RESPONSIBLE civil debate and rational, "for the common good" party platforms.  Since, in the British set-up, the legislators can actually GET what they SAY THEY WANT, they really must be certain that their pre-election "talk" corresponds to the post-election "walk" they envisage.

And the attitudes of the voting public are inevitably influenced by this realization.  I suspect that there would have been fewer Republican winners in our recent elections if the electorate had been truly confident that ALL of the right-wing rhetoric would indeed find its way into law.  Would the fiscally conservative old lady have voted for a party that was REALLY intending to abolish Medicare?  There's a good chance that she would have considered her options more carefully.  (Parenthetically, she might also have wondered what kind of medical care Boehner has been getting--i.e., why is he orange?)

But since we Americans just assume that MOST of the stuff advocated by politicians will never find its way into law, we often tend to vote emotionally and impulsively.  We have internalized the notion (which our Constitution renders statutory) that nothing much will happen anyway.  So go ahead:  rant, rave, scream, hate, denounce, wring your hands, wear sackcloth, proclaim the coming Rapture, threaten to round up all Mexicans, promise to bomb Iran, get an orange tan.  Whatever.  Then do nothing, as usual.

Britain is a constitutional monarchy.  The U.S. is a constitutional couch potato.  Burp.

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