The US Constitution was designed by a diverse group of individuals representing the varied interest of 13 colonial governments. During the Constitutional Convention they negotiated, persuaded, and compromised as individuals and ad-hoc groups coalescing around specific issues. There were no political parties. They reached a consensus among themselves on how to balance Federal and State interests. It turns out that their group consensus still needed tweaking. After submitting the Constitution to the States, they had to add the Bill of Rights as a necessary condition for ratification by Massachusetts, Virginia and New York.
Consensus is not unanimity
Every system, every regulation and every law is a compromise of some sort. The best compromises are consensus ones, which bring rich pools of perspectives and talents to the decision-making processes and produce trade-offs which sustain overwhelming and enduring public support. That is as true for business as it is for government. Consensus is vastly superior to autocratic fiat or to majority-votes manipulated by party loyalties, special interests, extremist views, or infantile pledges like the one made to Grover Norquist. When consensus decisions are compared to inaction or to special-interest alternatives, they provide more benefits to more people for a longer time.
Consensus is not unanimity; every consensus omits some constituents. There is no way around it. The Constitution left slavery intact to gain the support of Southern States. Nor, is it possible to reach immediate consensus on all issues. Sometimes, it is necessary to act on a timely basis and pick up the pieces later. However, the most effective and self-sustaining government produces enough consensus solutions to maintain overwhelming public support without coercion.
Laws enacted by majority-votes along party lines are not products of consensus, especially when votes are coerced by party loyalties or special interest lobbies. They create significant opposition and reduce the overall support for government itself.
A healthy government has a reservoir of good will, which enables its citizens to accept some clunker laws or expedient decisions as part of a compromise process. When too many win-lose decisions come out of government, a public backlash festers and grows. This is what we’ve gone through for the last 30 years or so, with the active participation of Republicans and Democrats. We’re now at a point where the system itself is in danger, and extremists are taking advantage.
The Constitution specifies a structure for government meant to sustain diversity, negotiations, and compromises. To that end it, it divides the Federal government into three branches, each with defined roles limited by checks and balances. It also defines checks and balances between Federal and State governments and between governments and citizens. It specifies a wall between church and state, which respects and supports a diverse community of competing religious and secular priorities. All of these checks, balances, and walls can be breached by a determined and organized political army supported by a frightened public seeking simple solutions to complex problems. Self-government, at its core, requires vigilance and a respect for compromise by citizens and elected politicians.
Political parties undermine consensus
The Constitution wasn’t designed for a nation with two political armies struggling for control of government. Its framers were overwhelmingly opposed to political parties because they understood, largely from England’s politics, that party loyalties frequently conflicted with the best judgments of individuals and the common good. Even so, they didn’t ban them. Human nature, the desire for expediency, and the comfort of the herd have left us struggling with two major parties since Jefferson’s Presidency.
Both parties, by their very existence, have altered and weakened constitutional government. They make it easier to pass laws with coerced party-line votes, but more difficult to reach consensus before doing so. To enhance their own stability, they gerrymander safe districts which shut out independents and centrists and over-represent extremists. These districts enable party hacks and party extremists to Continue reading