It might be time to rethink the U.S. presidency; or how we fill that office because a lot of Americans are dissatisfied with the process.
Around 47% of white Americans aged 18 to 30 considered the winner the 2016 presidential election; Donald J. Trump (R-New York), an “illegitimate president,” a March 2017 poll conducted by the University of Chicago and the Associated Press found. The numbers were higher for some groups – around 74% of African Americans in that demographic called Trump “illegitimate.”
Such figures raise serious questions about the coherence of our society and the long-term viability of our democracy. Can a society where a large percentage of the population refuses to accept the legitimacy of the government? History demonstrates that countries like the Soviet Union; where many citizens viewed the government as illegal, collapsed.
Many people point to Hillary Clinton’s (D-New York) victory in the popular vote (65.84 million over Trump’s 62.979 million) and the ongoing gridlock in Washington, as reasons to change. Even the victor in the last presidential election; Trump, has questioned the validity of the Electoral College system.
A logical solution that we might consider here is changing the way we pick the president. That would require a Constitutional Amendment (tough but doable it requires the approval of Congress and two-thirds of the state legislatures).
Some potential fixes to the way we choose Presidents include:
Option One: Elect the President by Popular Vote
Abolish the Electoral College and elect the president by popular vote. The Electoral College was created because technology in 1789; when the Constitution was written, made counting a popular vote nationwide impossible. Since modern technology makes counting votes nationwide a simple matter, the main rationale for the Electoral College is long dead.
Scrapping the Electoral College would make the system more democratic, but it would increase gridlock. If Hillary had won we would have a Democratic President and a Republican Congress.
Going to a popular vote would make things even worse; polls indicate that the most popular politician in America is the far-left U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Imagining President Bernie working successfully with the current crop of Congressional Republicans is a stretch of the imagination.
Another threat to consider here is that of civil war or breakup of the Union. The Civil War broke out because a large percentage of Americans; Southerners, feared that they had become a permanent majority whose rights would be trampled by an arrogant majority.
We already face a situation in which substantial minorities; such as rural whites, Evangelical Christians, and African Americans believe their rights are being trampled. Going to a popularly elected presidency would increase those fears. A likely result is minority groups would refuse to participate in the political process; or use Congress to try and remove popular presidents they feared, leading to endless constitutional crises.
Option Two: Have the House of Representatives elect the President
Since the election of representatives is based on population, this would reflect the popular vote. It would also give minority groups more influence – because they would presumably control at least some House seats.
Potential advantages to this method are that it would make it easier to hold the President accountable and keep populist demagogues out of office. It is hard to imagine the House electing somebody like Trump to anything.
Nations with parliamentary systems; where the national legislature chooses the head of government, seem to be more effective than ours. One reason for that is it is easier for them to make decisions, and compromise among political elements is forced.
Parliamentary systems are often effective because the head of government is the head of the majority party. Under our system, the President is separate from Congress so all he can do is make suggestions about legislation to Congress.
In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister submits the budget to parliament; and it is approved because the House of Common is controlled by her party. In the US, the President sends a budget wish list to Congress and prays he gets something back.
Drawbacks to this method are that lobbyists and corporations would have more influence than voters. Another is charges that the House does not represent the nation’s population because of Gerrymandering.
Beyond that, the House is popularly elected which would give large population states an advantage. Rural residents who already feel like an embattled minority might object to that. After all, they do have some ability to game the present system to their advantage as Trump’s Electoral College victory demonstrated.
A potential means of alleviating such concerns would be to require Senate approval of the House’s Presidential pick. Since each state has two Senators, that would give less populous states some influence over the process. Elimination of the filibuster for this vote would be needed to make it easy to fill presidential vacancies.
Something to remember is that if the House elected the President; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would be in the White House. I seriously doubt progressives would like that.
Option Three: Separate the Head of State and Head of Government
Most modern democracies; including every other English-speaking nation, separate the head of state and the head of government. This diminishes the leader’s authority but can increase his or her effectiveness as a leader.
One advantage to this option is prime ministers have more freedom to engage in the dirty business of everyday politics. Another is the lack of a messianic cult around the head of government which plagues the United States and some Latin American countries. The UK has such a cult but it is centered on the monarchy; not 10 Downing Street, which enhances the Prime Minister’s effectiveness.
An option here would be to neuter the presidency by transforming the position into a figurehead and having another official as head of government. We could follow the example of most democracies and have a president who is nothing but a figurehead. This is the system they have in countries like Germany and India.
Such a system might be easier for Americans to swallow because the ritual of electing the president would be preserved. Voters would get the chance to elect popular feel-good candidates like Trump or Oprah Winfrey, but that person’s role would be purely ceremonial.
All the presidential ceremonies the public loves; such as the White House egg roll, would be preserved. Egomaniacs like Trump would be able to have a lot of fun flying around in Air Force One, pinning medals on veterans, opening museums, and attending state banquets without doing any damage.
Instead, control of government would be in the hands of another official elected by Congress. Perhaps elected by the House and approved by the Senate. This official, perhaps called Chief Executive would have the real power.
An advantage to such a system is that the Chief Executive would be just another politician rather than high priest of the religion of Americanism. Another is that Congress would be able to remove the Chief Executive with a simple vote at any time. The leader would be far more accountable, and changes of government would be a simple matter of procedure rather than a year-long media circus.
Selling such a solution to the American people would be difficult because of the cult of the presidency is well established and popular. Although, a few years of Trumpism and all its noxious side effects might change that.
Something must be done because it is getting difficult for our government to undertake basic functions like setting a budget. Under our current system, effective government is becoming impossible and the Presidency is becoming a meaningless office. Some sort of drastic reform is needed to prevent a crisis of government; or a situation in which America is totally leaderless.