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A cure for constitutional crisis

Over the past five years, every industrial nation has had its own version of the same economic fight: champions of austerity on one side, advocates of social spending and economic stimulus on the other. It’s tempting to view America’s ongoing political dysfunction as merely one version of this fight, and thus to dismiss it as an aftereffect of the 2008 financial collapse. But the peculiar form the fight has taken in the United States — threatening every few months to hobble the economy with a government shutdown or a debt default — suggests that the country’s institutional dysfunction is no longer a consequence of perpetual crisis but rather its cause. Other democracies have been faced with debt fiascos even more acute than those in the United States, but they have not experienced America’s institutional breakdown. Recognizing as much, some citizens have blamed America’s unique pathology on partisan squabbling, gerrymandering, or special-interest spending. In doing so they ignore the true source of the problem, perhaps because it also happens to be a long-standing source of pride: a nearly 230-year-old constitution stretched past the limits of its usefulness.

There is nothing more tiresome to an American than to be lectured by a Frenchman — a fact on unmistakable display during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it happens that the nation of Lafayette possesses a curious loophole that might help the United States stop making a fool of itself. In 1815, on the heels of revolution and a subsequent turn to empire, France drafted a new constitution. Many of our political leaders — from Talleyrand to Chateaubriand — had already lived for a time in exile in the United States and were familiar with its relatively youthful institutions. They were drawn more to the British model. To this they added a crucial feature: when the government reached an impasse, whether due to a disagreement between the executive and legislative branches or to the inability of one coalition to obtain a legislative majority, the president could call for elections. Instead of waiting months, or even years, to weigh in on the handling of a crisis, voters could have their say immediately. This Charter of 1815, which has served as a template for subsequent parliamentary regimes, allowed the chief of state to dissolve the lower chamber and organize new elections. This is what took place on September 5, 1816, when Louis XVIII observed that the Ultraroyalist majority (the Tea Party of its time) was blocking the passage of government initiatives and sending the country toward crisis. Instead of resting on the laurels of “checks and balances” while waiting for passions to cool, it goes straight to the heart of things and holds the government accountable to its voting citizenry.

What is a free constitution? Kant asked. His answer: one in which, when the people are asked whether there should be war and they say no, there is no war. How does the United States do by this measure? In the spring of 2007, when more than 70 percent of Americans favored getting all troops out of Iraq, Congress voted to set a schedule for withdrawal. George W. Bush exercised his veto, and the occupation continued. When the Bulgarian, German, and Hungarian parliaments voted to withdraw, their troops started packing. The character of a political system can be discerned from whom it gives the last word. In parliamentary systems, it’s the lower chamber: London’s House of Commons, the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, the Bundestag in Berlin. Not in the American system. This is by design: America’s Founding Fathers feared the despotism of elected assemblies, so they organized a separation of powers in which all the leftovers were confiscated by the presidency. Even in France, which today uses a constitution tailor-made by Charles de Gaulle, the prime minister must countersign the president’s acts. To a Frenchman, the opening words of American executive orders — “by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States” — sound like the royal prerogatives of the ancien régime.

If only it ended there! Impeachment: if there is one thing that betrays the U.S. Constitution’s debt to feudal institutions, it’s this relic from an era when the necks of ministers, generals, and sometimes even heads of state were put on the chopping block. The English used it in the seventeenth century to execute one of their kings; a century later, the standard was for ministers to resign rather than face their accusers. “The important thing to the state,” argued France’s attorney general in 1817, when introducing this legal mechanism in France, “is not that all the bad ministers be judged and punished, but rather that they cease to be ministers at all.”

The 113th Congress is just as lost as was the 1816 Chambre des Députés. Instead of passively watching the country plunge into crisis last October, couldn’t President Obama have requested the intervention of American voters? And is it wise now to simply wait for this fall’s midterm elections to settle the continuing debt fight? We are told that the benefit of the American system is that there are elections every two years; but does this mean that in the interim the American people are no longer in charge? It is telling that most democratic nations have aligned themselves with the Anglo-French model. But the American regime clings to its supposed exceptionalism, which is no more than an anomaly, and no one in the United States considers abandoning it. How is it acceptable that voters make themselves heard only every two years, an eternity in the Internet era? How is it acceptable, in this millennium of instantaneity, to have a two-month interregnum between the November elections and the January oath of office?

I don’t wish to pass judgment on the merits of this document. But as a Darwinian, I believe in the necessity of evolution; nations may lose their dynamism, because circumstances change. The ones that survive may not look strongest on paper, but they will be the most adaptable, regardless of their adherence to certain virtuous principles whose hour of glory has now passed. By canonizing texts conceived at a time when institutional philosophies remained untested, the United States has forbidden adaptation, even as it is increasingly confronted with political systems that are, if less glorified, nevertheless more modern, more efficient, and no less democratic — perhaps even more so.

America needs to lower the curtain on this institutional tragicomedy and change its constitution before the system breaks for good. Can it align itself with the rest of the world’s successful democracies? Probably not: the almost religious veneration of America’s founding story keeps its people chained to ancient texts composed under lamplight in the age of sails. And if there are people around the world who say they’ve had their fill of 1776, well, so what?

What America needs is a revolution like the one the French had in 1789 when they stormed the Bastille — that Guantánamo at the gates of Paris where the king, the one who would later get his head cut off, held indefinitely and “without trial any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities.” My apologies — I actually copied this down from the powers of the President of the United States of America enumerated in Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.

Time to start everything over from the beginning. Time for a Bastille Day à l’américaine.

is an essayist and historian.

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