“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. ... [They] must advance ... and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
"What kind of political system would we create if we were designing the American system from scratch today?"
Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago on July 4. Today, we often congratulate ourselves for serving as the model of democracy for the rest of the world, yet our country has perhaps never been so polarized, so divided and so dysfunctional. More and more Americans have a vague and increasing sense that our government is simply incapable of addressing basic challenges like immigration, guns, entitlements, trade, climate and environment, privacy and security, the federal budget, spiraling inequality, money in politics … or even a health emergency like the Zika virus. It is no longer hyperbole to say that American democracy is broken.
So as we look forward to our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026, perhaps the time has come to launch a decade-long conversation about our election procedures, our governing mechanisms and the 18th-century constitutional structures bequeathed to us by our founders.
What kind of political system would we create if we were designing the American system from scratch today?
We take great pride in the “checks and balances” that James Madison incorporated into our Constitution and see them as our greatest bulwark against tyranny. But many other countries use parliamentary rather than presidential systems—and they seem quite safe from the danger of dictatorship. In many other countries, voters select a political party to form a national government. And then, it governs. It passes laws, and it appoints executive branch officials to carry out those laws. With policy imperfections and political battles, to be sure, but without the perpetual condition that defines our own system more and more with each passing year: gridlock.
Much of that gridlock in American politics comes from legislative practices like the filibuster, the seniority system and the “Hastert Rule,” which prevents the minority party from even bringing bills to the floor for discussion—practices which appear nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps we should reconsider the provision in the Constitution thatsays that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings. … ”
The United States Senate was invented not because of any inherent legitimacy but as a means to persuade the smaller colonies to sign on to the new federal project. The result today is vast overrepresentation for people from states like Vermont, Alaska and Delaware, and profound underrepresentation for every residents of great American cities like Dallas, Miami and New York. Wyoming, with a population of 585,000, is represented by a pair of senators. The San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles alone is home to three times that many people … but no pair of senators for them. Must this preposterously undemocratic feature of “American democracy” persist forever simply because of compromises that had to be made in the 1780s?
All 535 members of the U.S. Congress represent a geographical region. Your political community is determined exclusively by your address. But most of us consider ourselves members of multiple communities, and many have nothing to do with where we live. Several American cities, recognizing this reality, provide both geographic and “at large” representation. Some council members represent particular neighborhoods, while “at large” members give voice to issues, identities and ideas—as well as the welfare of the community as a whole. Why can’t we do this in our national legislature as well?
Gerrymandering has made so many congressional districts so completely uncompetitive—especially with sophisticated computer modeling—that by some estimates more than 80 percent of Americans are never presented with a meaningful choice for the House of Representatives. Why then should citizens participate? Why should they bother to vote?
Should our Supreme Court justices hold lifetime tenure? Should nine unelected individuals maintain the absolute final say over all American laws, a role not given to them by the U.S. Constitution? Sometimes it boils down to a single “swing” justice, a role often played by Anthony Kennedy today. However impartial or wise Kennedy may be, how can we let our nation’s ability to make any kind of legal and societal progress subject to the whim of a single individual?
In political campaigns for most other offices, the candidate who gets the most votes wins—but not if you’re running for our nation’s highest office. Surely we can find some way to eliminate the vestigial, preposterous, bizarre Electoral College, which also gives a disproportionate voice to the citizens of smaller states and forces presidential campaigns to focus on only a handful of swing states, which in turn makes every vote in at least 40 non-swing states essentially meaningless. Why then should citizens participate? Why should they bother to vote?
Should we adopt a ranked-choice voting system? Under such systems, if a citizen’s first choice gets eliminated in the first round, the second choice vote then gets cast—until one candidate finally receives majority support. Already in use in many local American elections, this “instant runoff” method allows voters to express their true preferences for lesser-known candidates—and ideas—without the fear that they would be “wasting their vote” and benefiting the leading candidate on the other side of the political spectrum.
Should we consider one of the many kinds of proportional representation systems already in use in many other countries? Imagine that Green Party candidates or Libertarian Party candidates received 33 percent of the vote in each of America’s 435 congressional districts—but didn’t emerge as the winner in a single one. (With ranked-choice voting, numbers like that might become far more likely.) Under our current winner-take-all rules, those parties would win exactly zero seats in our House of Representatives. What’s “representative” about that?
No less than 14 American vice presidents have gone on to serve as president—nearly a third of our 44 presidents. Yet the process for selecting candidates for that office is invented from scratch by a few insiders every four years, completely opaque and wholly undemocratic. Isn’t that something we ought to reconsider?
What about the power to wage war—and lesser military undertakings like targeted assassinations by drone? Our Constitution gives the power to declare war exclusively to Congress. It has not done so since 1942. Want to know how to transform the United States from a republic into an autocratic empire, just like ancient Rome? Continue to indefinitely tolerate the current reality of American war powers: that once someone swears an oath “to defend the Constitution of the United States” on Jan. 20, that person is handed the keys to the Pentagon’s entire arsenal to employ at his or her sole discretion.
Should voter registration take place automatically at birth? Should voting be mandatory as in many other countries? Should we continue to leave the rules for who gets to vote in presidential primaries up to individual parties and states? And can we devise any alternatives—e.g., weekend voting or widespread mail voting—to holding Election Day on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a date chosen for the convenience of 18th-century farmers?
Would something like a single six-year presidential term allow our national executive to focus less on politics and more on policy? Might there be some way we can do something similar in Congress, as opposed to now, where pretty much the day after members win election they start raising money for the next contest?
The 2010 Citizens United decision is so antithetical to a functioning democracy that groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen and WolfPAC are calling for constitutional amendments or even a constitutional convention, just to address money in politics. Many hold a deep conviction that most politicians are completely oblivious to the concerns of ordinary folks and are instead essentially bought and sold by corporate uber-citizens and members of the 1 percent. It’s hard to imagine anything that leads to more political alienation and disengagement than that. Surely we can enact some of the many kinds of campaign finance reforms already on the table, so that the quest for campaign contributions doesn’t remain forever the central feature of virtually all American elections.
Just a few days before America’s 240th, Alvin Toffler died. He was most well-known for description of the condition he called “future shock”—the extraordinary personal and societal dislocation that results when so many things change so much more rapidly than ever before. And yet, Toffler said, “99 percent of what politicians do is keep systems running that were laid in place by previous generations of politicians.” Why is it that virtually everything else in our modern age evolves except our politics and governing structures?
Consider just how much civic engagement might increase from some of these proposed reforms. Ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, a president chosen by nationwide popular vote—these kinds of things, in a stroke, would make citizens feel like their voices actually counted for something. And it would provide them with incentives to keep participating in the affairs of their communities long after Election Day as well.
The $64,000 question, of course, is how in our contemporary political environment any of these proposals might even be rationally considered, let alone result in real institutional transformations. Politics, after all, as every freshman knows, is “the art of the possible.” And hardly any of this seems politically possible at the moment.
But there’s a prior conversation before we even get to that conversation. We profoundly constrain our ability to imagine a brighter American future, an America 2.0, if we insist that every single idea be weighed down by the heavy ball and chain of “PPP”—present political possibility. No one will even begin to think about how to improve our American republic unless someone sets out to articulate what an optimal American republic might look like.
And it is precisely that kind of grand debate that ought to be launched—in the run-up to July 4, 2026, the United States of America at a quarter millennium.
While our nation turns 240 this year, Jefferson’s words above—now inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial—are not quite so old as that. They appear in a letter to one Samuel Kercheval dated July 12, 1816—200 years ago this month! One suspects that as the United States of America was celebrating its 40th birthday, the genius of Jefferson had already begun to detect flaws in our constitutional structures—and to suggest that our “laws and institutions” ought to evolve to match “the progress of the human mind.”
Now we stand not at our 40th birthday, but our 240th. And as we begin to look ahead to our 250th, it is time for us to take up the charge that Jefferson issued a long two centuries ago. Let us summon the philosophical imagination, the moral courage and the political will in the next decade to fashion for ourselves a more perfect kind of grown-up coat—one that will enable us to form a more perfect union for 250 more years to come.