On his TV show “Fareed Zakaria GPS” (transcript here) from Sunday, June 19, 2011, journalist Fareed Zakaria of CNN and Time magazine stated that “we could use the ideas of social media that were actually invented in this country to suggest a set of amendments to modernize the constitution for the 21st Century.” Zakaria praised the nation of Iceland for using Facebook and Twitter to solicit revisions to the country’s WWII-era constitution. However, in making the case that the United States should “talk about a few revisions” to the current Constitution, Zakaria undermines his own case.
Zakaria notes that although the nation of Iceland only became a republic “all the way back in 1944,” the Icelandic people “all wanted a fresh start” after the financial crisis. Zakaria claims that since the Icelandic political tradition dates to the first Althingi (parliament) in 930 AD, the 222-year history of Constitutional government in the United States should not be an obstacle to radical systemic change.
Zakaria begins his case by noting that the Constitution has been formally amended 27 times. This is not an effective argument that the Constitution needs to be changed now; rather, it is an argument that the present Constitutional order is capable of responding to challenges as grave as the abolition of slavery and the extension of the franchise to women.
Zakaria characterizes the Electoral College as “highly undemocratic.” In this assertion he is correct: The United States is not a democracy but rather a representative federal republic. Zakaria argues that since the College “[allows] for the possibility that someone could get elected as president even if he or she had a smaller share of the total national vote than his opponent” it is an example of an “[issue] that still [needs] to be debated and fixed.”
Zakaria calls the Senate “even more undemocratic” noting that California’s 36 million citizens have the same representation as Wisconsin’s six million. Again Zakaria is technically correct and misses the point. The Senate exists as the representative body of the nation’s constituent sovereign states, while the House of Representatives is the representative body of the nation’s citizens.
Zakaria feels that the clearest evidence of the “issues that need to be debated and fixed” can be found in the presidential election of 2000. In addition to his (correct) claim that the Electoral College can result in a president who won a smaller share of the national popular vote than some other candidate being elected, Zakaria asserts that “we [the U.S.] are surely the only modern nation that could be paralyzed as we were in 2000 over an election dispute because we lack a simple national electoral system.”
This assertion is false on two grounds. First, the Constitutional system in the United States was not paralyzed by the disputes in Florida after the election. The duly elected President (William Jefferson Clinton) completed his term of office and the duly elected Congress led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and conducted legislative affairs. The Supreme Courts of Florida and the United States heard the lawsuits raised by Vice President Gore and Governor Bush in accordance with their respective Constitutions and the final ruling in Bush v. Gore was faithfully executed. The Constitution as currently amended and practiced had within it all the procedures necessary to resolve the dispute. Indeed, even though Vice President Gore did not agree with the decision, the Constitutional order in the U.S. is so strong that (in his ex officio capacity as President of the Senate) Vice President Gore presided over the electoral vote count and denied objections to the counting of the decisive Florida electoral votes.
There is another ground on which Zakaria’s assertion is factually inaccurate. There is at least one other modern country that has been “paralyzed” by an electoral system that derives from its national heritage. Belgium, for instance, is frequently “paralyzed” by the complicated nature of its electoral politics (although some don’t think that is so bad). Because Belgian political parties do not compete nationally but rather within their own regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels Capital Region) and linguistic communities (Dutch, French, and German), no party can receive a national majority of seats. The result is that since the most recent general election of June 13, 2010 (that is, over one year ago last week), Belgium has had a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Yves Leterme, whose Christian Democratic and Flemish Party were relegated to third place in the election. The crisis is the longest in the modern history of parliamentary democracy.
Zakaria uses a bad example to make the case that the American constitutional order needs a Facebook revolution. Not only is his case actually a demonstration of the strengths of the American model of a consensual republic, Zakaria is also factually incorrect. Zakaria goes on to claim that “[he’s] just suggesting we talk about a few revisions [to the US Constitution].” Some might “suggest” Zakaria needs “a few revisions” to his “GPS” before he rushes headlong into changing a 222 year-old document.