It's the Constitution, stupid

You say you'll change the constitution
Well you know
We all want to change your head

-- The Beatles, "Revolution."


John Lennon hasn't even moved to America yet when he wrote those words, but somehow he got the gestalt of his future home, didn't he? Say that you want to change the U.S. Constitution -- and they'll want to change your head. But should they?

Like I said Sunday, it's so hard to know what to say about the crisis in Washington. The basic situation doesn't seem to ever change -- that damned shutdown...excuse me, slimdown...clock is on every news channel. But sentiment changes wildly -- this morning I was gearing up to write my Civil War II preview article, while right now I'm thinking this thing could be solved before I hit the 'send' button on this post. Who knows?

But whether the shutdown lasts for 40 hours, 37 minutes and 17 seconds (yes, it's important that we know how long government has been closed to the exact second) or 40 days, the damage has been done. The United States and its broken, inept, embarrassing government is the laughing stock of the world. I was struck by this passage in this Think Progress roundup of world reaction yesterday.

But perhaps the harshest coverage came from the stolid BBC. In a piece titled “US shutdown has other nations confused and concerned,” Anthony Zurcher wrote, “For most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news – the result of revolution, invasion or disaster. Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages. That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many…Now, as the latest shutdown crisis plays out, policymakers in other nations are left to ponder the worldwide impact of the impasse.”

But how could this be? How could a partisan disagreement over health care do the kind of damage that a civil war and chemical weapons couldn't do in a supposedly unexceptional country so far away. Alex Pareene, who broke free of his time with Wonkette to become one of the sharpest political commentators that we have, says that it's time to change our head.

In the present crisis, the revered U.S. Constitution, the one that's honored here in Philadelphia with a center that has such groovy shows about 1968 and Bruce Springsteen, is not the solution. The Constitution is the problem. Here's an excerpt:

How much can we blame this “minority of a minority” for acting according to the probable wishes of their constituents? Shouldn’t we actually be more upset about a system of government that gives 80 people representing 18 percent of the population the ability to drag the United States to the edge of national default?

We’re a year out from an election that, in a parliamentary democracy, would’ve easily granted one party control of the government. If, in this hypothetical American parliamentary system, the opposition wanted to force a showdown over the budget a year after the election, we’d have another election, and the winning party would get to implement its agenda. Instead, we’re getting the sort of “compromise” American politics specializes in: the one where things are intentionally made worse for most people in the hopes that if things are made bad enough the other side will cave.

This is happening because our wise and noble founders devised a purposefully undemocratic federal government, in part because not many of them were particularly fond of the notion of democracy and in part because the ones who were at least a bit pro-democracy were forced to compromise with vile slave interests. We’ve since declared these creaky compromises to be evidence of political genius — an elegant separation of powers! checks and balances! — but the nearly 100 percent failure rate for other countries with true “Presidential systems” is a hint that it’s a mess. Meanwhile, our Constitution’s international influence has plummeted in recent decades. Its single best feature — the Bill of Rights — now looks stingy compared to the lists of positive enumerated rights in other nations’ constitutions.

Pareene notes that we've layered on changes that have managed to make things worse -- including the debt ceiling (something other, saner countries don't have). the super-sized filibuster, and a nonsensical budget process -- while failing to act on ideas like popular elections for president or ending gerrymandering of congressional districts. The results -- everything from electiing a president who got fewer votes and turned out to be really bad, to income inequality on steroids -- have been disastrous.

There's a reason that so many other democratic nations have parliamentary systems that guarantees that the party that sells its program to the electorate gets a chance to actually implement it. Tthat system works better. Not that I could ever imagine America scrapping "the best damn Constitution in the world" and doing something that Europeans do. So we're stuck. I just have to keep repeating what John Lennon said. "Don't you know it's gonna be...alright."