Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conflict and Change in Political Systems

I continue to admire the work of Elman Service and his efforts to lay out the anthropological aspects of human society and political systems. In Origins of the State and Political Systems, Service spends a chapter on theories of government – surveying writings on the subject back to the original authors. These early political theorists included Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) of Tunis, Machiavelli, and Jean Bodin (1530-96), who influenced Montesquieu.

Khaldun’s fundamental belief was that conflict drives governmental change in a positive rather than negative way. In other words, conflict purifies political development in the way natural selection purifies species. If two political philosophies are in conflict within a state, the stronger will win, push the state forward, and make it better.

Bodin is like-minded on the importance of conflict in government, but had a more developed approach. He believed that statis (stability) in a culture is unattainable because of the character of man, so good political systems must be able to adapt and change.

I wonder whether the United States is too stable and unable to make itself better. The founding fathers felt (and stated), at the end of the Constitutional Convention, that the resulting document was imperfect, so they built in the amendment process to improve the system to correct any errors or omissions that revealed themselves later. Washington was quoted as saying he would be happy if the document survived for twenty-five years.

How has this theoretical flexibility served us? Take a look at a list of the amendments added since the Bill of Rights.

11th Immunity of states from suits from out-of-state citizens and foreigners not living within the state borders. Lays the foundation for sovereign immunity, 1794

12th Revises Presidential election procedures, 1803

13th Abolishes slavery and Involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime,1865

14th Defines Citizenship and deals with post-Civil War issues, 1866

15th Prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, 1869

16th Allows federal income tax, 1909

17th Direct election of Senators, 1912

18th Prohibition of Alcohol (Repealed by 21st amendment), 1917

19th Federal recognition of women's suffrage, 1919

20th Term Commencement for Congress (January 3) and the President (January 20). This amendment is also known as the "lame duck amendment", 1932

21st Repeals the Eighteenth Amendment; state and local prohibition no longer required by law, 1933

22nd Limits the president to two term, 1947

23rd Representation of Washington, D.C. in the Electoral College, 1960

24th Prohibition of the restriction of voting rights due to the non-payment of poll taxes, 1962

25th Presidential succession, 1965

26th Voting age nationally established at age 18 (see suffrage), 1971

27th Variance of congressional compensation, 1992

This is a pretty sorry list, because it contains zero structural changes in our government for two hundred years. Seven of the amendments extend rights or freedoms making us more democratic. The rest are procedural.

Lately, we have been discussing the Polis which as we have seen was an dynamic and adaptive political system over 350 years. The Roman Republic experienced a conflict of the classes from 509 B.C. to 287 when Lex Hortensia was adopted. The Republic continued on for another 200 years before it collapsed. Changes in the Republican government were dramatic: whole new legislative bodies were added, new magistracies created, and rights to govern extended to the Plebian Class.

At the present time, conflict in the United States is ideological, operating below the level of government, and unable affect change in the political system. The conflict Bodin requires is not possible because our political system is inert. The theoretical solution to this problem is the amendment process but amendments are too difficult to pass, so real change is impossible.

I dismiss quotations that venerate the Constitution as the perfect document because even the founders didn’t believe that. I also dismiss quotations that rave about how stable our political system is, because too stable is not a good thing. The fundamental problem is that no one represents all the people. When elected officials represent all the people, the whole country moves forward. When they represent only special interests, progress is diluted or not achieved at all.

There are only two forces that can change things: a push for changes in governmental structure so that the interests of all the people are represented, or some external factor that would unify the country. When the country is unified, the people as a whole force their elected officials to take action.

1 comment:

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Fascinating, especially your conclusion that "there are only two forces that can change things: a push for changes in governmental structure so that the interests of all the people are represented, or some external factor that would unify the country."

Regarding the first point--makes me wonder if there EVER has been a government structure in which the interests of ALL the people were represented. And the second point, unfortunately, all too often requires some outside physical threat to the nation.