Saturday, December 18, 2010

It Can't Happen Here?

In a world where money doesn't matter -- better be moving to Chojecki if I want that -- I'd study political science. But as it is, the best I can do is study it through the books I read, rather than in a classroom setting, which is a pity, given that government is the exchange of ideas and opinions, not simply the mere studying of them.

Recently, I read William Poundstone's "Gaming the Vote," in which he examines the various alternates to our current plurality voting system (basically, our system says the guy with the most votes wins, but has the disadvantages of disenfranchising minority parties while at the same time giving them the power to suck away votes from the majority party, thus giving their opponents the plurality to win, as is what happened in the 2000 presidential election).

In the book Poundstone takes up the story of Kurt Goedl, a German logician who emigrated to the United States to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, shortly before World War II broke out. In preparing for his citizenship test, Goedl studied the Constitution intensely. He emerged prepared for the test -- which he aced -- but dissatisfied in what he saw as a fatal contradiction in the document. The flaw he saw was in Article V, on amendments:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
Here's how Poundstone describes the flaw Goedl saw:
By permitting everything [through amendments], it guarantees nothing. In principle, the Bill of Rights could be rescinded by a future amendment -- just as Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment, was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment. It may be supposed that a two-thirds majority of both houses would never countenance a major erosion of individual liberties. Atricle V could amend itself. In theory, two-thirds of Congress could vote in a new amendment saying that only a simple majority is required to amend the Constitution. The smaller the threshold, the more likely it is that a strongly motivated faction might manage to pass an amendment that many find unconscionable.

In the 1940s, many Americans felt superiority over the totalitarianism existing in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Wartime rhetoric implied that America had a patent on democracy. Godel found this "it can't happen here" attitude unconvincing.
Ironic Poundstone should use that phrase. Sinclair Lewis used it for his novel "It Can't Happen Here," in which a president, roused by his desires for power but disguising them under a national emergency, convinced Congress to do just what Goedl feared, amending the Constitution until it was unrecognizable and the United States existed in a totalitarian system.

Poundstone points out that less than a month after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he convinced its legislative body to temporarily suspend the constitution in order to give an "enlightened dictator" termporary dictatorial powers to deal with a national crisis that started with the Communists' burning of the Reichstag (which some now believe was a plot engineered by Hitler). "The motion passed 441 to 84," Poundstone writes. "It was the first majority Hitler ever got, and the last he would ever need."

So where am I going with this? Oh yeah. We've seen a lot of petty bickering between the Democrats and Republicans over the last decade or so. It's not pleasant to watch. But maybe our government could be a heck of a lot worse, under either party, if one decided to make a Constitutionally-sanctioned grab for power.

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