In 1984, Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin starred in All of Me, a physical comedy in which one body had to be shared by two very different personalities, with very different goals. As you might expect, there was a whole lot of lurching going on.
It was very funny to watch Steve Martin moving around like a marionette operated by two different puppeteers. But it’s not quite so funny to watch our government doing essentially the same thing.
One small example: Obama gets into office, and immediately issues a bunch of executive orders. Trump gets in, and immediately rescinds Obama’s orders by issuing a bunch of his own. Then Biden gets in, and immediately rescinds Trump’s orders by issuing a bunch of his own. And so on.
Meanwhile, the ‘body’ of the United States — the people who are out there trying to live their lives, earn their livelihoods, and lay plans for periods longer than an election cycle (for example, the kind you’d need to construct a 1400-mile oil pipeline across two countries) — is being jerked around like the shared body in the film.
If we had government by consent (which is the only kind sanctioned by the Declaration of Independence), none of this would be an issue. But we don’t, so it is. The question is, what do we do about that?
Possibly the stupidest way to handle things is the way we do now, where 51 percent of the people can seize control of the government and use it to implement policies that horrify the other 49 percent, who will constantly be looking for opportunities to undermine, dismantle, or reverse them.
Here’s something that might work better. Let’s say a bill is up for a vote in the House of Representatives. We would put 435 balls in a jar, each with the name of a representative on it. We would pull one ball out of the jar at random, and the party of that representative would get its way on that vote. And we would do something similar in the Senate.
Note that this would be completely constitutional. The houses of Congress are free to make whatever rules they want for passing bills.
How would it play out? Democrats now have about 52 percent of the seats in the House, so about 52 percent of the time, House Democrats would get their way, and the other 48 percent of the time, House Republicans would get theirs. Something similar would happen in the Senate.
So to get anything passed, a party would have to win two consecutive tosses of a slightly weighted coin, something that would happen only about 1/4 of the time.
This would have some important consequences. Since about 3/4 of all legislation on which there is significant disagreement would die in one chamber of Congress or the other, it would be much harder for slightly more than half the country to pretend that it has a ‘mandate’ to implement sweeping changes.
Perhaps more importantly, it would mean that both major parties would get their way some of the time in proportion to the number of people who voted for them.
While far from perfect, this would be orders of magnitude closer to the idea of ‘representative government’ than the temporary-winner-temporarily-take-all procedure we have now.
Of course, an even better way to handle it would be to require super-majorities for practically everything.
Currently, those are just used for special occasions. For example, a constitutional amendment has to be approved by 2/3 of both houses of Congress, and ratified by 3/4 of the state legislatures. A president can only be removed from office by a 2/3 vote of the Senate. Many states require a 2/3 majority to raise taxes. And so on.
The idea, presumably, is that some issues are so important that it would be wrong to let a bare majority decide them. But what could me more important than a law that can be used to deprive someone of his liberty or property? Any law like that is important enough to require a super-majority, whether that’s 2/3, or 3/4, or 4/5, or 9/10 — the larger, the better.
If we are serious about ‘unifying America’, the best way to do that would be move — as far and as quickly as possible — away from the idea that whichever party has its hands on the wheel for the next little bit of time can steer the country in any direction it wants.
To put that another way, if we want Americans to be united, we have to eliminate the political mechanisms that are routinely used to create laws and regulations that divide us.