No change

Once again, our politicians will fail to bring the change they promised. And that’s how it’s supposed to work.

(Getty Images)
By Elvin Lim
November 7, 2010

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Change, in politics, is a lyrical and seductive tune. Think about Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; how Ronald Reagan greeted us with ”Morning in America,” or how Barack Obama ran an entire presidential campaign around the theme of ”change.”

To listen to the victory speeches delivered on Election Day last week, one might start to believe that change is in the air again. Certainly, candidates across the country ran--and won--on the promise of changing Washington. But anyone counting on a radical transformation in government should steel themselves for another round of heartbreak come January, when the new Congress takes office: Their leadership is no more likely to revolutionize government than Obama’s did in 2008, or the long line of presidents and congresses before them.

We might feel frustrated at this inaction, or relieved, depending on our politics. But what we shouldn’t feel is surprised. Because no matter how much politicians love to serenade us to the tune of change, and no matter how happy we are to flirt right back, our governmental system was designed to prevent seismic change from happening.

It’s easy to see this as a flaw, or as a failure of the politicians we elect, but that would be wrong: In fact, the people to blame are the Founders of our republic. When they wrote the Constitution, setting out how power would be wielded, shared, and transferred, they did it specifically to prevent radical change. By conscious and deliberate design, our system favors incremental changes over the kind of revolutionary change that politicians love to promise. And 220 years of history, so far, suggest that that has been a very good thing indeed.

When the Founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a system of government for their new nation, they looked out on a world convulsing in uprisings and revolution. Civil War had erupted in the Netherlands, and the first spasms of unrest that would soon turn into bloody revolution had already begun all across France. And Shays Rebellion, a failed revolt by poor farmers in Western Massachusetts, had raised the specter of the same kind of unrest closer to home.

So in drafting a Constitution, a document that would lock into place a system of government for posterity, the Founders tried to lay a profoundly stable foundation. They bent over backwards to rig the Constitution against change--to ensure that no single elected politician, or branch of government, would have the power to enact a wholesale overhaul of the system. They devised the scheme of checks and balances that still runs across the federal government, in which the White House, the Congress, and the court system all have tools to temper the others’ power. And they created checks and balances in another direction as well, outward toward the states. The states have prerogatives of their own, not to be encroached on by the federal government, creating 50 laboratories for experimentation--or 50 points of veto for any drastic new federal policies.

Among the three branches of federal government, there was, by design, no neat division of labor, as is conventionally understood. As former adviser to Presidents Truman and Kennedy, Richard Neustadt, once observed, ours is better understood as a system of separate institutions sharing powers than a straightforward system of separated powers. Each branch has some responsibilities that, in a purely efficient system, would belong to the others. Though Congress makes laws, the president has the power to veto them. Similarly, although the power to declare war is an executive power, and the power to impeach is a judicial power, both of those are given to Congress. All told, the Founders were less concerned with the straight-up separation of powers--which would have promoted efficiency and made change easier--than with ensuring that no one branch would possess unchecked power. Even within the Congress, the slower and more deliberative Senate exerts a check on the more populist House.

This leads to situations that critics like to call gridlock, a term we’re sure to hear in the months ahead, as a Democratic Senate locks horns with a Republican House. But to the Founders, this was far better than the alternative, and guaranteed that sharp change couldn’t happen without widespread agreement on its direction. While they certainly understood that widespread agreement was not an easy thing to achieve, our Founders were convinced that government by consent was the only government worth having.

Not only did the Founders institute a rigorous system of checks and balances, just for good measure, they made it nearly impossible to tamper with this system by amending the Constitution. After all, the very point of a written constitution is, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist Paper 1, to lock into place our collective decisions when they were derived by ”choice and deliberation,” and not by ”force and accident.” Thus the Founders determined that any movement to amend the Constitution must secure the approval of two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states--an order so tall that it has happened only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

The Founders, then, aggressively stacked the odds against change. They were not, unlike modern Californians, fans of recalls or referendums, because, as Hamilton had argued in Federalist 49, ”frequent appeals would, in a great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.” Change was not in and by itself a bad thing--indeed, it’s necessary to adapt the nation to the vicissitudes of history and markets--but the founding intent was to manage and contain change within an architecture that remained constant. And so, while we are a much different country today than we were in 1789, with new laws and constitutional amendments which acknowledge the diversity of our evolving democracy, we are, thankfully and quite exceptionally in this world, the same republic.

Even so, politicians steadily try to persuade us that every election is do or die; that the choices between candidates are between Jekyll and Hyde; that the wrong vote could create a right-wing theocracy, or a left-wing totalitarianism. They want us to forget that the change we effect every election year is the change only in the personnel who occupy the offices created by the Constitution.

To be sure, we are an impatient, revolutionary people, unlike our Canadian cousins, who chose to remain loyal to the Crown. America is the First New Nation, as the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argued. But that is precisely why the founding generation decided to tamp our impulses. The French were born in revolution too, but they have had to suffer the turbulence of five constitutions in part because they had not, like the American Founders, insisted that if major change is ever to happen, it must first secure the consent of every branch and level of government.

Indeed, this year’s election results, producing a divided Congress, indicate that we remain our Founders’ children, for we haven’t exactly bought either Obama’s or the Tea Party movement’s call for change hook, line, and sinker. It is no coincidence either that the popular tide that swept into the House slowed into a trickle by the time it reached the Senate, because the Senate was designed to be a bulwark against haste. ”We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” said George Washington once to Thomas Jefferson. And so a new Speaker, John Boehner, takes over the gavel, but he must contend with Majority Leader Harry Reid. This is the sort of change that our Constitution believes in--not sudden and convulsive, but temperate and incremental.

Stability and continuity might not make for gripping political promises, or sexy sound bites for a media establishment fixated on drama and intrigue. But they are perhaps our greatest luxury as Americans. Though we may occasionally be titillated by the tune of change, and lured into voting booths with the promise of drastic rejection of the status quo or outlandish hopes for the future, it is safe for us to do so only because our Constitution guarantees the results will be nothing so dramatic.

Elvin Lim is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and author of ”The Anti-intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.”