Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Desperate Need to put Umpires Back Into the US System of Government

The American Republic is a political system run without umpires. The Presidents and Governors are elected, highly partisan officials. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and the equivalent presiding officers of the State legislatures, are highly partisan figures. As the increasingly existential struggles over Supreme Court nominations show, American judges are also partisan figures, though not quite as blatantly.

The American political order has only partisan figures at its centre. There is no institutional figure or authority that is not inherently political and cannot become consumed by processes of political polarisation. There are no umpires.

How has running a political system without umpires worked? Fairly badly. 72 years after the US Constitution came into operation in 1789, the United States were the disunited States, fighting a bitter civil war. 155 years after the end of that civil war, the American Republic is drifting towards another civil war. This is not an impressive record.

Moreover, even with this record, the United States is a relatively successful presidential republic. The overall track record of presidential republics is not impressive.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution to the lack of umpires problem. Become a Parliamentary Republic. This could be done very simply.

First, have the President elected by two-thirds vote of the Congress, in a secret ballot. Have the State Governors elected by two-thirds vote of their Legislatures, in a secret ballot. If two-thirds is not broad enough, make it a three-quarters vote.

Second, create an Executive Council. The members of the Executive Council would be the President or Governor, the Majority Leader of the lower house of the Congress or State legislature and such members of Congress or State legislature as the Majority Leader shall recommend. Require all acts of the President or Governor to be done on the advice of the Executive Council except such reserve powers that are necessary for the maintenance of responsible government. (There is a rich common law tradition of reserve powers: I am sure that US lawyers will be able to cope.)

Third, require all Cabinet officers to be members of the Congress or State Legislature.

Fourth, require all regulations be approved by the relevant committee of the Senate or Upper House of the State Legislature before they can have legal force. But permit the Executive Council to remove any regulation at any time.

This fourth element is not necessary to become a Parliamentary Republic, but it is required to bring some reasonable level of accountability to the administrative state. It would also be easy to systematically go through and remove existing regulations, forcing regulatory bodies to get direct legislative approval for any re-issuing of said regulations.

The US would, by these simple constitutional changes, be turned into a Parliamentary Republic. The President and Governors would become symbols of authority without having substantial power. The Power and the Glory would thereby be separated, one of the great virtues of constitutional monarchy. A virtue that Parliamentary republics can also manage.

Umpires would also thereby be inserted into the political system. Even better, the notion of umpires would be inserted into the political system. At the ceremonial heart of politics would be a non-political office.

Moreover, a Parliamentary state can be a thoroughly effective Great Power. Britain conquered about a quarter of the globe as a Parliamentary state.

The US notion of executive Governors was a quick-and-dirty fix to the problem of what do with the colonial Governors after the separation of the revolting colonies from allegiance to the British Crown. A quick-and-dirty fix given a theoretical framework by Montesquieu's hilariously inaccurate theorising about how the British political system worked.

A civil war and an ever-nearer civil war later, executive Presidents and executive Governors is a quick-and-dirty fix that is way past its used-by date. Especially given that presidential republics generally have remarkably poor records.

So, I say to the citizens of the American Republic: bring back umpires! Put a lid on the political polarisation! Become a Parliamentary Republic.

(Alternatively, go the whole hog and become a monarchy again. That seriously separates the power and the glory and creates a thoroughly non-political umpire. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, is sensible, and potentially available. A former Olympian even. I am sure she wouldn't mind one-upping her brother.

However amusing a thought, doing the full monarchy option is not necessary.)

Becoming a Parliamentary Republic would be surprisingly constitutionally easy, and would put umpires back into a political system that desperately needs some limit to the processes of polarisation that are pulling the American Republic apart.


  1. What happens when the umpires become partisan?

    In the USA's system the judiciary are supposed to be neutral umpires; the subversion of that role over the 20th century is largely responsible for the current polarization. The courts play a similar role in parliamentary systems derived from England's, but they also have been subverted as the USA's have been.

    And, bluntly, the British monarchy is non-partisan only because it's politically irrelevant, having no power at all. The King can't act as an umpire because he lacks the ability to levy sanctions on officials who break the rules. If the presidential republic is a kludge to give colonial governors a role in the American constitution, the concept of a purely ceremonial "head of state" is a kludge to create a role for the monarch in the British constitution after the parliament replaced James II with William of Orange.

    Dividing power from glory has the disadvantage that power can then be used secretly, without accountability. When the real executive is someone that nobody outside the capital has heard of, the voters have no idea who is responsible when the state makes a spectacular mistake or commits a crime - and what, then, is the worth of voting, or citizenship?

    Finally, how good is the record of the parliamentary Form, really? Great Britain is to it what the USA is to the presidential republic - the one clear enduring success. None of its former colonies (except the USA) have gotten much past the 150-year mark. And outside the English-speaking countries parliaments have been as unstable as any other form of government.

    1. And when we move to the world of actual experience, Parliamentary states have a much better track record than Presidential republics. Perhaps there might be a reason for that?

    2. That claim does not become persuasive merely by being stated. What is the evidence for it?

      And I'll expand on the first question I asked, because it's the real flaw in your argument. An umpire, by definition, needs the power to intervene when partisans break the rules, and levy penalties up to and including ejection from the game. But that power is, itself, a possible prize for ambitious partisans - and an umpire with partisan sympathies will always be tempted to use it to favor his side, even if he took the position with the intention of not doing so. In other words, a system with umpires that assumes the umpires' probity will disintegrate if they become partisan - and this will eventually occur, if the umpires retain the powers necessary to their function.

      Nor is this just a theoretical issue. It's operating before our eyes, not just in the USA but throughout the West. All over the world, people in the positions of "umpires" supposedly above partisan politics stand revealed as ruthless partisans; and the stability of every state is in doubt as a result. That includes your own. I don't see that the parliamentary states are any better placed to withstand what's coming than the USA is.

  2. Also? The method by which the President is chosen is carefully specified in the Constitution itself, and thus can't be unilaterally changed by Congress. It would need an amendment to the Constitution to do it, and those require both a two-thirds majority in both houses separately, and ratification of three-quarters of the states.

    That bar is (intentionally) very difficult to clear. A proposed amendment to the US Constitution can't be ratified without a broad popular consensus that the change is needed. Since the problem you want to solve is a lack of consensus on a host of issues, what you propose is not feasible - and if it were, it wouldn't be needed.

    1. What part of "by these simple constitutional changes" was not clear? Yes, I am presuming changes to the various US and State constitutions. But the notion that if something is difficult, nothing will change is not exactly how constitutional changes work. Yes, of course there would have to be broad support for the changes, which is not even one anyone's radar at the moment, but an idea has to start somewhere.