The United States Constitution is incompatible with America’s two-party system, BYU political science professor Jeremy Pope told students in a lecture hosted by the Kennedy Center on Dec. 2.
Pope addressed 60 participants over Zoom with his talk, titled, “The Spirit of Party vs. The Constitution.” He said because of the separation of powers between the national legislature, the presidency, the courts, the bureaucracy and state governments, “substantial and sustained coalitions,” or broad majorities who can hold on to power for longer periods of time, are necessary to change and control policy.
The problem is that the majorities needed to create change in government are becoming increasingly unstable, Pope said, which may be a result of deeper ideological divisions between parties in recent years.
He cited research from two books, “Unstable Majorities” by Morris P. Fiorina and “Insecure Majorities” by Frances E. Lee, showing that one political party controls the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate only about a third of the time and never for more than two cycles.
When asked to clarify why having a majority in the legislature and the presidency is important, Pope said it isn’t important if those in office want to simply keep things running. “If you would like to institute a new healthcare system, if you would like to fight a war or stop a war, or change our policy even on relatively less controversial matters like certain forms of trade or how we’re going to deal with 5G networks, then you’re going to need a coalition of some sort, and these days they tend to be partisan coalitions.”
Pope said there are two possible remedies for unstable majorities: change the constitutional requirements to make it easier to change policy, which would probably involve centralizing power in the national government at the expense of the states; or try to incentivize parties to become more moderate.
Pope said the constitutional requirements could be changed by giving the president agenda-setting power by allowing him to make proposals and force Congress to vote on them. The Constitution could also be amended to move in a parliamentary direction.
To help parties to become more moderate, Pope listed ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than voting for one candidate or the other, as a possible solution.
Pope said his personal, preferred solution to unstable majorities would be to increase the U.S. House of Representatives by 300-400 members.
“It would force each party to deal with a broader set of views that are more granular on a particular level inside of their party,” Pope said. “It would incentivize the parties to come up with solutions and ideas that satisfy a broader range of people.” Pope said he couldn’t prove that his views would be effective but argued that they should be considered.
Pope said progressives might object to his proposed reforms by saying that they do win majorities, but Pope said those majorities are too small and inconsistent to invite real political change.
Pope said the conservative objection to his suggested reforms is that they would fundamentally change the way the Constitution works.
“If you’re satisfied with the government the way it is now, if you’re satisfied with declining levels of trust, people being disengaged, dissatisfied, etc., fine. I won’t argue with you,” Pope said. But he said conservatives shouldn’t object to changes to the government institutions because the American founders made many changes to their government themselves, including the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution itself, and the Bill of Rights.
“If you look at this record and believe that those people in that time period didn’t like to tinker with institutions, then you are just wrong. They liked to tinker with institutions a lot,” Pope said. “I do not think that we should stop being willing to tinker with the institutions we have, indeed, I would say we amend the Constitution too little.”
Pope ended the lecture by quoting George Washington, who warned that the spirit of faction could lead to a loss of personal liberty.
Pope’s lecture was part of the Kennedy Center “Challenges to Democracy” lecture series, which is held Wednesdays at 12:00 p.m. over Zoom.