Our Separation of Powers Presidential system is supposed to prevent any one person or small group from seizing control over American government. By constraining executive power with independent legislative and judicial branches that supposedly prevent abuses and excesses. Our federal system puts constraints on the power of the central government, reserving rights and powers to the States.
From the standpoint of the Eighteenth Century, the Separation of Powers system looked like it offered more benefits than problems. Disconnected from the rest of the world by one, and later two, oceans, the United States could afford to bumble and squabble. The only real threats were armed enemies, and nobody would prevent war against them.
The modern world is a different and faster place. Air travel, mass communications, modern weaponry, and a global economy have meant that problems move faster than our multiple veto points can move policy. Like many state systems, ours is designed for conventional interstate war, and that’s an obsolescent threat.
Not only can problems like climate change and gun violence fester and worsen while corporate lobbyists use our veto points to stop effective action, the lack of coherent policy breeds a dissociative type of politics where the bases of both parties see themselves as in opposition. The voters never get to see an ideology enacted, so festering ideological disputes are never resolved. As you can see in the contemporary conservative movement, the incentives are to become more and more extreme, using the language of oppressed minorities to ratchet the rhetoric more and more.
Now, even with one-party government, the State is paralyzed. We narrowly avoided a government shutdown over the weekend. Under conditions like these, it’s easy to see why every American-style government on Earth has collapsed into some kind of discontinuity, coup, crisis, or civil war. It’s also worth noting that, although our system was supposed to protect the people from excesses of government power, the United States has amassed a series of atrocities worthy of its status as a great power.
Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has finally reached the public consciousness thanks to Jon Oliver:
Setting aside for the moment the absurdity of public policy in the world’s most powerful country being dictated by late night comedy and variety shows, I’d like to focus instead on the absurdity of a country, founded in a revolutionary war against a colonial empire, that maintains colonies over a large part of the world.
The bizarre and byzantine series of statuses held by residents of different American territories is best explained by:
and, again, by Jon Oliver:
While the text contains a hole big enough to drive a truck full of Federalist Society nutjobs to a book burning, the gist of the Fourteenth Amendment is pretty clear:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It’s also pretty clear that a country established as an Enlightenment-era political experiment in liberty is inviting some pretty serious political legitimacy questions by maintaining empire and demi-citizenship.
It produces legal and political precedents for all kinds of assaults on human rights, whether economically or politically motivated. It makes no difference whether these abuses take place overseas or in the District of Columbia. There can be no half-citizens. Every liberal and progressive should be committed to the principle of In or Out: Every place subject to American law must be part of a state whose residents have full representation both in Congress and the Executive or it must be all or part of an independent country. After all, our first rallying cry was: