Broken Government & George Will – The Proud Madisonian


As my friends know, I’m a Charlie Rose fan (witness this earlier Charlie Rose post) and a U.S. political junkie. Over the last 15 years, with TiVo at the ready, I have rarely missed an episode.

I’m also an admirer of the Pulitzer price winning, George Will, a level-headed, conservative-leaning, syndicated Washington Post columnist that appears weekly on the ABC Sunday morning news show This Week.  While an ‘admirer’, I often (perhaps, usually) disagree with him. George can fairly be characterized as both a thoughtful and principled Republican pundit. I, on the other hand, would characterize myself as a centrist – a fiscal conservative and social liberal. If I could vote in U.S. elections, I would be an Independent.

On August 9, 2011, Charlie Rose interviewed George Will for the hour (you can watch the full interview here – click on the image of George on that page to start the video).  George happily states that he’s a proud Madisonian – the fundamental characteristic of which is the notion that the U.S. Constitution imposes ‘a government full of blocking mechanisms’ that make it extremely difficult (usually taking a lot of time) for things to change – including for progress to be had and fundamental justice to be realized.

This is one area where I profoundly diverge from George – the belief that this is necessarily or always a ‘good’ thing. At the 18:34 mark in the interview, George states:

“I can think of nothing that the American people have wanted intensely and protractedly that they did not get. The system works!” 

The inference being, that George Will (and James Madison) have no problem with the fact that it too frequently takes years, decades, life-times, sometimes centuries for Congress and the courts to eventually get things right. I acknowledge that,  throughout U.S. history, Congress (and the courts) have often, finally, got things right. Examples abound:

  • non-property holders eventually getting the vote
  • emancipation of the blacks after almost a century
  • women getting the vote
  • blacks achieving equal rights
  • prohibition being overturned
  • Catholics being permitted to marry Protestants
  • Christians and non-Christians being permitted to marry
  • blacks and whites being permitted to marry
  • women getting the right to divorce an abusive husband
  • women achieving the right to safe and legal abortions
  • gays having the right to serve openly in the military

What George touts as a fundamental strength of the U.S. constitution is, I believe, a fundamental weakness – it’s structure results in citizens often having to wait years, decades, lifetimes (often in extremely hostile, dangerous, discriminatory circumstances) for fundamental fairness and justice to be realized.

I often wonder how it is that Madisonians can be contented with this state of affairs. Aside from the obvious benefit of this leading to stability (and I acknowledge the benefits of stability), I can only conclude that the people who want ‘stability at all costs’ (that which the ‘Sainted’ James Madison seemingly wanted) are the people that are generally happy with the state of affairs – typically well-off white men and women who have rarely been adversely affected by the glacial slowness of the U.S. constitutional structure’s mechanism for brining about  fundamental change. 

While I admire much about the U.S. and, in many ways prefer it over my native Canada, to my mind, when it comes to fundamental justice, human rights and the ability for people to ‘pursue happiness’, Parliamentary systems such as those found in Canada and Europe have it much closer to ‘right’ than the U.S. system. I prefer a government that permits faster change, or as George will derisively characterized such governments, those that can act more “nimbly, decisively, boldly and constantly”. It’s this kind of government that solved the policy problems listed above far faster than did the U.S. Often decades earlier. While the U.S. continues to flounder, parliamentary governments have long since:

  • provided universal health care to their citizens
  • eliminated the death penalty
  • legalized abortions
  • allowed gay people to marry
  • imposed reasonable gun control

People often wonder why I’m a U.S. political junky and rather indifferent to Canadian politics. One reason is because Canada has largely solved all the social problems that I care about. Another reason is that the remaining issues I care deeply about aren’t on the Canadian political radar and likely never will be in my life time. These issues include:

  • a common market/currency with the United States and Europe
  • true free trade between Canadian provinces
  • abolishing the monarchy
  • eliminating ‘Canadian Content  Rules
  • deregulation of the broadcast and telecom industries
  • eliminating foreign competition rules
  • increased consumer-friendly intellectual property laws
  • decrease in the duration of patent and copyright protection
  • the elimination of software patents
  • stronger defense policy more willing to intervene with other Western democracies to gradually rid the world of authoritarian dictators.

I am willing to pay the price of a greater degree of instability in exchange for a system that brings about fundamental fairness, justice and common sense social policies at a quicker pace.

I profoundly disagree with George Will. The U.S. constitutional structure is broken. And, given the hyper-polarized nature of U.S. politics today, I don’t see how it can be fixed in my lifetime.