America's in a mess because of its sublime constitution

US is a technological leader but a political laggard.

Share
Related Topics
HEAR YE! HEAR YE! The cries of the Senate official opening the bizarre proceedings on Capitol Hill have an appropriate air of Hollywood flummery, "invented tradition", or sham antique. As anyone visiting the United States sees, it is in many ways a very old-fashioned country, from the typography of the New York Times to the courtesy of ordinary people.

And there is nothing wrong with that. The real American problem is that its political culture is a genuine and not a sham antique. The most technologically advanced nation on earth is caught in a political time-warp. What seems to sophisticated European eyes a bizarre and farcical piece of play-acting in Washington is an authentic survival, but also a painful anachronism, a political drama from the Augustan age being acted out in the age of Madonna and Terminator II.

The documents which created the US are exhilarating to read, not least for their beautiful, lissom English. That little band of country gentlemen who had read John Locke and radical artisans who had read Thomas Paine had acquired a wonderful command of language in the process. Oswald Spengler may be out of fashion today, but I sometimes think that if you want to illustrate the Decline of the West, you need only compare the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights with the Maastricht Treaty, in literary terms alone.

But a written constitution presents problems of its own. Its words have to be interpreted for later generations, and are just as easily misinterpreted. Noble as the words of the First and Second Amendments can sound in the abstract - "make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech", and "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" - Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not have in mind a porn video industry worth $8bn a year, or the nightly carnage on American streets.

A different part of the American political problem comes from an historical accident to which not enough attention has been paid. The Founding Fathers who created the American Republic were in conscious reaction against England. That is why they devised an elaborate Constitution giving them what their former rulers lacked, from the separ- ation of powers to a guarantee against established religion. Quite unconsciously, however, they mimicked the political culture of England at that time - and set it in stone, or at least on paper, where it remains 200 years on. Meantime what Walter Bagehot called the English Constitution evolved, precisely because it was unwritten. The result is that two centuries later the American system resembles Georgian England much more than this country today.

President Clinton's own position is more reminiscent of King George III's than either Tony Blair's or Queen Elizabeth II's. (We speak of public affairs; in private the President seems rather more like the sybaritic George IV, though without his cultivated tastes.) A Hanoverian king was his own chief executive, as the American President still is, head of state and head of government in one: a combination whose disadvantages, at least in a modern democracy, have become painfully obvious over the past year.

King George's first minister served at His Majesty's pleasure. Parliament existed, but there was not as yet responsible parliamentary government, in which the prime minister was simply he who could command a majority in the House of Commons. Responsible government in this sense appeared only in the 19th century. No ministry from 1783 to 1830 resigned because of defeat in Parliament, but every government between 1837 and 1874 fell thanks to a Commons vote, and we have parliamentary government still, albeit in a pretty decayed form.

By contrast, the American President has never needed - and at present doesn't have - a majority in either House of Congress. He deals with the House of Representatives and Senate as King George did with Parliament, through a mixture of appeals to loyalty, cajolery and bribery.

Nor does the antique flavour of American politics end there. British radicals are enraged that the House of Lords should have survived until the end of the 20th century, but it can be argued that Lords at their worst are not as ludicrous as the US Senate at its worst. It's not just the contrast between senatorial rigmarole and the sheer vapidity of debates. It is not just the fact that the presidential trial is being conducted by 100 people, all of whom are white, 91 of whom are male, and some of whom are visibly senile.

The Senate is grotesquely undemocratic, with two senators for the 30 million people of California and two for the half million of Alaska, two for the 18 million of New York and two for 450,000 citizens of Wyoming. This is a relic from when the US was a genuine federation, with all of the states, large and small, entitled to equal weight in the upper house (whose senators were, until this century, appointed directly by the legislatures of the different states). And yet this strange body has just what the Lords no longer have: great political power. It "advises and consents", it sometime blocks presidential appointments, and it alone can remove the President from office.

Like most Europeans, and many Americans, I think that the Washington politicians have taken leave of their senses and that, repellent as Clinton is, impeachment is an insanely disproportionate punishment for his concupiscence or his mendacity. But that is not the end of the story. The most envenomed Clinton-hater must wonder whether this Grand Guignol in Washington can possibly do America any good, or fail to do it much harm. And yet the most abjectly loyal Clintonian must wonder whether a clean break would not have been better. The great thing about parliamentary government is that you can get rid of an unpopular administration or leader. In 1979 the Callaghan Government was brought down by a Commons vote and in 1990 Mrs Thatcher was deposed by a kind of parliamentary coup.

But the American president is a head of state. This is not only potentially demoralising in itself: many despised President Nixon, many despise President Clinton, it is easy enough to respect neither, and almost algebraically impossible to respect both. As an unsentimental Englishman, I have no difficulty respecting the Queen as my head of state, as long as I don't have to think about her too often.

Of course Clinton should have gone long ago, not because of his infantile sexual antics but because of lying to his colleagues; and if he had been a British prime minister he would have gone for that reason. The worst thing about the institution of the US President is that its incumbent is as hard to remove as a monarch.

Which doesn't mean impossible. At long intervals we have thrown out the rascals, by means of abdication or decapitation. The Americans are tied to their excruciating procedure, which looks like being more horrible than ever with the latest decision to examine witnesses. By comparison, the fate of Charles I was noble: "He nothing common did or mean ..." As she contemplates her mean and common husband, does Hillary never dream that public beheading would be a more dignified ending for his career?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.  

The Only Way is Ethics: The birth of a royal baby will not top the news for long

Will Gore
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk