America is the Holy Roman Empire of the 21st century

·6 min read

Germany is today a first-rank power: rich, strong, and efficiently governed. But just over 200 years ago, most of its current territory was a shambolic mess — part of the Holy Roman Empire, which even at the time was recognized as an anachronistic political fossil. More than a thousand years old at that point, the empire was a patchwork of hundreds of different duchies, electorates, principalities, kingdoms, church lands, and so forth, some of them just a few dozen acres (Liechtenstein is one of these relics which still survives), with an exceptionally complicated and illogical tangle of legal institutions overlaying them all. Surpassed by history, the confederation was ripe for the picking by an opportunistic tyrant.

The United States today bears an uncomfortable similarity to that doomed empire. The American Constitution is the oldest in the world still operating, and has been obviously out of date for well over a century. Half the basic mechanics of government are either malfunctioning kludges or a gross betrayal of its own founding principles. Countries that fail to maintain themselves to this degree often do not survive.

Let's start with the Electoral College, which has developed a clear bias towards Republicans — a 2-3 point Biden popular vote win would mean a tossup according to its rules, while he would need about a 5-point victory to be sure. As I have argued before in detail, this is the goofiest method of selecting a head of government found in any rich nation, and quite possibly in the entire world. Not only has it delivered the presidency to the popular vote loser twice in less than two decades, it is mechanically possible to win while losing the popular vote 4-1. Moreover, its winner-take-all structure means that presidential candidates pay rapt attention to only a handful of states with a close partisan balance. The vast majority of states, both large and small, are virtually ignored by campaigns because their electoral votes can be taken for granted, and, once in office, a president has no obligation to serve the states that didn't vote for him.

As Michael Kazin writes at The Nation, the Electoral College was obviously a clunky mess from the moment its current form took effect, which is why it has nearly been abolished several times (and others are working on it today). None of the defenses of the system by conservatives, who like it because they perceive a momentary partisan advantage, withstand a moment's scrutiny.

Worse still, the Electoral College does not even legally enforce the rules I outlined above. For instance, it is (probably) legal for state legislatures to simply ignore the result of the vote in November and send a slate of electors to support any candidate they want — even one that was not on the ballot. In some states, electors can do this on their own initiative. As Barton Gellman writes in an extremely dire article for The Atlantic, the Trump campaign, as well as Republican officials in some swing states, are already considering plans to overturn state election results through the legislature. Lawrence Tabas, the Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman, told Gellman on the record that he is considering it. "It is one of the available legal options set forth in the Constitution," he said.

Naturally, the law governing the actual process of counting the Electoral College votes is 133 years old, so vague that it could plausibly be interpreted in a half-dozen mutually exclusive ways, and has never been put through a real test.

That mess is reinforced by another janky aspect of American government: gerrymandering. In most states today, it is also legal for the members of the state legislatures to draw their own district boundaries — choosing their own voters rather than the other way around. This is wildly impermissible in about every other advanced democracy, because it amounts to election-rigging. Indeed, districts that only elect one representative are themselves decades out of date (the most cutting-edge democracies today use multi-member districts or some kind of proportional representation). Sure enough, in several state legislatures, Republicans have gerrymandered themselves a nearly-insurmountable advantage — in Wisconsin in 2018, for instance, they got 46 percent of the vote but 64 percent of the seats in the state Assembly. In other words, several of the legislative majorities that could potentially steal the upcoming election for President Trump are themselves the product of flagrant cheating.

The Senate, meanwhile, is elected in a straightforward fashion, but its structure is preposterously unfair, as each state gets two senators regardless of population. The median state leans about 7 points to the GOP, thus giving Republicans a large bias there simply due to the coincidence of lower-population states favoring their party. There was no principle involved in this whatsoever — small states wanted an advantage over larger ones when the Constitution was being written as a price of joining the new country, and they got it. Another way of looking at the problem is the fact that one could theoretically rig the Senate such that Democrats had a permanent super-majority with the strategic migration of a few hundred thousand solid liberals from California and New York into sparsely-populated Western states.

So we have a founding document declaring that "all men are created equal" and an 18th-century jalopy constitution that allows legal election theft and randomly gives residents of one state over 70 times the influence of another in one chamber of Congress.

And all this is just the start of the problems with political mechanics in this country. Simply voting is a complicated and burdensome pain in the neck in many states. Voters routinely have to wait in line for hours, or face ridiculous administrative complexities. In Pennsylvania, for instance, thanks to a vaguely-written law and a recent idiotic court decision, mail-in voters are legally required to put their ballot into a pointless "secrecy envelope" before they put it in the normal envelope. Fail to do this, as about 5-6 percent of mail-in voters routinely do, and your vote will be thrown out.

It's not a coincidence that the American welfare state and national bureaucracy are notoriously about two generations behind the curve of peer nations. Our system is not designed to enable efficient, humane government.

The Holy Roman Empire was finally dissolved when Napoleon, commanding the first modern national army, steamrolled the coalition opposing him at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. About half the empire's territory was folded into a brief "Confederation of the Rhine" French puppet state, and Francis II, the last emperor, abdicated the throne. In western Germany, Napoleon swept away all the feudal cruft and replaced it with his famous legal code, which heavily influenced the subsequent German legal foundation.

That certainly won't be the fate of America, and of course this analogy is far from perfect in every respect. But the broader lesson is that political systems require maintenance and regular updating to stay on top of the developments of history. A great many holes in America's national fabric have been left un-patched over the decades. An ever-more extreme conservative party is now exploiting those holes to try to permanently conquer the American republic. They might well succeed.

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