The system is broken

Eugene Robinson on Trump…or more accurately, the total failure of our political system.

The astonishing thing is that the president of the United States is, let’s face it, raving like a lunatic — and everyone just shrugs.

The nation is still reeling from two mass shootings. The financial markets are yo-yoing by hundreds of points. A bomb in Afghanistan, where we’re still at war, killed 63 revelers at a wedding. Tension between the United States and Iran continues to mount. North Korea keeps testing new missiles. India is playing with fire in Kashmir. Hong Kong has been convulsed for months by massive protests seeking to guarantee basic freedoms.

And Trump obsesses about buying Greenland.

The truth is that we don’t have an actual presidency right now. We have a tiresome reality show whose ratings have begun to slide — and whose fading star sees cancellation on the way.

That’s the thing: Trump is obviously incompetent and dangerous, a demented narcissist who is sailing the ship of state, and everyone, except his deluded base, knows it. Yet nothing is done. The Democratic leadership cowers in fear of disrupting the ‘process’, while the Republican leadership just wants to hold on to their power. We need more than an election of a better person, we need an overhaul of the whole rotten fabric of our political institutions.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Trump obsesses about buying Greenland.

    Bloody hell, is he that mad?

    I can just see how happy a bunch of Greenlanders would be to join a racist, militaristic foreign country where they do not speak the language.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Trump™ doesn’t have to “buy” Greenland in order to sell it – as an effective distraction from J. Epstein & V. Putin.

  3. petesh says

    The narrative that Trump is a worn-out star will (a) hurt him to the core and (b) slowly pry his support away. More, please.

  4. thirdmill301 says

    Making Greenland a state would add more Democrats to Congress, so there is that.

    What’s really hilarious is to back and read the rationale the authors of the Constitution gave for creating the electoral college. It would save us from dangerous demagogues who appealed to the passions of the mob. Yeah, right.

  5. dma8751482 says

    I have to wonder what could even be done to reform the system at this point without completely starting over from scratch- while I could imagine it would likely be better than the status quo, it may very well require an entirely new Constitution just to get it set up.


    If my faded memories of US history are correct, the electoral college’s role was to address the small states’ concerns that their low populations would make them irrelevant in national elections. Quite frankly that would have been preferable to what we have now, which errs on the opposite extreme of giving them disproportionately high influence instead.

    Unfortunately I cannot think of a way to remove or reform the electoral college without having that same issue of small states having no voice at all in national elections pop back up again- the flaw there is too deeply embedded in the nature of simple majoriry elections for an easy fix, and my “redistribute populations so each state has the exact same number of people” idea is so unrealistic I can’t even type it with a straight face.

  6. blf says

    @5, If we’re speculating on “starting over from scratch”, then Why should the individual State’s boundaries matter in a National election?

  7. PaulBC says

    I don’t know if it’s an intentional distraction or just a matter of Trump being an asshole. Tweeting a picture of a Trump hotel on Greenland is so disgusting (even with the “promise” he won’t) that I’m at a loss for words. I know, I know, I’m just a humorless snowflake.

    Like, say I have a neighbor with a garden gnome. I walk up to them out of the blue and say “I promise I won’t come around late at night and pee on your garden gnome.” What? You’re offended? I said I wouldn’t. And anyway, I’m just joking. Can’t you take a joke?

    Denmark is not a financially desperate nation that would come begging after an insult like that. WTF is wrong with Trump, and why is this even part of the news cycle? (And why am I typing about it?)

  8. thirdmill301 says

    blf, No. 6, the US Constitution was written with a number of assumptions that most people no longer hold, one of which was the the federal government would be little more than an association of state governments. Unfortunately, amending the Constitution is damn near impossible, so we’re stuck with it even though hardly anyone believes that any more.

    dma8751482, No. 5, the small, rural states have zero motivation to give up the disproportionate amount of power that they hold. Suppose, during the superbowl, one of the teams was given a free touchdown before the game even started. The reaction would be purely tribal: If it’s your team getting the free points, you like the rule; if it’s the other team, you hate the rule. All of which is a separate question from whether the rule is objectively fair, but in politics objective fairness is not something anyone really cares about either.

    So, between the electoral college, the two senator per state rule, and gerrymandered house seats, we now have a situation in which the majority simply cannot get what it wants. Personally, I think we should just drop the charade and not bother having elections; it would be far cheaper and I don’t see how the results could be any worse.

  9. dma8751482 says


    I was acting on the assumption that the proverbial nuclear option wouldn’t actually be our first resort, and much more importantly I have no idea what system might emerge if we did somehow have to end up starting from scratch. Blame it on lack of imagination on my part, I guess.

    Doesn’t help that there’s no real precedent for existing states getting consolidated into a single state either. To my knowledge, at least.

  10. dma8751482 says


    And let’s not forget that the current Constitution was the second attempt after the Articles of Confederation, where the federal government was all but non-existent. Nothing short of a complete and irreversible breakdown of the system would be able to create the impetus needed for a new Constitution, and even then by its very nature it would produce a massive degree of strife which would undoubtedly result in serious collateral damage for almost everyone involvedp.

    I’ll be honest, this country, like every other society that has ever existed, was never going to last forever. And it had a…well, not entirely terrible run while it lasted. But at the end of the day, perhaps this is a sign that it’s time for something else to take its place. We can only hope that this hypothetical successor avoids the mistakes of its forerunners, but if history is any indication we shouldn’t place too much faith in that belief.

  11. consciousness razor says

    Unfortunately I cannot think of a way to remove or reform the electoral college without having that same issue of small states having no voice at all in national elections pop back up again

    States don’t have voices. You can just let citizens vote, no matter where they may be, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. They should have voting members in the U.S. House and Senate too, just like us “real people” in the states.

  12. blf says

    @10, I have no idea what sort of system could — or should — emerge in any “redo from start” design for presidential elections. I’m also not too sure how to decode @10, so let me rephrase my speculative question in @6: If one is going to re-work USAian presidential elections “from scratch”, then why allow the boundaries of the individual States to influence the results? States exist, elect Senators and Representatives, and so on, but if, say, 56% of the votes are for X for president, then X wins, broadly as happens elsewhere. The State boundaries are “invisible” for election the office of President. (The simple FPTP (first-past-the-post) model used in my illustration is not at all ideal, but am I speculating that is one (of many!) separate issue in this probable-fantasy of a new “from scratch” presidential election system.)

  13. consciousness razor says

    Of course, we should also reorganize the Senate, so that it’s not 2/state anymore. But independently of that actually happening, they should have real Senators.

  14. blf says

    @12, Yes, As an ex-pat living in France, I’m not at all well-represented (or indeed effectively represented).

  15. consciousness razor says

    The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a pretty decent way to get around the constitutional hurdles. Enough states so far have already signed on for 196 electoral votes. And although it isn’t likely to pass in most of the states where it’s currently pending legislation, those add up to 108 electoral votes. Altogether, that would be 304, well over the 270 barrier. So there is some small hope that (maybe in a few years) we won’t have to think about the electoral college bullshit anymore.

  16. PaulBC says

    I don’t think the system is fixable. Generations of children have been brainwashed into accepting the electoral college and Senate as something very clever instead of seeing it as a bone thrown to slave states with lasting consequences. The fact that Puerto Rico with over 3 million US citizens is not a state and probably won’t be any time soon is completely nuts. The fact that Wyoming gets as much Senate representation as California (or New York, Texas, or Florida for that matter) is also nuts.

    I have had tedious discussions on Quora with people who insist that there is some political significance to “all the red on the map” that mostly covers unpopulated land. Someone tried to claim that liberals live in “bubbles” because they are in more densely populated centers. Well, the people who live in Iowa don’t spend their nights in the cornfield. Most of them (except some farmers) also live in somewhat concentrated suburban population centers. These are bubbles too, just smaller ones.

    Pardon the digression. The point is that there is (a) no bandaid that will result in something significantly better and (b) substantial resistance to fundamental change that could lead to some form of fair, proportionate representation and (c) highly paid political consultants whose jobs depend on gaming the absolutely fucked up mess that is American “democracy.”

    The US may be one of the first large-scale republics in the modern world, but it is probably one of the worst implemented. There is no fix. We’re fucked.

  17. dma8751482 says


    My original thought was to reorganize the states completely so they would serve solely as administrative subdivisions, but I can hardly imagine that any state government would willingly make itself completely subservient to the federal government even if it could be objectively proven to make the whole process of governing more efficient.

    It is our misfortune that a large number of people consider themselves citizens of their state first and their country second. So long as they buy into that, the invisible state boundaries will continue to have a visible impact and the electoral college’s abolishment will be perceived as a move to marginalize the rural inhabitants (if indirectly by making them less “important” to accomodate than urban and suburban citizens).

    While I am not quite that pessimistic, I can understand the sentiments and arguments behind it. One must remember that the EC and Senate mainly acted as a way to ensure that all the states would agree to ratify the Constitution in the first place- should it be replaced, a similar compromise would need to be reached in the name of keeping the states united.

    The alternative that comes to mind is kicking most of the Midwest out of the Union, which would subsequently split the US in a much messier way than the Confederacy did even if it doesn’t lead to another Civil War. I can imagine that such a scenario would make transcontinental land travel an interesting challenge, to put it lightly.

  18. tccc says

    I just want to point out that a Constitutional Convention is a terrible idea.

    That would be the only possible way to re-write things from the ground up and there has been talk of it happening.

    The theocratic republiklans have been planning for one for a long time, decades. The secularists and liberals would get their clocks cleaned. Again, I repeat, that solution is a terrible idea.

  19. PaulBC says

    The theocratic republiklans have been planning for one for a long time, decades. The secularists and liberals would get their clocks cleaned. Again, I repeat, that solution is a terrible idea.


  20. dma8751482 says

    I forgot to mention that another issue is that many states consider their interests to be separate from the interests of the US as a whole. While this is technically correct in that they are focused on smaller scales that do not directly reflect the concerns of the whole country, it encourages a severe tunnel vision where they place the interests of the state above the Union that the state belongs to. It’s basically the MO of cancer- it diverts nutrients and blood from its host to support itself, but when the host dies the cancer’s nutrient supply is severed and the cancer dies with it.

    I’m sure you can see the other parallels here without me describing them.

  21. dma8751482 says


    That assumes that it could even happen at all in this political climate. I seriously doubt that.

  22. PaulBC says


    It probably can’t happen, but it’s worth the effort of pointing out that it’s likely to turn out badly. A good start might be acknowledging in K-12 education that “We’re stuck with a lot of this shit because rational people are aware of the risk of making things a lot worse.” I haven’t really talked to my kids about it, but in the 1970s they were shilling the electoral college and the Senate as the received wisdom of the founders.

    A point that I think tccc was making is that we’d be negotiating from a position of weakness. For all its drawbacks, the existing constitution is one of the main defenses against theocracy, and Christian theocrats don’t even make an effort to hide their contempt for church-state separation. They have a game plan. The good guys don’t.

  23. blf says

    Obvious typo in @23: several different effects underway → several different efforts underway…

  24. tccc says

    Also, @17 PaulBC

    While the non proportional representation of the Senate might have originally be a bone to the slave states (I really do not know), the current situation of the western red, low population, states was to basically end slavery.

    Abe Lincoln was the prime mover for divided up the territories into as many states as he needed to get enough senators to pass his legislation is my understanding.

  25. blf says

    Following-up to @27, my recollection is being taught the original model was the House represented — and hence was elected by — “the people” (excluding all who were young, female, enslaved, and so on); the Senate represented the States, and hence chosen in an unspecified(?) manner by the individual State governments; and the President by persons similar to the framers, hence the Electoral College, the members of which were selected in an unspecified(?) manner. How correct that (or my memory) ever was is perhaps largely moot, since the system was evolved into something rather different.

  26. dma8751482 says

    @blf 28

    Indeed it has, which is why it’s such a mess. The Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly have predicted everything that ended up changing between their time and our own and so assume their status quo would last forever.

    Needless to say, we’re stuck with the consequences of their short-sightedness, and the only way to fix it has an excellent chance of making things even worse.

  27. consciousness razor says

    Needless to say, we’re stuck with the consequences of their short-sightedness, and the only way to fix it has an excellent chance of making things even worse.

    A constitutional convention certainly isn’t the only way. And even an amendment may not be necessary, depending on which “it” you’re talking about fixing.

  28. GerrardOfTitanServer - formerly EnlightenmentLiberal says

    What’s really hilarious is to back and read the rationale the authors of the Constitution gave for creating the electoral college. It would save us from dangerous demagogues who appealed to the passions of the mob. Yeah, right.

    The real idea behind the electoral college died within the first decade or two, IIRC. Other commentors like dma8751482 in #5 get the idea wrong. It’s not big states vs small states. It was the idea that the average voter does not elect the president. Rather, the idea was that they elect some local guy that they know and trust, and then a hundred of these local guys, the electors, go to the capital, in a smokey back room, and decide on who should be president. The idea was that the average voter does not know which president that they are voting for – they ought to know only that they are voting for a local trusted representative, the elector, who later will make up their mind about who should be president as part of backroom compromises with the other electors.

    Unfortunately, this entire idea of “electors” is apparently not sustainable, because IIRC very early on, electors just started publicly advertising “if you vote for me, then I promise that I’ll vote ‘X for president’ “. That’s how we’re in the situation where we are now, where “faithless elector” is a term of art,
    and many (most?) states have state laws that make it criminal for an elector in the state to vote contrary to their public (party) pledge, or maybe they even make it mandatory(?) to vote according to their public (party) pledge.

    Big states vs small states receiving the same number of senators is a completely different thing, unrelated to the electoral college and preventing the election of demagogues as president.

    As for my ideas for fixes, here’s a few off the top of my head.

    The president is a “single winner take all” election, and those kinds of elections suck. I don’t see a good alternative to a single leading person of the executive branch, but I think we can lessen the president’s importance, which is better than nothing.

    Step 1- Remove the presidential veto of legislation from the federal congress.

    Step 2- Require 3/4 approval of the senate to appoint all federal judges, including SCOTUS.

    Voila. I think I just drastically reduced the importance of presidential elections by reducing the power of the president, and I think that’s a great thing.


    Change the federal House to a national party list system.

    Do something about the Senate. Unfortunately, the constitution itself says that you cannot fix the Senate by an amendment, so we’re stuck with that for a while.

    Specify that SCOTUS shall consist of exactly 9 judges. Once a vacancy on SCOTUS opens, the current president has 1 month to fill the vacancy, subject to the 3/4 senate approval that I mentioned earlier, and if the president and senate cannot fill it in 1 month, then hold a random lottery of all serving federal judges to fill the vacancy. Ideally, together with the 3/4 approval requirement, we ought to get judge nominations to be non-partisan.

  29. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Oh, and for the love of the gods, change the congress culture so that when they pass a budget bill, have them pass bills that fund the government in perpetuity. The idea of fixed length funding bills is perfect to allow a party to take the government hostage. (Yes yes, I know that the military funding must be renewed at least every two years, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the government funding must be provided for limited times only as well.)

  30. TGAP Dad says

    @PZ “…we need an overhaul of the whole rotten fabric of our political institutions.”
    Be careful what you wish for. After all, this is what the orange idiot promised, in more crude, racist, language, to his troglodyte base.

  31. dma8751482 says

    Removing the veto right seems like it could backfire but the lottery idea in case of SCOTUS vacancy seems like a passable contingency. The 3/4 Senate approval part on the other hand sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  32. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Removing the veto right seems like it could backfire

    Agreed. Putting forward ideas for consideration.

    The 3/4 Senate approval part on the other hand sounds like a recipe for disaster.

    Why? Because a minority party would obstruct the function of government and refuse to nominate any new judges? Maybe. Then again, they seem to manage just fine with the filibuster in place; 60 vs 75.

  33. dma8751482 says

    Hence why the lottery part would be necessary as a contingency.

  34. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Oh of course. The proposals go hand in hand, and I wouldn’t have one without the other. I hope that together they’ll force reasonable compromise.

  35. DanDare says

    Democracy itself is more than merely voting. It needs structures for discussing, informing, persuading, cooperating and exploring.
    The current system enables people not to do the othher stuff if they think they have the votes.

  36. says

    As long as we’re fantasizing about things which will never ever happen, how about eliminating political parties (IRV won’t do it, and the two we have are ludicrously non-representative of their supposed bases) and taking measures against the influence of the rich?

  37. unclefrogy says

    all the talk about changing the constitution sounds like looking for an easy way to “win” to me the problem is we have spent so much energy trying to get those who do not agree with the established order to not be engaged and trust the leadership which inevitably screws them that we have a low level of engagement with politics generally and too many party hacks and self serving assholes end up running and wining.
    For all the reasons stated up thread one thing is sure the “founding fathers” could not imagine not being evolved in their own political life and how they would be governed that was one of the primary motives for engaging the crown in a war for independence in the first place.
    changing the rules will not “fix” much off anything it will just require new ways to manipulate and game the system.
    politics is a rough and tumble game they say.
    I see the problem as one of not enough democracy more people need to be paying attention, more people need to care enough to vote and realize that by ourselves we are weak but together we are strong.
    Ee’d Plebnista
    uncle frogy

  38. says

    @blf, re: electoral college.
    As a European, I didn’t get this either, until a USAian basically told me to view the individual states as the separate countries in the EU. Then the electoral college, or at least a similar system, does make sense.

  39. thirdmill says

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to require a 3/4 Senate vote to confirm federal judges. In the last year of Obama’s term, the Republican Senate simply refused to take up any of his judicial nominees, including one to the Supreme Court, so I would see that as an opportunity for further obstructionism. Eventually there will again be a Democrat in the White House, and when that happens I don’t want him or her thwarted by obstructionist policies that seemed like a good idea when Trump was in office.

    What I would do instead is to pass a Senate rule stating that once the president has sent a judicial nominee to the Senate, the Senate has a reasonable amount of time — say, six months — to take a vote, and if they fail to do so, the nominee would be deemed confirmed. That way, if there’s a legitimate reason to oppose a specific nominee, there’s enough time to do it, but no ability to obstruct just for the sake of obstruction.

  40. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To thirdmill
    Guess I’ll have to politely disagree. I don’t see how your plan, forcing a vote, would really help. They’d just vote no. I don’t see a substantive change.

    I’m not confident in my plan, but I still like my plan. With the 3/4 approval requirement in place for all federal judges, I think that the parties would come to a compromise agreement for appointing federal judges rather than never appoint a federal judge again. Meh.