In the United States, for the most part, it is hard to do anything politically. That’s a good thing.
Big changes in the United States take big majorities. This mainly protects the rights of minorities. Under the Constitution it takes a majority in Congress to pass any given law. The President as Chief Executive can sign or veto the law. The veto can overridden by two-thirds (supermajority) of both houses of Congress. The Constitution can only be amended by supermajorities in both Congress and the state legislatures. Another example is treaty making. The US Senate has the power — again with super majorities — to ratify treaties. Treaties once ratified are the law of the land, so in order for the President to make one the President will need a two-thirds Senate majority to agree that the treaty is a good idea.
Thus, big changes to the US system requires near consensus from the electorate through their representatives in Washington, DC and the states. This is critically important in a big diverse country such as the United States because it ensures that when we do make changes, we are largely united in that effort.
Want a whole new appreciation of the federalist system for fostering big political change? Simple, look to Brexit — a thirty year cautionary tale on the limits of majority rule.
The British and Europe: It’s Complicated
The goal for bringing Europe together into an economic trading block is rooted in the Cold War and the need the for containing Europe’s most powerful state, Germany. What began as an economic trading block evolved into the notion of a united Europe.
The European Union, as we come to know it, is now a political and economic union consisting of 28 mostly European states of which the United Kingdom is one of them. But the marriage of the UK and Europe has always been a rocky one. In 2016 a majority British voters asked for a divorce. And like many marriages that end in this manner, the split has not been an amicable one.
The idea of joining Europe in all social and economic policy has wrecked every Conservative Party Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. The open split in the Conservative Party over the European question was at heart of her losing power. As an outspoken opponent and legendary leader of the Tories, when Thatcher fell, the baton was picked up by her loyal supporters. Thatcher’s replacement, John Major, was only able to garner rebel tory votes for the Maastricht Treaty after offering a deal his party couldn’t refuse. Vote for the European Union or commit political suicide.
Fearing the Labour Party more than Brussels, the rebellion caved and Britain ratified the Maastricht Treaty. From 1992 to today, from mad cow to chocolate the British to currency adjustments conservatives have chafed at the constant interference in the United Kingdom’s sovereign affairs.
Tories weren’t the aggrieved party in this either. Labour Party Euroskeptics including Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour Party Leader, have long existed as well. Labour has exercised more discipline in curtailing this particular party split but there’s always been unease among the traditional Labour left and Europe. There are also two smaller parties including Ukip, that were founded on the sole idea leaving the union. Up until the 2016 Brexit vote, they’ve been minor irritants if that in British politics. Yet, in 2016, much to Brexiter’s surprise the British electorate in a close vote chose to divorce from the European Union. This is where are cautionary lesson begins.
The vote to leave the Union in 2016, while substantial, was only 52% in favor. This was hardly a consensus vote. And herein lies the problem. Then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was opposed to Brexit. After it passed, he resigned. Brexit opponent Theresa May was his replacement. She promised to bow to the will of the people, but her efforts have been stymied by a coalition of remainers who wish to thwart the election results. It is the political battle amongst the remainer who leads the government initiating the divorce, the remainers waging a war to…well… remain in the European Union and then the Brexiters who want a hard break with the union.
Democracy is a messy business.
In this instance, it so messy that it may undermine itself.
One way the will of the people may be undermined is if the remainers were able via legerdemain and stalling to either force another vote on Brexit or somehow cause the government to fail to exit the union. Democracy is not vote until you get the result you want and ignoring the outcome of the referendum is much the same. Remainers are on the wrong side of this one.
Another issue is the deep split and the animosity between partisans who are closely divided. This does not portend well for eventual cooperation. If the vote is 51-49 and you are sitting at 49, are you going to accept your defeat or continue in the hopes of picking up the other two votes? Tory rebels have held on for thirty years and are “this close.” In the past, they could be counted on to cave. This time, there’s been an election and they won.
Finally, when then Prime Minister John Major forced through the Maastricht Treaty vote he essentially changed the British Constitution on a Parliamentary vote — a controversial and narrow one as well. The same with Brexit, a referendum resulting in 52-48 outcome does not have the same oomph as 70-30. These changes impact the monetary, fiscal, social policy not to mention immigration of a proud and sovereign nation. That’s a lot to ask on narrow margins.
Voting to give a parliament in a far away land the power to make monetary and immigration policy is a far different animal than a leash law for Fido. The Federal System established by the Nation’s Founders in the US solves this problem by making it hard to do the big things. This helps keep things together.
Federalism Does It Better
Whether one is for or against Brexit really isn’t the issue here. What is important to understand that making big national changes on the basis of a simple majority vote can lead to a real mess. Current efforts to subvert the electoral college, impose congressional redistricting or even to implement the sweeping changes of the Green New Deal require a consensus, not a majority. This is a feature, not a bug. The mess that is the Brexit is a great example why.