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November 13, 2023

Author Josep Colomer’s New Book Examines the Origins of Political Polarization

On November 13, 2023, the Georgetown Americas Institute hosted author Josep Colomer to present the findings of his new book Constitutional Polarization: A Critical Review of the U.S. Political System (2023). Colomer was joined by panelists Diana Kapiszewski, associate professor of government and the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University; Arturo Valenzuela, professor emeritus of government and foreign service at Georgetown University; and Michael Bailey, Colonel William J. Walsh Professor of American Government at Georgetown University.

Josep Colomer presents on his new book examining the U.S. Constitution.
Josep Colomer presents on his new book examining the U.S. Constitution.

In his book, Colomer examines the origins of political polarization in the United States, arguing that it is embedded in its constitutional design. Bailey provided historical context to the book’s themes of flaws in the Constitution, detailing eras that demonstrated the document’s weakness: the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. The book connects those points in history to the current political climate, marked by extreme division, questioning whether the Constitution will be able to withstand this era of polarization.

The Philadelphia Delegation

Colomer described that at the founding of the United States, novice writers made mistakes which resulted in bad governance, given that the ideas of governing a republic and writing a constitution were innovative. Colomer studied the deliberations of the delegates at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, stating that the objective of the delegates was not to create a democracy, but rather a republic, which they simply defined as any form of government that was not a monarchy. Valenzuela gave a hemispheric context, adding that many Latin American countries adopted the Philadelphia model of republican governance rather than the French model because of the failures of the French revolution. 

“The creation of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century was a great invention, very innovative…, an unprecedented experiment and highly improvised. And it was a success because it ended up becoming one of the greatest powers in the world. However looking now at the founding moment, it’s clear to me they made rookie errors. The authors of the United States constitution were novices without previous experiences to rely upon.” - Josep Colomer

The purpose of writing the Constitution was to unify the country politically and financially. The delegates aimed to address security issues and the large debt incurred by the war of independence, realizing that a representative form of government would be required to convince citizens to pay taxes. 

According to Colomer, the authors of the constitution made two grave errors. First, they leaned too hard into presidentialism and created a position that functioned basically as an elected monarch. In Colomer’s opinion, the founders did not create a functional balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. Second, they did not anticipate the concept of competing political parties. In a two-party system, the government easily finds itself in gridlock when one party controls one branch and the other party controls another branch, causing blockages and legislative paralysis. 

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Constitution

Bailey described that one of the strengths of the Constitution is its longevity. The federalist system the founders chose also gives strength to the document, as state and local governments have the political flexibility and ability to relieve pressure from the federal government. Bailey also noted the document’s structuring of separation of powers, and the strong role of civil society in the American political landscape as two factors contributing to the success of the Constitution.

Bailey mentioned that the document is challenged by a paradoxical need to be both stable and flexible, and he argued that parliamentary systems offer more flexibility. Valenzuela criticized the electoral college and the power imbalances it creates, suggesting a multi-member system and multi-party system to get away from gerrymandered districts and two-party systems. He noted that today 18% of the population elects 52% of the Senate, giving them a significant advantage in naming government officials and courts. 

Valenzuela detailed that one weakness of presidential governments is that it creates the possibility of governance by double minority, meaning the president could be from a political minority and might not have majorities in the congress, leading to conflict. He commented that Latin American countries tried to combat this by creating second round elections, but ultimately this weakened their party systems. Valenzuela believes that the instability seen in Latin America today is due to this conflict that arises in presidential forms of governance. 

Governance That’s Good, but Not Great

Colomer opined that the United States is a democracy without the best governance. He compared the path of the United States’ governance to that of other former British colonies, noting that the United States is the only democracy that uses single-member elections for Congress and separate executive presidential elections. Other former British colonies, like Canada or New Zealand, also inherited the British single-member system but quickly realized that the parliamentary system was a better fit. 

From Colomer’s perspective, the U.S. government is a system designed to work best in times of crisis because the country is a world power, and foreign policy is its top priority. This means that in order for the government to function smoothly, there must be an external enemy that is seen as an existential threat. Historical examples include the British at the United States’ founding and World War II later on, among others. In those periods there was cooperation between the White House and Congress. The other model arises when foreign policy is not as relevant and a large number of unresolved domestic issues emerge on the public agenda, like social welfare, immigration, and voting rights. This is the paradigm we are currently in, and it is reflected by the gridlock seen in the U.S. government. 

Kapiszewski mentioned the challenge of democratic backsliding, noting that democracy does not die at the barrel of a gun but rather through gradual processes in which democratic institutions are incrementally weakened or undermined. Recently across the Americas, executive powers, after being democratically elected, have chipped away at these institutions. She mentioned that this happens less in the United States than in other countries in the hemisphere, and posited this as a reason why the U.S. constitution has been so resilient. 

Proposed Constitutional Changes

Panelists discussed possible avenues to strengthen or reinvent processes within the U.S. system of government. From the perspective of Bailey and Colomer, they believe the United States should consider moving toward a parliamentary form of government, which would allow for more flexibility as society changes. 

Kapiszewski noted that in Latin America, constitutional changes are often seen as the solution to issues caused by deep political divisions and challenges. She based her argument on various historical examples, including Colombia in 1991, Ecuador and Bolivia in the early 2000s, and Chile today. She questioned whether or not constitutional changes do in fact heal political rifts.

Valenzuela offered his thoughts on how specific constitutional changes could help combat the failures of the current system. He suggested expanding the Senate so that the number of senators is proportional to the population. He also posited changes like abolishing the filibuster, establishing representatives for indigenous populations, ending the electoral college system, extending voting rights, and making voting mandatory. He believes that the United States should end single-member districts, put term limits on the Supreme Court, and limit the number of court appointments allowed by each president. Finally, he suggested that the country establish a process to amend the Constitution that requires two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate, while eliminating the current requirement that three-quarters of state legislatures ratify these amendments as well. 

 This event was co-sponsored by the Georgetown Americas Institute and the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.