by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[T]he government will take drastic steps only when a broad and durable majority believes it is necessary to do so. There will be no willy-nilly impeachments or amendments in our government. The people rule, but the more “ticklish” impulses of public opinion, as James Madison once put it, will be tamped down.
This is why the ratification of the Constitution was such an impressive feat. Between 1787 and 1790, the 13 states actually cleared this very high bar for popular action. It is not as though the Founders were hypocritical in slapping such a burdensome threshold on us. They had to face it themselves.
This means in turn that our system has a very high “status quo bias.” When the people cannot agree on a change, things remain as they are. This is the main reason the Constitution has so rarely been amended, and that many of the amendments were relatively minor procedural tweaks. There were only three moments of big changes: the Bill of Rights, adopted at the behest of the state ratifying conventions; the Civil War amendments; the Progressive Era amendments. All three instances were points of crisis in the body politic that created a sufficiently broad majority to make big changes.
The upside to this, as I noted, is that we do not really have tyrannical majorities ruling us, an oft-overlooked benefit of our system. The downside is that we get what might be called “dead-hand control.” Generations that can cobble together sufficiently large majorities to make massive changes to the government continue to exercise influence well beyond their lifetimes — as their innovations, having passed the supermajority requirements, then enjoy the protection of the status quo bias.
There is a genuine tradeoff here. …