thoughtsConstitution for a Hypothetical Nation

I've been thinking a lot about the political situation in America lately. It's hard not to, with the intensity and volume of political opinions in the media these days.

If nothing else, I believe that Barack Obama's presidency will go down in the history books as a harbinger of change - just not the change that he or anyone else was hoping for. I believe it's more than possible that what we're seeing is the long, slow, tortuous dissolution of the union; a nation being pulled in opposite directions by two stubborn pack animals until it comes apart at the seams.

For the record, of course, although I am a Canadian, I do love the United States of America. I am deeply grateful for the example they've set and the role they continue to play in ensuring my nation's freedom and independance. I also believe that the two-party system is a severe detriment to that nation, and that once the Republicans and Democrats became established as the only sources of power in America, the current polarization and vitriol was inevitable.

This is the point, in theory, where I should extoll the virtues of the Canadian system with our multiple parties, but I'm not going to do that either. Obviously, our democracy is also far from perfect.

More importantly, I am not a pundit. I am a nerd.

As such, I have no desire to waste my breath and wear down my fingerprints arguing about a system I can't change when I could have far more fun detailing a fantasy democracy of my own invention.

That's right - I'm about to write a constitution. Buckle up, kids.

Before I begin, let me stress that the following structure of government is not in any way tied to any existing nation. I believe it could equally serve America, Canada, Belgium, or the remote tropical isle of Tailsteakia.

Also, I'm going to state some of my viewpoints on the weaknesses of the current systems right off the top, so you can see where I'm coming from.

1- I believe that the chief virtue of democracy lies not in the representation of the will of the people, but rather in the turbulence and turnover it provides to bureaucracies that would otherwise stagnate in oligarchy and cronyism. Regardless of the validity of the election, any man who runs a country for more than ten years at a stretch is its king.

2- I believe that one of the main problems with current democracies is that they were crafted before the development of modern communication networks. Any modern nation will have to take into account the ability of savvy voters to look up the details of any given politician or issue, and facilitate that openness.

3- I believe that political parties are horrible institutions, and should be abolished as soon as possible. In the United States, for example, if someone is anti-abortion but also anti-war, he must decide which of these views to abandon in order to either support the pro-abortion, anti-war party or the anti-abortion, pro-war party. The idea of politicians coming together and agreeing to compromise on their individual beliefs in order to advertise and vote as a monolithic bloc is anathema to representative government.

Now then, where to begin...

Right off the top, obviously, we're going to have to guarantee some human rights. Everybody gets the right to religion, right to free speech, right to move about the country, right to seek gainful employment in any field, right to freedom from prejudice, habeas corpus, all that good stuff. Along with that, I'm going to add two more rights - the right to seek federal aid when you face any potentially life-threatening situation, and the right to information.

The first one guarantees that regardless of how broke, how sick, how stupid, how underpriveleged or how undeserving of handouts you may be... as long as you live in my country, you will never starve to death. You may not necessarily be comfortable, but you can always go to some government agency which will determine your need and take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that you don't die, if only in the hopes that you will rise above your current circumstances and start paying taxes again.

I was initially tempted to phrase the second right as "the right to unfiltered Internet access", but, of course, that would be impractical. As I stated, the modern phenomenon of ubiquitous communication should be fundamental to any emerging nation, and, as such, would have to be guaranteed in unequivocal terms. An uninformed voter (or a voter who is only privy to information from one source) is worse than a chimp throwing darts at a ballot.

In fact, I'd put an end to the all-encompassing demand for citizens to do their "civic duty" and vote, regardless of their level of knowledge. The emphasis, rather, would be on education - citizens would be encouraged to learn as much as possible about the issues, and only vote if and when they considered themselves knowledgeable about what they're voting for.

This process, of course, would be made as simple as possible. Every government representative (I'll borrow the term "senator") would have to fill out an official profile portraying their political views.

They would also, of course, be expected and encouraged to put together a more flowery presentation of themselves available on their personal websites and pamphlets, but their official governing profile would be as terse and simplistic as a classified ad or an athlete's statistics.

A senator's profile would follow a prescribed format. Each election cycle, a list of topics (such as "abortion", "education", "environment", "scientific research", or "crime"... probably about a hundred or so) would be given, and the senatorial candidate would select the top ten issues that he or she considers important, list them by priority from one to ten, and state his or her opinion on them in ten words or less. A typical senator profile would look like this:

James Herbert Morrigan
Garrison, Rhode Island.
Regional Incumbent, two terms, national incumbent, one term.
1- Education: more funding, higher standards.
2- National Defense: more funding, more proactive stance on terrorism.
3- Crime: Longer sentences, more focus on rehabilitation.
4- Taxes: Less burden on the middle class.
5- Budget: Reduce or eliminate the deficit
6- Healthcare: Increase availability of doctors.
7- Energy: Reduce dependance on foreign oil, invest in wind and solar.
8- Foreign Aid: More focus on sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Somalia.
9- Family Values: Encourage monogamy, mandate pre-marriage education and counselling.
10- Bureaucracy: Increase government transparency and accountability.

There would, of course, be a filtering process - someone might be considered ineligible for public service if they listed their priorities as "Family Values: Execute all homosexuals" or "National Defense: Cede control of the nation to China".

Once in office, every vote a senator made on a particular bill would, of course, be public knowledge, and it would be fairly easy to compare their voting record to their purported list of priorities. To facilitate this, each senator would be encouraged to write a short comment along with every vote (such as "Too ambitious, too naive, too vague." or "I approved of most of this bill, but I cannot in good conscience assent to any measure that provides federal funding for abortion."). Even those senatorial candidates who are not in office or are incapable of voting would be encouraged to list an opinion on legislation being passed without them, if only to establish a record of consistency. It would be a simple matter, when searching for a candidate who reflects your views, to search the field based on a given criterion. (For example, to search for all candidates who listed "taxes" as one of their top three and consistently voted to lower them.)

There would be two types of senator: national and regional.

The nation would be divided into regions (similar to American electoral districts or Canadian ridings) - it would depend on the size of the nation being divided, but I'd say no less than twenty regions and no more than a hundred. For the sake of this illustration, we'll go with sixty. Regions would be selected based on population groupings - a major metropolis might be a region of its own, while another region might span a vast prairie with lots of little towns. In general, the attempt would be made to make sure each region contains roughly the same amount of people.

Each of the sixty regions gets one seat in the senate, and there would be a corresponding sixty national seats, for a total of one hundred and twenty senators.

In order to get on the ballot as a regional senator, all you'd have to do is collect signatures in your region. The top ten candidates with the most signatures get on the ballot. In order to prevent signature fraud, each signature would include some form of contact information, and election officials would randomly poll the names given, making sure that they corresponded to real people who can vote in the upcoming election and had knowingly endorsed the candidate. Citizens are allowed to endorse multiple candidates simultaneously.

To get on the ballot as a national senator, you also have to collect signatures, but you're not confined to your region. The top two hundred national candidates with the most signatures get on the ballot.

Elections are held every four years. So, yes, every four years, you'd be presented with a ballot that had your ten regional candidates and all two hundred national candidates. In order to keep them all straight, there would be a binder in the voting booth that listed each candidate with their official senator profile.

Rather than vote for your one favourite, you'd be permitted to vote for as many of them as you like. Thus, if you only had one or two pet issues, you could go down the list and check off everyone who listed "Firearms: greater ownership restrictions" as a priority. Indeed, if you really didn't like a particular candidate, you'd be free to vote for everyone else but him.

Obviously, whichever regional candidate got the most votes would become the senator for that region. Of the national candidates, the top sixty with the most votes would become national senators. The national candidate with the most votes who had previously served at least one term would become President.

Senators are permitted to serve no more than four terms in total. The terms may be nonconsecutive. Once someone has been President, his or her political career is over - he or she is not permitted to run as a national or regional senator again. In general, it would be expected that a prospective senator would start as a regional, make the leap to national, and attempt to build up enough popular support to become President, although this is by no means mandatory. You can't run as a regional and national senator simultaneously - you may flip between roles as you like, but your name will never appear in two places on the same ballot.

Any senator, including the President, would be permitted to submit legislation to the senate for consideration. After submission, each senator would be granted an opportunity to publicly comment on the bill, with the submitter being granted an opening and closing statement. Filibustering would not be permitted - you can refuse to comment, you can employ visual aids, you can bloviate in whatever extreme terms you like, but your comment may take no longer than a half hour. Of course, with one hundred and twenty senators, and the submitter of the bill making two speeches, that means that a vote may be delayed by up to 60 and a half working hours - but no longer. After all the speeches are done, a vote is taken, and a measure is passed if it garners the support of over fifty percent of the voting body. A senator may decline to vote on a particular measure, and may telecommute to vote on a bill remotely, but a vote will not be delayed due to a senator's absence.

There are two measures that require seventy-five, rather than fifty percent of the vote: constitutional amendments and accusations of incompetence.

Any senator may submit an accusation of incompetence against any other senator, even if that senator is the President. An accusation of incompetence indicates that you believe the senator in question to be unfit for office, either due to inconsistency of his profile with his voting records, unreliability of service, mental health issues, conflicting interests, or treason.

Once a senator is removed from office in this way, he or she is not permitted to run again. If a regional senator is removed from office either by vote or circumstance, another election in his or her region is held as soon as possible. If a national senator is removed from office either by vote or circumstance, his or her seat stands empty until the next election cycle. If the removed senator is the President, the national senator who received the next-highest number of votes stands in as a temporary President, and another national election is held as soon as possible.

Your term in office only counts against your term limits if you serve more than half of it. Thus, if a senator is temporarily elected to the position of President and only serves for a year and a half, he may run again. If a senator has to leave office after only six months due to health reasons, it doesn't count against his four terms if he gets better and wants to run again in the next election.

The duties of the President (in addition to his job as a senator) are as follows: he or she acts as figurehead and representative of the country to other nations, he or she is the leader of the army with the exclusive ability to initiate or end a war, he or she may veto any legislation passed by the senate (but only if he or she judges it to be a grave risk to national security!), and he or she reviews the actions and appoints the heads of the National Security Commission, the International Security Commission, and the Legislation Quality Committee, as well as the members of the Supreme Court. The President would also have the ability force a piece of pending legislation to jump the queue and be presented to the senate immediately (but, again, only if the passage or defeat of the bill is a matter of national security).

The National Security Commission analyzes and responds to threats to the country from within, and the International Security Commission does the same to international threats. Obviously, they are analogous to the American FBI and CIA, respectively.

The Legislation Quality Committee is a group dedicated to approving legislation before a senator submits it to the senate. They are not permitted to judge the content of the bill, only the clarity of the bill's message, the consistency of its content, the absence of unintended loopholes, and to prevent the submission of a bill that has already been voted against, unless the new version of the bill differs significantly from the form originally rejected. The Legislation Quality Committee also reviews accusations of incompetence, which means that if an accusation of incompetence fails, it cannot be submitted again unless the new version differs significantly - in other words, if you failed to unseat a senator once, you'd have to have a new display of fresh tomfoolery if you want to try again. The Legislation Quality Committee has no fixed size, but their head is to ensure that they have enough members to approve a piece of writing within forty-eight hours of submission, with a minimum of superfluous staff.

The Supreme Court, in this system, would not rule on or challenge the validity of law - they would only serve as a stopping point for the system of appeals. Citizens looking to challenge an existing law would have to get the attention of a sitting senator.

One of the obvious flaws in this system is the potential of abuse by celebrities. If the only real qualification for office (other than citizenship and age, of course) is the collection of signatures, then non-political celebrities with high name-recognition would have a distinct advantage. This is balanced, of course, by the senator's profile. Even those voters who are only voting for Lady Gaga because they liked Bad Romance would be able to see her political views in starkly utilitarian terms - and, lacking the voting bloc of "right" or "left", would be free to accept or reject her as a politician based on her actual (no doubt frightening and surreal) opinions. Of course, in the unlikely event that Gaga was elected to the senate, I imagine a vote of incompetence would oust her fairly quickly after the first time she shows up to a session of the senate wearing an inside-out capybara.

While in the senate, obviously, Ms. Germanotta would be incapable of receiving proceeds from her musical career. She would not be restricted from working on and releasing additional songs, of course, but she would be unable to sell them or to have someone else sell them and hold the money for her. Similarly, senators would be prohibited from receiving money, goods or services from lobbyists. In fact, the salary and sole income of the senators would be strictly tied to the national average income, including the unemployed. A sitting senator would make - let's say... a firm 250% of the national average income, calculated monthly. For plucky underdogs who made it into office on a tide of unfunded grassroots popular support, this would hopefully be enough to live in relative comfort while doing their work. Millionaire career politicians, on the other hand, would see it as merely a token amount - a shrewd financial advisor would advise them against a stint in the senate for any but the most altruistic reasons.

Another potential weakness of the system is the President's ability to arbitrarily appoint unelected heads to fairly powerful government entities. We would have to place limits on this, obviously - perhaps hiring or firing a National Security Commission head or Supreme Court justice would also require senate majority vote.

Conceivably, individual senators might conspire to trade votes on certain issues, thus forming de facto political parties, but in order to do so, they'd either have to change their senator profiles or vote against their stated positions. Similarly, a senator might decide to flood the Legislation Quality Commission with useless proposals, or take up his entire half hour commentary on every single bill with thirty minutes of air horn noises, but hopefully such a senator would be exposed as blatantly acting against the spirit of the constitution and the interest of the nation, and evicted from his seat rather quickly.

I don't know - I think this is a fairly complete and workable system. As I said, I am not a pundit, so no doubt there are obvious loopholes that would turn this system into a horrific dystopia, but, as far as I'm concerned, it works on paper. Any of you who are developing a fantasy or sci-fi government (or who are planning on overthrowing your local governments and erecting a wholly new government in its place) are more than welcome to adapt this system to your individual needs.


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