The American Experiment, Revisited

Published March 19, 2020

Democracies around the world are in trouble.  After a good, long run with freedom flourishing, we suddenly find ourselves (with other large democracies in the West) with dysfunctional governments that appear incapable of dealing with problems in a rational manner.  We no longer exhibit the old Yankee ingenuity for problem-solving that characterized our early days;  rather, we often see rancorous, uncivil discourse and rigid, uncompromising political posturing.  How did this happen?  Let’s look at the historical record for insights on our situation.

Launch of the American Experiment

After winning our independence in the Revolutionary War, our republic was launched with great hope.  Sovereignty, for the first time in history on this scale, rested with the people.  Because it was a new and untried form of government, its outcome was far from certain and it became known as the American Experiment.  It was characterized by freedom for all of its citizens with limitations on the power of government.

How Have We Done So Far?

If we look at the evidence of our first 200 years, our constitutional republic has a stellar track record unmatched by any other form of government in history. Consider these major accomplishments:

  • We developed economic power that dramatically improved our standard of living and reduced poverty levels far beyond anything done before, by anyone.
  • We played a pivotal role in saving Western civilization (and freedom) in two horrendous world wars that killed 100 million people.
  • We gave critical support to rebuilding our former adversaries in those wars; with our help, they became model citizens working for a peaceful world.
  • We defended Western nations from the threat of world conquest by communist regimes whose leaders killed 90 million of their own people in an attempt to restructure and remold society into their vision of utopia.
  • We expanded citizenship to include all segments of our society, and established a social safety net for our disadvantaged members.

The freedom of our people led to these impressive results.We demonstrated that a sovereign and free people can overcome tremendous obstacles and accomplish great and noble things when the need is understood.We may rightfully take pride in our national accomplishments which have contributed significantly to improvements in the lives of untold millions of people around the globe.And we can face the future with the confidence that we can overcome whatever lies ahead.

Throughout history, no other form of government has had this impact for good.  Our constitutional republic is definitely worth fighting for.

Recent Developments

Seeing the spectacular success we had enjoyed, dozens of emerging countries chose democratic forms of government in the last half of the 20th century.  Freedom was on a roll.  But as we entered the new millennium, we were besieged by problems of governance in the major democracies.  This was obvious to interested observers, and democratic forms of government lost their appeal for emerging countries.  This led to a more dangerous world, since we have learned that democracies are inherently peaceful people and autocracies are prone to expand their power with violence or threats of violence.

While our early record was exemplary, the record of the last few decades is less inspiring.As external threats abated and we turned our attention inward, special interest groups became aggressive in their efforts to test and breach the limits of the Constitution, lobbying intensified, and big money enhanced its grip on election campaigns.These developments have left us with a hopeless muddle in a Washington that appears incapable of rational governance.It is time we acknowledged the true state of our affairs and took action to repair the republic.

Despite the stellar record of our republic, some are dissatisfied with our accomplishments and feel that a collectivist form of government (such as communism, socialism, or their offshoots) would be more egalitarian and just.They are not satisfied to simply repair the republic; they advocate fundamental changes in our way of life.But every attempt in history to implement such a structure has ultimately led to a corrupt authoritarian regime that suppressed its people.The all-too-human thirst for power has always prevailed, to the detriment of the people.Egalitarian and just they were not.

The model of our constitutional republic still stands as the best hope for mankind around the world that seek freedom.But to regain the admiration and respect of these people, we must repair the obvious flaws in our republic and clearly demonstrate that a democracy can produce an effective, collegial government that solves problems on a sustained basis.And thanks to the foresight of the founders, our Constitution provides us with the means to do this: we must call for a convention of states under Article V to consider constitutional amendments.The convention should defer consideration of public policy issues and concentrate on the way the government functions.

If we fix the government structure and processes first, we will then be better able to deal with policy issues in the future.

The Convention Agenda

When the convention of states is convened, several citizen movements will present their proposed amendments for consideration.  The convention will establish rules of conduct, such as the following:

  1. Submissions must be endorsed by delegates of at least five states.
  2. Committees of the convention, with political balance, shall be appointed to research proposals, debate them and make recommendations to the floor of the convention to approve, modify or reject them.
  3. The floor vote on suggested amendments shall be cast by state delegates and recorded;  60% of votes cast shall be required for transmission of a proposed amendment to the states for possible ratification.

Following are examples of reforms that the convention might address.

Repair Actions Urgently Needed

  • establish an organizational unit external to the three federal branches to enforce the law against federal officials, eliminating the need for special counsels; it should be controlled by the states and administered in a non-partisan manner.
  • recognize and codify the right of voters to quiet enjoyment of their elections, without outside interference; this will properly acknowledge the importance of free and fair elections in the republic.   
  • require that all claims on the federal purse must be presented for public view in the annual budget process, and authorized by budget resolutions; this will impose transparency on congressional handouts.
  • require that the budget be balanced in normal years; provide for emergency deficits but require fiscal recovery within five years.
  • block issuance of new orders and regulations from the executive branch and agencies with a simple resolution from either the House or Senate; this will force the originator to seek normal legislative approval for actions that have been challenged.
  • utilize the organizational unit that was created to enforce the law against federal officials as the home for all departments and agencies that should be protected from partisan meddling by executive or legislative officials; this will curtail using governmental power to advance a political agenda by intimidating citizens.
  • increase the effectiveness and vitality of the federal government by placing limits on service in the federal judiciary and Congress; this will eliminate the threat of age-related infirmities and clear out pockets of personal power that tend to grow over time.

Amendments to the Constitution should be simple in concept yet profound in impact.  They should preserve all that is right with the country and fix much of what is wrong.  They should be true to the founding principles of our republic, and be proper midcourse corrections for the nation. 

If the amendments are well thought through and carefully drafted, they will once again establish us as the beacon of freedom for the world.  We will have burnished the tarnished reputation of democracy.

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