"I'm not a fan of apocalyptic thinking, and if America really were on the road to hell, tinkering with the structure of institutions that have been around for over two centuries probably wouldn't help very much.
"I would, however, offer a few random suggestions as to how to improve the functioning of institutions important to American democracy. I don't promise that they would redeem American democracy or anything so grandiose; in at least one case (the first one, below), all I can really promise is that they might help keep things from getting worse. But you asked, so...
"1. Stop electing judges. As in, any judges for any court of law in the United States. If the Citizens United ruling does result in a surge of money from corporate and union treasuries into electoral politics, judicial races will be the most easily influenced. This is because they are ordinarily low-turnout elections, held separately from November elections, and low-turnout elections are more easily swung by getting small numbers of zealous people to the polls. Electing judges is probably not a good idea anyway, seeing as how a competent judge must have a specialized legal background most citizens aren't in any position to evaluate.
"2. Stop televising the Senate. The Senate operates on comity and precedent more than it does on rules. Its norms, as with the norms of any institution, are more easily sustained if its exposure to the norms of the broader society is limited. A significant number of Senators now are basically back bench Congressmen, and they act like it; every appearance on the floor is designed to appeal to people likely to vote for them or send their campaigns money. Visual aids abound. Serious debate is avoided (it could be embarrassing if a Senator was asked questions he couldn't answer), and the temptation for Senators to address issues for which the committees on which they sit are not responsible is irresistible. So, remove the temptation. Turn the cameras off.
"Start being way more judgmental about the private lives of public men. This isn't really a structural change, but its implications for the Senate in particular (full disclosure: I used to work there) could be important. In the last three years or so, sitting Senators have been found to have been regular customers of prostitutes, to have seduced staff member's wives, and to have gotten caught trolling for sex in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport. None of the Senators involved had to resign (one, a man in his mid-sixties who might well have retired anyway, decided not to run for reelection); none faced any disciplinary action by the Senate itself.
"Now, it would obviously be a bad thing if notable public servants were turned out of office because of lapses in their private lives. In these cases as in most others, though, the Senators in question were and are undistinguished, combining indifference to the work of government with immoral, even disgusting private conduct. The Senate badly needs turnover; Senators need to know there are things besides losing message discipline during the campaign, not raising enough money to keep their campaign consultants in appropriate style, or actually being imprisoned for committing a felony that can cost them their positions. I would prefer that first among those things were abuse of the Senatorial "hold" privilege, but can't think of a way to make that happen. This will do for a start.
"4. Start a new convention as to how the Executive Mansion is organized. This would involve reserving the 16 or so offices nearest the President's for the Vice President, the National Security Adviser, the DNI, and every member of the Cabinet. They wouldn't all have to be there themselves; they could assign agency staff to keep their chairs warm most of the time. This restructuring could, if I'm not mistaken, be legislated (it might have to be). It would be a vivid reminder to each new President that the campaign that got him to the White House was over, and that he now had to conduct himself as the head of the government. As for his campaign advisers, publicists, media specialists and other staff who are there to make sure the President is prepared for the next campaign, there are many excellent office suites in the Old Executive Office Building to which they could be assigned.
"I can think of other ways to improve the operation of the government -- centralizing space and science functions in a new department, scrapping the Commerce Department and assigning its constituent agencies elsewhere, moving the Forest Service back to the Interior Department, legislating geographic concentration of defense procurement. None of them head off in the unproductive direction you have from time to time suggested ("here are the Senate and the states that have been central to American government for centuries -- let's get rid of them!"). This is because I don't think it follows from the conclusion that America's government is not all it could be that the structure of that government is to blame. It is far more likely that men and women in the government have failed in their duties, or even that civic virtue in the general population has declined. Causes of governmental failure that are difficult to address -- and sometimes uncomfortable to talk about, especially in Washington -- are not for that reason wise to dismiss in favor of institutional tinkering promoted as if we could redesign the American government from scratch."
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.