In an Atlantic article that scares the daylights out of me, Alex Seitz-Waltz writes that it’s time for a new Constitution.
America, we’ve got some bad news: Our Constitution isn’t going to make it. It’s had 224 years of commendable, often glorious service, but there’s a time for everything, and the government shutdown and permanent-crisis governance signal that it’s time to think about moving on. “No society can make a perpetual constitution,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, the year ours took effect. “The earth belongs always to the living generation and not to the dead .… Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” By that calculation, we’re more than two centuries behind schedule for a long, hard look at our most sacred of cows. And what it reveals isn’t pretty.
Well, that clears it up then. Oh wait. That’s meaningless rhetoric with an appeal to a room filled with people in elaborate tin-foil hats, lede notwithstanding. Any actual point here?
Almost nobody uses the U.S. Constitution as a model—not even Americans. When 24 military officers and civilians were given a single week to craft a constitution for occupied Japan in 1946, they turned to England. The Westminster-style parliament they installed in Tokyo, like its British forebear, has two houses. But unlike Congress, one is clearly more powerful than the other and can override the less powerful one during an impasse.
Ah, a reason. For one reason and/or another (notice that effective use of “and/or,” because some of us have more than one issue with the Constitution these days), many people think the Constitution is no longer sufficient to address our “modern” needs. After all, doesn’t it wear out over time? Doesn’t it have a shelf-life? An expiration date?
It doesn’t do what I want it to do, dammit!
But there are concepts buried within its structure that are pretty darned important. Things like checks and balances, preventing the tyranny of the majority. that sort of stuff. Most people don’t know it’s in there, but it is. Most people can’t understand why it matters, until they’re on the receiving end of some government induced grief, when they suddenly get religion and scream as loud as they can about how nobody cares about their rights.
This is America, dammit!
Is the Constitution perfect? I suppose not, but I’m not entirely sure that the Constitution is the problem. Then what is? Us. You. Me. All of us. The Constitution provides the framework, but it relies on people to make it happen. We’re smart and stupid, honest and dishonest, selfish and altruistic, good and evil. We are the stewards of concepts, and we treat them poorly. We use them for our own ends and blame the concepts, as if it made us behave that way.
Maybe there is a more perfect union to be had, but I don’t trust you to come up with it. And frankly, even if you did, I don’t trust you to execute it. People have been surveyed, and their political ignorance is astounding. Do away with the Fourth Amendment because it lets criminals go free? As a proposition, it would be a winner in any election.
All of the nice folks who think revolution is coming because we’ve over-militarized ourselves into a freedom-loathing oligarchy will be in for a huge shock when they find out that the vast majority of Americans adore safety and figure their rights are doing fine enough. You see, they may feel bad about the occasional injustice, but not bad enough to disrupt their wonderful day at the bowling alley. Your outrage isn’t theirs. No, it’s not, no matter how certain you are.
So what’s the answer? That’s the child’s question, as if there is always an answer, or at least an easy answer. Sometimes the answer is that no Constitution can undo the harm humans can do when in power. If our political arms of government were guided by doing what’s best for the nation, we would still have massive disagreement over what that means, but we would at least be struggling toward an actual goal.
Instead, we feign concern for the country to put politics and party ahead of our national welfare. No, not one party or another, not one political philosophy or another, but all of them. Sorry, but you can no more blame this on Obama than you can on Bush. Or Rand Paul, if that’s your cup of tea.
What would end the gridlock? Making me benevolent dictator, because I would do what I think is best for all of us. What? You think that’s a terrible idea, and that I shouldn’t be let anywhere near power? Then who? You? Are you nuts? I wouldn’t trust you to carry my bags.
See the problem? We perceive ourselves as being well-intended and possessed of sufficient intelligence and good will to make the decisions necessary to move our country forward. If that happened, we would be cool with the Constitution, as it’s really an amazingly good tool to accomplish these things if used by good people in good ways for the public good. But we don’t trust others who disagree with us because they are wrong, stupid and evil.
Is it the Constitution’s fault that people suck? Is it the Constitution’s fault that the people on the ballot are a bunch of lying, self-serving, scheming politicians? If we have a new, improved Constitution, would we have a better crop of human beings running the show?
We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to grow up and use the one we have a whole lot better. If we can’t, then no Constitution is going to make things better.
And if we can, then this Constitution will do just fine.