Alex Seitz-Wald has a column in the National Journal arguing that it is time to “blow up the Constitution,” start over and design a new system that is better suited to modern times. Noting that Thomas Jefferson believed that it should be rewritten every 20 years, he writes:
Clocking in at some 4,500 words—about the same length as the screenplay for an episode of Two and a Half Men—and without serious modification since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1971, the Constitution simply isn’t cut out for 21st-century governance. It’s full of holes, only some of which have been patched; it guarantees gridlock; and it’s virtually impossible to change. “It gets close to a failing grade in terms of 21st-century notions on democratic theory,” says University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, part of the growing cadre of legal scholars who say the time has come for a new constitutional convention.
Put simply, we’ve learned a lot since 1787. What was for the Founders a kind of providential revelation—designing, from scratch, a written charter and democratic system at a time when the entire history of life on this planet contained scant examples of either—has been worked into science. More than 700 constitutions have been composed since World War II alone, and other countries have solved the very problems that cripple us today. It seems un-American to look abroad for ways to change our sacred text, but the world’s nations copied us, so why not learn from them?
The notion that it’s “un-American” to look abroad for ideas on how to govern ourselves could only be offered by an ignorant and xenophobic ignoramus. Where do they think the founders themselves got their ideas about liberty and democracy? From French scholars like Montesquieu, Brits like John Locke and Algernon Sidney, from ancient Greeks and Romans like Cicero and Plato. And as much as I admire the revolutionary nature of the Constitution and its importance in influencing the world to become more free and democratic, I have little patience for the hyper-emotionalists and demagogues who pretend that it is a sacred document handed directly from Jesus to George Washington (in the King James Version, of course).
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 forbearer, has two houses. But unlike Congress, one is clearly more powerful than the other and can override the less powerful one during an impasse.
The story was largely the same in defeated Nazi Germany, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, which all emerged from American occupation with constitutions that look little like the one Madison and the other framers wrote. They have the same democratic values, sure, but different ways of realizing them. According to researchers who analyzed all 729 constitutions adopted between 1946 and 2006, the U.S. Constitution is rarely used as a model. What’s more, “the American example is being rejected to an even greater extent by America’s allies than by the global community at large,” write David Law of Washington University and Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia.
That’s a not a fluke. The American system was designed with plenty of checks and balances, but the Founders assumed the elites elected to Congress would sort things out. They didn’t plan for the political parties that emerged almost immediately after ratification, and they certainly didn’t plan for Ted Cruz. And factionalism isn’t the only problem. Belgium, a country whose ethnic divisions make our partisan sparring look like a thumb war, was unable to form a governing coalition for 589 days in 2010 and 2011. Nevertheless, the government stayed open and fulfilled its duties almost without interruption, thanks to a smarter institutional arrangement.
I’d be curious to hear from my readers how they would amend the Constitution in terms of the structure of government.