If the recent Presidential election, the deadlocks in Congress, and the politization of the Supreme Court teach us anything it is simply this: our government is gravely ill.
True, the election met two important attributes of democracy: it was robust, in that many people participated; and it was fair, despite numerous attempts at a judicial coup. Therefore, I am disinclined to declare American democracy dead. But it is severely wounded.
I have long advocated for our country to adopt a new Constitution. A remote prospect considering a vested minority (i.e. rural white people) wields disproportionate power under the current system. The citizens from low-population states are unlikely to accept wholesale, equitable change until it is forced (i.e. revolution).
I recently watched Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon). Despite finding it an uneven piece of theater, I recommend it to anyone interested in the state of the United States. For nestled into the two-thirds point is a critical idea: the U.S. Constitution is a restrictive document, while more recent democratic constitutions are prescriptive.
What does that mean: a restrictive document? It means our founders’ principal focus was to limit the ways government can interfere with its citizens. Our Constitution enumerates specific individual rights: free speech; assembly; bear arms. It also establishes executive, legislative, and judicial checks and balances (in addition to fifty-odd state governments), all of which present obstacles against individuals or factions achieving outsize power. The system makes sense for educated, affluent, land-owning white men reacting to the restraints of an absolute monarch. But by fractionalizing slaves as 3/5 persons—while being completely silent about women and indigenous people—our Constitution didn’t protect the majority of people living in our country even when it was ratified in 1787.
Back in the days when civics was taught in school, we learned what a noble thing is our Constitution. I still believe that. It is a remarkable translation of Enlightenment ideals into government form, an important step away from the divine rights of kings. Given the dichotomy between America’s libertarian nature and the reality that democracy is, by definition, messy and inefficient, the Constitution does a good job at creating a workable government that rests loosely on our backs. What it doesn’t consider—and we never explored in school—is that government might be something more than a necessary evil to be kept at bay. That it might actually provide useful support and services to its citizens. That a Constitution can enshrine individual rights, and also prescribe a government’s responsibilities towards its citizens.
Herein lies the struggle between personal freedoms and collective support that plagues the United States and has turned the world’s oldest functional Constitution into a dinosaur. We are no longer a million people spread over raw land with limitless expansion; we are over three hundred million, rubbing up against each other at the extents of our domain. We are no longer self-sufficient farmers; we are economically, socially, and culturally intertwined. A few preppers among us may have stored up enough to survive alone; none of us has the ability to thrive alone.
Yet, we cling to a document that, despite the noble opening, “We the people,” protects our autonomy more than it promotes our community. Our Constitution is increasingly irrelevant compared to ones adopted by other nations. Constitutions that acknowledge government as an active participant in their well-being, and require it to provide, by right, basic human services: food; shelter; healthcare. True, the United States has woven an uneven safety net (Social Security, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation are all variants of socialism: individual contributions pooled to distribute in common when required). But our imagined ethos as rugged, generous individuals who stand alone, yet will extend a hand to help a brother in distress, prevents us from acknowledging reality that we cannot stand alone, and too often only extend a hand when it reinforces our own stature. Thus, we are unwilling to create a government—and a society—that takes care of everyone, regardless of race, gender, or creed, according to their need, simply because we are all here.
In theory, our Constitution can evolve as society changes. That’s what amendments are for. Past amendments expanded rights beyond white males: the thirteenth amendment freed the slaves; the nineteenth gave women the right to vote. Through most of our history, the Constitution has been amended every decade or so. But that process has stalled as our political discourse has grown more partisan. It’s been more than fifty years since the Constitution was amended to expand any group’s rights.
So, what are we to do? One option, of course, is revolution. That worked out pretty well for the guys who penned the original Constitution. However, history teaches that peaceful transformations are much more effective than armed conflict in creating real change, and so I continue to seek out peaceful ways to share the bounty of America. What I suggest, unlikely as it may prove effective, is that we reinvigorate what we’ve got: our exiting Constitution. First, by going through the process of creating and ratifying amendments. Then, when we once again taste how we the people really can determine our form of government, hold a Constitutional Convention and thrash the entire thing out anew.
The chance of success in this approach? Near zero. But the catastrophe that awaits if we keep trying to define society today through the prism of eighteenth-century gentry, is too great not to at least try. Coming up, The Awkward Pose will suggest three band-aids to initiate the process of making our Constitution a living document once again. After that, I’ll suggest a tourniquet to help staunch the electoral bleeding that is contributing to the divisive wounds of our nation.
I hope you read on. More than that, I hope you work for peaceful change.