Editor’s note: for another point of view, see POINT: Congress must make the Constitution’s promise a reality.
In the run-up to the bicentennial of the Constitution, the late constitutionalist Walter Berns was invited to deliver a speech on the Constitution in a Latin American country. After delivering his speech, an obviously agitated man asked the event sponsors a question: “Why,” he asked, “was this American giving us a lecture?” After all, our country has had many constitutions, while the United States has only had one! “
Humor aside, the United States actually had two constitutions, the Articles of Confederation (1781) and the Constitution (1788). Nonetheless, the underlying point remains the same: there has been remarkable stability in the country’s basic governance structure. Why?
The answer begins with the passage of the articles to the Constitution. Dissatisfied with the functioning of the young republic, the founding generation devised a new structure which, according to them, would better protect fundamental rights and promote healthier policies. The goal, as they have said repeatedly, was to create a national government that would help make Americans prosperous at home and respected abroad – a country strong enough to be able to control its own destiny in a monarchical world. unlikely to be friendly with his revolutionaries. republicanism.
While there have been struggles and setbacks to achieve these goals – most evident and most damaging in the case of African American slavery and civil rights – the reality is that America has become one. nation thrives and remains the bulwark of the liberal world order. As a Marxist might say: “This did not happen by accident, comrade”.
It is true that much of this progress is due to the character and ingenuity of the citizens. But, as we have seen throughout history, poorly constructed governing institutions can prevent such virtues from being properly promoted or even exercised.
This is not to say that the United States does not have political problems at home. “Inner tranquility”, as the preamble to the Constitution says, is far from assured. However, the question that must be asked is whether this is a problem largely attributable to the Constitution or rather to the political system which covers it.
Take, for example, the state of American political parties. Parties originally aimed to ensure that candidates were governed by a set of principles articulated in a platform and were held to and moderated by that standard once elected. Today, candidates routinely appeal to a minority in open primaries, adopting political positions that polarize, rather than moderate, our politics.
It fuels our governing institutions, especially the Congress and the Presidency. Instead of elected officials urged to develop a national consensus to deal with the problems facing the country, and to run on their record of having solved the problems, they are urged to promote an agenda that can only be put in place. when a party controls both houses of Congress and the Oval Office. This is the electoral equivalent of the children’s game of “capture the flag”. It’s all or nothing politics, with the result that Senators filibuster to prevent the other party from enacting laws, Members of Congress ignore their own budget rules to pass massive spending bills , and presidents use executive orders to adopt policies that should be the prerogative of Congress to decide.
None of this is inevitable – nor is it directly tied to the Constitution. Over the years, political parties have changed the way candidates are chosen. Over the years, Congress has changed the way it works internally, giving more influence to leadership but less to the more deliberative work of committees, for example. Over the years, presidents have come to see themselves as “stewards” of the country, in charge of everything from the economy to the health and safety of smaller communities. It is a mandate that they absolutely cannot fulfill and that inevitably results in frustration on the part of the country as a whole.
Such frustration inevitably leads some to plead for this or that major change in our governance structures, such as the abolition of the Electoral College. Of course, we must never rule out out of hand the possibility that a change in the Constitution is for the better. After all, there were 27 amendments to this document. Yet, before embarking on a path the long-term consequences of which cannot be fully understood, it would be wiser to first consider what more modest but nonetheless important changes can be made to the political system, without touching a constitution that has served the country so clearly well for over two centuries.