In the lead up to the bicentenary 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 addressed a question to the sponsors of the event: “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). Nevertheless, the underlying point remains the same: there has been remarkable stability in the basic governance structure of the country. Why?
The answer begins with the passage from the Articles to the Constitution. Dissatisfied with how the young republic worked, the founding generation devised a new structure that they believed would better protect basic rights and promote sounder policies. The goal 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 sympathetic to its revolutionary republicanism.
Although there have been struggles and setbacks to achieve these goals, the reality is that America has become a prosperous nation and remains the bulwark of the liberal global order.
It is true that much of this progress is due to the character and ingenuity of citizens. But, as we have seen throughout history, poorly constructed governmental institutions can prevent such virtues from being properly promoted or even exercised.
That’s not to say the United States doesn’t face political problems at home. “Internal tranquillity”, as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, 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 that covers it.
Take, for example, the state of American political parties. Candidates routinely appeal to a minority in open primaries, taking political positions that polarize, rather than moderate, our politics. This feeds into our governing institutions, especially Congress and the Presidency.
Instead of elected officials being pressured to develop a national consensus to deal with the problems facing the country and claiming their ability to solve the problems, they are pressured to promote an agenda that can only be put in place when a party controls both chambers. of Congress and the Oval Office. It’s the election 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 side from enacting laws, members of Congress ignore their own budget rules to pass spending bills massive and that presidents use executive orders to pass policies that should be the prerogative of Congress to decide.
None of this is inevitable – nor directly related to the Constitution. Over the years, Congress has changed its internal workings, giving more sway to leadership but less to the more deliberative work of committees, for example. Over the years, presidents have come to see themselves as “running” the country, in charge of everything from the economy to the health and safety of smaller communities. It is a mandate that they cannot respect and which inevitably leads to frustration.
Such frustration inevitably leads some to advocate for a major change in our governmental structures, such as the abolition of the Electoral College. We should never discount 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 whose long-term consequences are not fully known, it would be wiser to first consider what smaller but nonetheless important changes can be made to the political system, without touching a constitution that has served the country so well. well for more than two centuries.
Gary Schmitt is a senior fellow in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies program at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing public policy think tank.