A More Perfect Constitution

Here are some things my father was wrong about: never buying clothes you have to iron. The acceptability of fried eggs for dinner. Pot. The merits of law school. Buying girlfriends practical things on their birthdays. And rap music. He was definitely wrong about rap music.

Here are some things the Founding Fathers were wrong about: The forced subjugation of black people. The Electoral College. Lifelong tenure for Supreme Court justices. The deeply undemocratic composition of the United States Senate. Powdered wigs in the blazing Pennsylvania summer.

But while it's perfectly acceptable for me to question, and even contravene, my father's advice, the pronouncements of the Founding Fathers are treated with a reverence somewhere between that reserved for Jesus and that commanded by Superman. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg has noted that an alien observer would think us a society based upon ancestor worship, and that's not far from the truth. Thomas Jefferson and his cohort are our democracy's gods, and the Constitution is their gospel.

It is into this strange situation that Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, strides. His new book, A More Perfect Constitution, is a welcome blast of the profane within this unwarranted hush: it dares us to consider the Constitution a mere document, the product of messy compromises, occasional shortsightedness, and, most important, its times (the Constitution was, lest we forget, composed over 200 years ago). It reminds us that the Founding Fathers considered it decidedly limited in relevance, and that Jefferson himself held that "every Constitution...naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right." And it drives home, in great detail and with admirable clarity, a variety of ways in which the Constitution hinders the smooth function of the modern state.

In its basic thrust, Sabato's is a broadly agreeable thesis. The lifetime appointment of Supreme Court judges is lunacy, encouraging presidents to nominate the young over the wise and rendering vacancies random and disruptive. The Electoral College is virulently undemocratic, second in offensiveness only to the absurd apportionment of the United State Senate, where 41 Senators representing 11.2 percent of the population can use the filibuster to effectively block any and all legislation. And let's be honest: the Second Amendments is, if not poorly written, in need of an editor's pen.

Moreover, Sabato reminds us that constitutions are not, by nature, sacred documents, approachable only by a priestly class and amendable only by God Almighty. Between the 50 states comprising the Union there have been more than 92 constitutional conventions, with the original 13 states alone overseeing the creation of 40 new constitutions. If they can do it, why can't we?

The normal answer is that we can, but only through the amendment process. But Sabato judges amendments, which require the assent of two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states, too vulnerable to obstruction and impediment, and thus insufficient to the task at hand. "Congress," he writes, "has proven to be a dependable graveyard for constitutional reform." Rather, Sabato suggests the emergency chute provided by the Founders: he wants two-thirds of the states to come together and call a constitutional convention that can approach reform wholesale.

To this, my first reaction was, "Good, let's get to work." And yet, as the book progressed, I could not shake the sense that my steadfast belief in constitutional revisionism was being slowly drained away, and that it was dissipating as I realized that the revisers would not be, well, me. And those "not-mes" who would lay claim to this task may have different agendas than I do.

Sabato's book is, on one level, about the Constitution, but it is, on a deeper level, about his frustrations with contemporary politics, and the book's putative subject seems, at times, to be the unwitting recipient of a transference in anger. Stymied in his hopes to reform the political process, he's seeking to rework the foundation on which it rests.

By and large, I share Sabato's anger. He is right to warn that "a governing class that grows too comfortable with the status quo that often benefits it will be the ruination of the common good." He's right to say that the parochial nature of Congress often means that "the national interest lost in the welter of special interests clamoring to be heard." He is right to demand a "real alternative to the lobbyist and private interest-group financing that has produced scandal after scandal in Washington and the state capitols." But Sabato does not take his own diagnosis seriously enough. To imagine the doors thrown open to constitutional reform within this context, amid our civic apathy, trivializing media, polarized politics, and empowered plutocrats is a sobering thought indeed. The same forces that bedevil this political system would have a nearly free hand in shaping the next. Sabato wants to reform our polity to protect against the current dangers, but to do so, he is relying on the engagement and power of an enlightened citizenry whose existence would render the very reforms he proposes largely unnecessary.

In the absence of the perfect public, who is to say that the constitutional convention would not find itself the playground of the same special interests, parochial concerns, and shortsighted self-regard that afflict the state legislatures that would appoint the delegates? So far as I can tell, Sabato hopes a broad conversation and an attentive citizenry will serve as a check on the process, and he believes this will all be facilitated by the Internet. "Let the debate begin, he announces, "not in a convention hall but among the wired community of interested citizens from coast to coast." Has Sabato ever been on the Internet? It's mainly for pasting captions atop pictures of cats. And as much as I might love the blogs, they are not only incapable of hosting the sort of discussion Sabato envisions; they are not nearly representative enough to do so credibly. Elsewhere, Sabato suggests distributing "interactive CD-ROMS" on the subject, a strategy that probably won't work unless they come with 10,000 free hours on AOL.

Indeed, while I'm greatly sympathetic to Sabato's concerns and deeply grateful that he's opening a conversation on the Constitution's more exasperating failings, his book actually convinced me that, when all is said and done, the Founding Fathers may have had a point after all. The Constitution does need reform, and it does need to be questioned, but it need not be done all at once. A steady regimen of criticism and continual organizing around individual amendments is probably the more prudent way forward.

Unless, of course, the country would just like to hand me the pen.

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

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