Constitution Day “is normally observed on September 17, the day in 1787 that delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia.” An interesting series of articles marking the occasion is appearing at American Constitution Society (which is a progressive outfit, unlike many organizations that incorporate “constitution” in their names).
Here we will pull no punches: the Constitution may have been a worthy effort for its time, but it is a terrible document for today’s needs, contributing to the widespread and accurate impression that our government is broken.
[The predicament which is our central concern here at turn21.org is a planetary one, but since the United States bears by far the largest share of the responsibility for the damage, accumulated and ongoing, an occasional U.S.-centric post is appropriate.]
Here are a selection of the problems with the U.S. Constitution. Just as with climate change and population, the first essential step is to acknowledge just how bad things are.
- The risk of divided government, with a President of one party and one or both legislative chambers controlled by the other party, is one of the worst features. The many parliamentary democracies around the world share some of the other problems, but not this one.
- It is a terrible idea, none the less so for being almost universal among the world’s democracies, to have legislative bodies composed of members each of whom is elected by majority (or plurality) vote from a given geographic region. The result is that everyone who didn’t vote for the district’s winner has no representation, while everyone whose views are too far from the “center” is permanently disenfranchised.
- Amplifying the above two points: the current demographic situation is that Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, so in effect their votes for members of the House of Representatives count less. Gerrymandering makes this bad situation worse.
- The over-representation of small states in the Senate is a bad thing.
- The Electoral College (where small states again are over-represented) is a bad thing.
- Federalism itself has bad points as well as good: there is some waste involved in maintaining 50 sets of legislation, but especially in the area of tax policy, as it allows corporations to play off one state against another to get the best “deal” (which will be a worse deal thereby for human residents).
There are other severe problems with the way the Constitution has been implemented and interpreted, among which we may cite: the seniority system in Congress, the supermajority rules in the Senate (commonly known as the “filibuster”), the dual election cycle of primary followed by general election, the revolving door between government and the corps of lobbyists, the way the Supreme Court has applied the Second Amendment to overrule many reasonable efforts at gun control, and perhaps most importantly the mistaken extension of personhood to corporations.
For most of history, human societies have muddled through despite the flaws of their governments. Recently the libertarian view of government itself as “the problem” par excellence has gained wide acceptance. Nothing could be further from the truth: now that the externalities of human agricultural and industrial society threaten the entire planet, only government (ideally, world government) is in a position to take the overdue corrective steps.