Look around the world and notice how old the US system of government is. Germany, France, Japan, China, India, Israel: all remade after World War II. Russia, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia: All emerged from dictatorships or totalitarianism more recently still. In my mental list of “important” countries, only the UK has a system of government that has remained essentially unchanged since before WWII. I’m not positive of the precise age of the monarchies in, say, Bhutan or Morocco, but my guess is that the US has the longest-standing system of government in the world, and by a fair margin. And for all 223 years of the US, it is the US constitution, essentially unchanged, that has defined this system of government.
One can look at this in several ways. On the one hand, the constitution must be doing something right to have persisted for so long. And on the other, there are probably ways in which it was built for a world quite different from our current one, and thus probably some major ways it could be amended or re-interpreted that would make it work a lot better. I think one of the most important fault lines between left and right in the US is on precisely this issue: people on the right look at the constitution as essentially a sacred document (almost religious, really), and think it represents holy principles in a pure way. (See this unreasoned blog post for a good example.) In this view, the constitution’s perfection is beyond question, and it is our duty as citizens to defend it and the way of life it represents. People on the left agree with the underlying principles in the document, but are less likely to view the document itself as key. They recognize that other countries have since written other constitutions that do as good a job (or better) of protecting those principles. And they see practical realities of life in a changed and changing world, and want to adapt the constitution to these new realities without losing the most important aspects of the principles.
It should be clear that I fall clearly in the latter camp – always a pragmatist, rarely choosing principle over real-world consequences. Much has been made of how the constitution did not foresee many aspects of technology, leaving modern jurists to try to apply the old principles appropriately: what does “unreasonable search and seizure” mean in a world with internet and GPS trackers? Does the ability of the wealthy to gain disproportionate access to new media such as television advertising change the way we think of money and free speech in politics? These are interesting questions, but this post skirts them and tackles a more fundamental issue: the US constitution was written at a time when the world was a much harsher place, and it was designed to avoid the worst things that could happen in that world, not to aid us in further improving the safer, more stable world we inhabit today.
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