- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
The Economist’s Lexington makes a provocative case that Americans’ veneration of the Constitution and its framers has become unhealthy:
When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.
More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there. Mr Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognise America’s modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. As to what they would have made of the modern welfare state, who can tell? To ask that question after the passage of two centuries, says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, is to pose an impossible thought experiment.
Lexington aims his critique at the tri-corner hat wearing faction of the Tea Party movement but I think the sentiment he identifies can be found across the political spectrum. While some portions of the U.S. Constitution are frankly antiquated (see the Onion’s brilliant take on the "third amendment rights" movement) it’s hard to imagine anyone on even the extreme right or left of the American political spectrum proposing that the document be fundamentally revamped beyond proposing specific amendments.
I also suspect most Americans don’t realize quite how old the Constitution is by world standards. (An advantage of never being invaded or having your government overthrown.) It’s by far the world’s oldest and the only one from the 18th century that’s still in use. (Your Wikipedia trivia fact for the day: Norway has the world’s second oldest constitution from 1814.) Most of the other largest democracies — India, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Mexico — have constitutions drafted in the 20th century.
But "the Constitution" in American political discourse, as opposed to the actual document, is often shorthand for the speaker’s conception of American political values, and in that sense, the U.S. isn’t really much of an outlier. France has had about a dozen constitutions over the life span of the American version, but leaders still regularly invoke the "values of the Republic."
Finally, Americans may revere their Constitution so much because, despite its flaws, it’s a very well-written document addressing universal themes. As Christopher Hitchens has argued, a document beginning "We the people of the United States" is bound to inspire more loyalty and fervor than the EU’s recent foray, which starts uninspiringly with, "His Majesty the King of the Belgians."