Reviewed by Peter Galie, Emeritus Department of Political Science, Canisius College.
“The United States Constitution is terse and old, and it guarantees relatively few rights.” Adam Liptak
Calls for reforming the American Constitution have been part of our political tradition from its inception. The criticisms commenced before the ink was dry on the proposed constitution. Anti-federalist feared that an aristocratic behemoth had emerged from the constitutional convention. A second wave came from abolitionists, who excoriated the document as “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.” Nonetheless by the end of the 19th century the Constitution had become as close to a sacred document as a secular republic would allow. In light of its status as national symbol it is striking and curious to note that over 10,000 proposed amendments to the Constitution have been submitted to the Congress over the last two centuries.
The first systematic calls for a reformation of the Constitution arose with the Progressive movement in the early part of the 20th Century. J. Allen Smith, Walter Weyl, Charles Beard, Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and Algie Simons, among others, made the following argument: the rise of a national corporate economy and the social and economic problems arising in its wake necessitated a government capable of strong and effective action to manage that economy. But the structure of government – read separation of powers and federalism – made accountability and effective action difficult if not impossible (Croly and Wilson). Adding to the problem, as the Progressives saw it, was the commitment to protecting private property either in the document itself or as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Democratizing the Constitution and concentrating more power at the national level were the solutions (Beard, Smith, Simons).
A common theme in these critiques is the constitution’s alleged undemocratic character – whether the failure to include African-Americans and women; its protection of private property and corporate interest; or the roadblocks – separation of powers and federalism, among others – that thwarted the will of the people. The separation of powers continued to be the target of attack throughout the 20th Century – Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) and James MacGregor Burns, The Deadlock of Democracy are two prominent examples.
More recently Dahl epitomized his critique in How Democratic is the Constitution? Other contemporary examples would include, Larry Sabato, A More Perfect Constitution (2007) and Sanford Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution [*68] Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It). Constitution Café resides squarely this stable; but it is a horse of a different color indeed.
Author, Christopher Phillips, is a Senior Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing, University of Pennsylvania and is described as a “pro-democracy activists.” Puzzled by the widespread dissatisfaction with the government coupled with widespread support of the constitution, Phillips embarked on a cross country journey hosting what he calls constitution cafes. The goal: having Americans from all political persuasions hold rational, respectful, and thought-provoking conversations with one another over the state of our constitution and how it might be reformed. Constitutional Cafe is a summary of these conversations and the proposals adopted at these gatherings. These mini people’s conventions however did not produce analytic clarity, systematic exposition or a coherent revised constitution. Phillips does not present the reforms in the form of a revised constitution. Perhaps the work was meant to be a prolegomena to such a document. What we are offered is a feedbag of proposals that can be classified as follows: (1) aspirational/unenforceable, (2) thoughtful, (3) impractical, (4) dangerous and (5) foolish or off the wall, with most falling in the last three categories.
Here is a sampling:
Aspirational: all children in US shall have a right to a world class education (p.292); “all human beings shall have the right to be taken into equal account”.
Thoughtful: staggered terms and term limits for members of the House (p.237); mandatory conscription/national public service.
Impractical: “the congress shall neither a borrower nor lender be” (p.157); no citizens shall inherit from his or her family so much as a red cent; a committee of about 25,000 to rewrite the Constitution and a legislature of 10,000 (and rising with population) to replace Congress.
Dangerous: President is to recommend to congress measures he thinks should be the will of the people (shades of Rousseau’s general will); no judicial review of congressional or executive actions; congress shall prevent entry into the United States of corrupt world leaders. Would we need to move the UN to another country?
Off the wall: all citizens who have shown they have “done some good” shall at 18 receive a lump sum of $50,000; if they do bad after receiving the sum, they shall return the money. Presidents shall take a version of the Boy Scout oath and do a good turn daily (p.107).
It is hard to take some of these proposals seriously or to know whether or not the author takes them seriously; but if so, it does not lend support or say much for a “bottom up” citizen based revision of the constitution.
Here are the assumptions undergirding the work:
- The Constitution is no longer adequate – it does not work and is in need of a thorough vetting [*69] and revision
- The system “handed to us [my emphasis] by the framers” prevents meaningful reforms that would facilitate more responsive and responsible government
- The Declaration, not the Constitution, is our founding document
- Many of Jefferson’s ideas on democracy, liberty, and constitutional change – with a dash of Dewey and Arendt – hold the key to resuscitating democracy
- A nearly unbounded faith in the people’s ability to reanimate the founding ideals and documents
So where does that leave us? Marx’s 11th thesis in his Theses of Feuerbach that philosophers have only interpreted the world, while the point is to change it, is pertinent. The difficulty of moving from theory to practice is one that has perplexed reformers from Plato to the present. How does one translate discontent and dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional present into actions that will bring about a better future? Phillips is optimistic: buoyed by the recent experiences with the Tea Party and MoveOn.org, he thinks a way out can be found in a movement calling on states to employ the never before used mechanism of Article V, allowing states to circumvent the Congress and hold a constitutional convention. This latter suggestion is a bold and intriguing coda to an otherwise frustrating book.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. On Revolution. New York: Viking.
Burns, James MacGregor. 1963. The Deadlock of Democracy. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.
Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1845-47, Vol. 5: Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology and Related Manuscripts (New York: International Publisher, 1976 reprint).
Dahl, Robert. 1963. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dahl, Robert. 2003. How Democratic is Our Constitution? 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Garrison, William Lloyd . Boston Daily Atlas, Thursday, July 6, 1854. Issue 4; col D. (Accessed via Infortrac on 9/5/2012).
Liptak, Adam. 2012. “‘We the People’ Loses Appeal With People Around [*70] the World”. New York Times, February 7. Available Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/us/we-the-people-loses-appeal-with people-around-the-world.html
Sabato, Larry. 2007. A More Perfect Constitution. New York: Walker & Co.
Copyright 2013 by the Author, Peter Galie.