I skipped the Fourth of July this year. I wasn’t in the mood, because I genuinely think that our form of government is in serious trouble. The federal government and the state governments that depend upon it for funding have proven incapable of responding to acute crises, like the pandemic, and long-term crises, such as climate change. Congress hasn’t passed a regular budget in 25 years. The government lurches from fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff, seeming only to function long enough to decide who is the next target for our bombs.
A large part of this dysfunction is structural. We live under a governing document that was ratified 232 years ago and has only been amended 17 times since. The Constitution is one of the oldest governing documents in the world, but this has become a millstone around the nation’s neck instead of a point of pride. Our current constitutional government is simply not capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century. Impacts were local then; now, a computer system in Texas controls oil along the entire east coast, and a polluting car in California affects the weather in Connecticut.
The answer seems obvious: we need a new form of government. The Constitution laid the groundwork for what we understand as rights and freedoms, but it desperately needs to be modernized. While this sounds like a radical proposition, it’s not uncommon in other democracies. France’s Fifth Republic has only existed since 1958, and Germany’s government is even younger, coming into existence in 1990.
In fact, this wouldn’t even be the first time that Americans came together to form a new national government. The Constitution was not America’s first government. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1781 through 1789. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government only had the power to make treaties, print money, and provide for the national defense. That government was a disaster, and was replaced by the Constitution we are governed by today (Connecticut history fact: Silas Deane of Connecticut helped to draft a revision of the Articles of Confederation).
A new constitution could take into consideration the lightning-fast pace of technological change we’ve experienced in the last 50 years. It could grapple with the globalized nature of the world today. It could rethink the relationship between the government and the people who were enslaved and marginalized the last time. It could be structured to serve a population that is nearly one hundred times larger than in 1790, and which has long since outgrown Jefferson’s “agrarian ideal.”
Imagine a 21st-century government formed under a new Constitution, one which incorporates digital technology to keep citizens informed and help them participate in government every day, not just election day. Or a government that is built around the reality of political parties, a glaring omission in the original Constitution made by the Founders who presumed politicians would act out of patriotic spirit instead of self-interest. A new government could include mechanisms to at least discourage the relentless partisan bickering which characterizes national government today.
But most importantly, it would encourage dialogue and compromise. A constitutional convention today would need to be acceptable to wide swaths of the country. The original Constitution was essentially written in secrecy with no input from the public it would govern. Thanks to digital communications today, people from all over the nation would be able to make their voices heard and influence the process. And it may sound naive, but it might show us that most Americans agree on the big problems, and are looking for ways to constructively solve them.
July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation over two centuries ago. That nation is now imperiled by the very document that created it. We should give the United States a rebirth that addresses the challenges of today, and call a new constitutional convention.
Jamil Ragland writes and lives in East Hartford. You can read more of his writing at www.nutmeggerdaily.com.
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