It’s been a sickening and horrifying week. History wasn’t supposed to repeat itself, not like this. Didn’t we swear it would never happen again?
But here we are, nearly 10 years after Sandy Hook, and another killer has stolen the lives of nineteen children and two teachers in an elementary school in Texas. He used the mass murderer’s weapon of choice, the AR-15. This was the gun used at Buffalo, at Parkland, at Newtown, and in countless other mass shootings over the last decade.
We haven’t banned this weapon because gun control of any kind, any incremental step towards making it harder for people to buy military-style assault rifles, is treated by the right-wing fanatics in the media and in Congress as a total repeal of the 2nd Amendment. And because of the way our constitution works it’s easy for extremist rural conservatives to dominate the Senate, where every state from California, which has more people than Poland or Canada, to Wyoming, which is 1.4% the size of California and has fewer people than Hartford County, is represented by exactly two senators.
The Senate itself, for no good reason, has a rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation, so the real reins of power in the United States are held by 40 Republicans who are older, whiter, and much more conservative than our population as a whole. The filibuster is unlikely to change, because it gives individual senators a kind of power that the constitution would never have dreamed of allowing them, but didn’t forbid them either. And so an undemocratic institution has made itself even more undemocratic, and more beholden to rural conservatives. That’s why, despite sensible gun control measures being very popular, Congress will do nothing.
That’s why those kids died. It’s because our constitution sucks.
Cue the protests! Our constitution has stood the test of time, it’s a brilliant founding document and a blueprint for democracies all over the world, it was made by farsighted men who had an absolute commitment to democracy, and under this constitution the United States became the most powerful and freest country on the planet.
The constitution has stood the test of time? Of course. We only had the one civil war, after all. And now we’re saddled with creaky, ancient institutions that are all slowly but surely becoming unable to function at all. The constitution, in both what it says and what it doesn’t, has caused Congress to gridlock itself into oblivion, the presidency to become both too powerful and staggeringly weak, and the Supreme Court to be captured by those same right-wing extremists that are willing to let fourth graders die in their classrooms so they can keep their AR-15s.
The idea of having one house of the national legislature be apportioned according to population, and the other giving equal representation to each state wasn’t some kind of divine inspiration, it was a bad compromise made to keep small states from pulling out of the constitutional convention in 1787. Good job, Roger Sherman! You saved the convention, but paved the way for 18th-century messes like the Three-Fifths Compromise, 19th-century messes like the Civil War, and 21st-century messes like all the ones we find ourselves in now.
The problem was that each state thought of itself as a kind of proto-nation at the time, instead of as the fairly arbitrary and artificial divisions that they actually are. Don’t get me wrong, I love my state, but I in no way believe that Connecticut deserves to have the same number of senators as New York or Texas, or that Wyoming and Alaska deserve to have the same number of senators as us.
What is the will of the nation? We never express it. We never vote for anything as an entire country, except for the presidency, but even then only abstractly and by state. More than once the popular will of the nation has been thwarted by the state-based electoral college, saddling us with presidents who the majority voted against. The states should not have such power at the expense of the nation as a whole. It’s against the principles of democracy, and it makes us less free.
The constitution needs to change. Better, it needs to be set gently aside, told that it did a good job for a long, long time, and then rebuilt from the ground up.
Such an idea is anathema to many Americans, because we’re taught to revere the 1787 constitution. It’s part of the mythos that makes us a nation, a kind of secular religion meant to bind us more tightly to one another. But instead of uniting us, it’s torn us apart.
A new constitution should make both houses of Congress more representative of the people than the states. It should clearly define the powers of the presidency, eliminate the electoral college in favor of the popular vote, disallow undemocratic rules like the filibuster, force term and age limits for justices of the Supreme Court, and make it impossible for the minority to rule over the majority ever again.
It should not abolish but clarify the right to bear arms, so that weapons of mass murder can’t be obtained by anyone.
And it should enshrine at its heart the most fundamental part of a modern democracy, that there will be no discrimination based on race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, national origin, religion, or disability.
How do we even do that? Right now, our current constitution requires three-quarters of each house of Congress to propose an amendment to the states, and then three-quarters of the states must approve it for it to become law. Two-thirds of state legislatures can bypass this, if they want, and force Congress to call a convention.
This, of course, is deeply undemocratic, and part of the foundational flaws of the 1787 constitution.
Still, it must happen. The United States is in crisis. It’s hard to say that we aren’t. If we’re to stay together as a nation, we need a constitution and central government that really, truly represent the nation as a whole.
The original convention was not called within the authority of the constitution at the time, the Articles of Confederation. No such authority existed. As James Madison said, “The Convention was not appointed by Congress, but by the people from whom Congress derive their power.” Maybe the authority lies not within a flawed document, but with the majority of the people.
If the innocent blood of our children, shed over and over again, won’t compel us to act, what will?