Peter Sagal is a funny guy. He has established that fact over the years as the host of National Public Radio’s weekly nationwide broadcast of “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me.” The show has garnered many devoted fans, with a sizeable number in evidence when he addressed a packed house at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last week. His radio show, for those who haven’t heard it, asks contestants questions about current events, and it is often hilarious, largely because of Mr. Sagal’s ability to make seemingly boring topics humorous, if not downright interesting.
Mr. Sagal chose to put aside talk of his radio show at his Mondavi presentation, instead focusing on another recent project, one he did for the Public Broadcasting System. In a four part PBS series last year, Mr. Sagal explored the understanding of and devotion to the Constitution that most Americans have. The series featured Mr. Sagal touring various geographic regions of the country on a motorcycle, which, he explained in his talk, was actually flown from site to site, since he couldn’t take the time to drive back and forth across the country for the series.
In any event, after regaling his audience with humorous anecdotes about the motorcycle and how the folks at PBS actually decided to transport it, he described some of the conversations he had with the people he spoke with on the series about their attitudes about our Constitution. While nothing he revealed was all that earthshaking (many Americans know precious little about the contents of the Constitution and most think it says or at least means whatever they want it to say or mean), his talk did cause me to contemplate what our Constitution does signify for our country and why it is important, even if it is largely out of date and in need of significant alteration/amendment/reconsideration.
Okay, so let me take those points one at a time.
What does our Constitution signify for our country and why is it important? According to Mr. Sagal, and I have every reason to believe he is correct, many Americans think of our Constitution as unique and special (it really isn’t in comparison to those of other countries) and as embodying inalienable rights that other constitutions do not accord to their country’s citizens (it doesn’t particularly distinguish itself there either).
What the Constitution does provide is a way for Americans to feel a sense of pride and trust in the system of government that the country has and to rely, essentially, on the rule of law that it provides for. In this regard, it isn’t so much what the Constitution actually says or means but the fact that it exists that is important. And flowing from its existence is a sense of patriotic spirit that, apart from the issue of slavery that led to the Civil War, has allowed the country to endure without violent attempts to overthrow the government or to otherwise disrupt the American way of life, such as it is.
In other words, the real significance and value of the Constitution is that it binds together the disparate and diverse elements of the country and unifies them into a true union of states.
Now to the more intriguing question: How is it out-of-date and in what ways does it need to be altered/amended/reconsidered? The standard purpose of any country’s constitution is to present a definitive statement of the rights accorded to its citizens and the restrictions placed on its government. In that regard the U.S. Constitution is a well-constructed and properly formulated document. But it was written when the country was a very different place than it is now, with a culture and economic structure totally foreign to the way Americans live and engage in commerce now.
The ability to amend the Constitution could be a way to address antiquated measures (the Electoral College and the Second and Third Amendments just to name a few), but amending the Constitution is no easy task, and is rarely accomplished (last in 1971 with the voting age reduced to 18). So, instead, the country relies on the Supreme Court to keep the Constitution relevant to our times. And that approach is fine if we understand the significance of allowing nine jurists (actually any five of the nine) to make those decisions.
But much of the framework that the founders envisioned for the country no longer makes sense. The U.S. Senate is a perfect example of the long-term deficit of the Great Compromise, wherein the same number of votes are now allotted to a state with a population of less than 600,000 (Wyoming) as are given to a state with almost 40 million (California). And the other branch of Congress, the House of Representatives, has become a bastion for radicals of both ideological stripes because of the way that body is constructed (with each state’s allocation of districts gerrymandered to create “undefeatable” seats for each party in the state’s Congressional delegation).
The result is a dysfunctional legislative branch of government that cries out for reform but that cannot produce that reform itself. And much the same might be said of the executive branch, with many of the belief that the presidency has been allowed to assume far too much control over the way foreign policy (military encounters in particular) is conducted.
And so the case can be made that the country needs a new Constitutional Convention (or its equivalent), not to destroy the essence of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (which are not guarantees of the Constitution, by the way, that phrase coming from the Declaration of Independence), but rather to make the document directly relevant to the times in which we live.
The document that resulted from such a process might not look all that different from the one we have now, but it probably wouldn’t provide for the election of presidents by something called an Electoral College or leave it to nine jurists to decide (by a vote of 5 to 4) whether there is an individual right to own a gun.