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COMMENTARY: The Constitution and the national character

One thing that people across the political spectrum agree on is that powerful forces threaten our political institutions and rights.

Many are frustrated by the intricate and obdurate constitutional limits that seem to stand in the way of justice. Critics say that we need to change radically or move entirely beyond the Constitution. Some call it an 18th century document that no longer works in 21st century America. Some denounce the Electoral College and the disproportionate powers of the Senate. Some yearn for a stronger presidency that will exercise its powers decisively. There are Republicans who call for a new a constitutional convention to limit the powers of the federal government, while some Democrats endorse a new convention to democratize that same government.

As we consider such changes, we wonder how the Constitution has lasted as long as it has and whether its longevity implies that it has contributed something valuable to our country. Even those who are inclined to defend the Constitution vigorously must admit that it did not come into the world in perfect form. It is the product of a series of lengthy debates and strategic compromises. Its merits were debated in each state for nearly a year until nine states ratified it.

Originally, it accommodated slavery and excluded many from participating in self-government. Over many decades of conflict, deal-making, and popular appeals to voters, the current Constitution emerged.

While Americans seem to have devised the first written constitutions, the founding generation did not invent the concept of a constitution. Our word “constitution” has a counterpart in the ancient Greek word politeia, a term that refers to the unwritten foundation of every political community.

According to Aristotle, a politeia is “the arrangement of ruling offices,” or the rules for apportioning powers and determining who can vote or hold office.

In a deeper respect, the “arrangement of offices” affects all of society because the ruling social, economic, or political class always establishes a certain way of life throughout the community. In oligarchies, people tend to honor wealth. In societies ruled by priests, people tend to respect piety. In democracies, the concerns and tastes of the average citizen usually prevail. Aristotle compares the unwritten politeia to an unwritten script that everyone follows.

In light of this older and broader understanding, we see how our Constitution also shapes our political culture and way of life. Originally, our Constitution placed only a few, formal limits on who could hold the highest offices, and it left questions about voter eligibility to the states. Over time, constitutional amendments extended the franchise widely, and these extensions have strengthened our respect for equality.

In addition, some of the Constitution’s now controversial features shaped our political culture. The founders argued that, in the past, small democracies always foundered because one class would dominate the others and tear the community apart.

The U.S. would differ by extending its size to include a wide range of competing interests. By empowering each state with equal votes in the Senate and by giving some weight to each state in the Electoral College, the Constitution tries to empower as many economic, social, and cultural interests as possible. The founders relied on geographic diversity to ensure political diversity.

By separating governmental powers into “branches” that can check and balance their rivals, the Constitution gives regional and other interests numerous opportunities to compete with and frustrate one another. In these ways, our politeia allows for contention, discord and gridlock.

At the same time, the Constitution offers us ways to pursue successfully what we think is just and good for the whole country. It empowers those legislators and interests who can form alliances, negotiate deals, and make necessary, if temporary, compromises while they appeal to a national majority for support.

Indirectly, the Constitution rewards and thus encourages us to exercise what used to be called “practical reason” or “prudence.” It offers success to those who have both perseverance and far-sighted patience. It rewards those who can make persuasive appeals about justice, or rights, and the common good to broad coalitions comprising disparate parts of the country.

The Constitution empowers those who pursue incremental improvements on a multi-regional common ground while it obstructs those who serve only their sect.

In our polarized climate, there seems to be little common ground. Patience looks like weakness, and compromise, like betrayal. We may conclude that we must revise the Constitution to save our country.

Before we alter it significantly, we should first reflect on what the Constitution’s features have contributed to our politics and national character.

Leaders who can appreciate and explain how the Constitution has encouraged our slow, uneven, but manifest progress over time may find a national constituency for working within the Constitutional means that have seen our country through past divisions.

Mark J. Lutz is a political science professor in the Great Works Certificate program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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