by Larry J. Sabato
I picked up A More Perfect Constitution at the campus book store when I was taking a summer class at community college. The book wasn’t on the curriculum for whatever class I was enrolled in, but I thought it looked interesting, so I went for it anyway. I know, it’s weird to buy a book for a class you’re not taking. But that’s how it went down, and here we are.
Sabato, a political science professor at UVA, argues that we need a Constitutional Convention to address several major problems with American democracy. While we could amend the Constitution the traditional way- with two thirds majorities in the House and Senate, followed by three quarters of state legislatures- Sabato believes the Convention would be an easier way to effect the major changes we need, and would foster a renewed interest in our democracy. I’m a bit skeptical; I think Sabato downplays the hurdles that would need to be overcome in order to even get to the Convention. Then again, he’s on TV regularly and I’m not; judge our opinions accordingly.
As to what Sabato actually wants to change, it’s kind of a lot. He puts forth proposals to reform all three branches of the federal government, along with many aspects of our social and political life. These ideas, as Sabato himself is eager to point out, are not exclusively ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in ideology, and most simply aren’t part of our political debate at all. For example, one proposal would enshrine in our Constitution the duty of every American to perform some amount of service, whether military or civilian, public sector or private. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but it’s pretty far out there in terms of policy that’s on the table right now. Likewise, Sabato would like to tinker with term lengths for the President and members of Congress, an idea that doesn’t exactly have a grassroots movement behind it.
On the liberal side, Sabato wants two things: to get the money out of politics, and to make voting easier, with a national voter database. Both of these concepts, you may be aware, have only gotten more attention (and become more controversial) since A More Perfect Constitution was published in 2007. On the conservative side, Sabato proposes enacting term limits and requiring that the federal government balance its budget, an especially strange inclusion given that the majority of that section of his book seems to argue against the balanced budget amendment. I’m taking a wild guess- not casting aspersions- that Sabato feels the need to include ideas from opposing ideologies to bolster his own nonpartisan image. (Again, the view from fucking nowhere.) It’s a shame, because all of his other ideas seem earnest and well-conceived, the intricacies of when Presidential and Congressional elections happen being a good example. But, God forbid anyone would dare compare him to a Democrat, so we end up with a wishy-washy endorsement of a couple mediocre ideas.
Sabato didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his book, but I, for one, enjoyed reading about his proposals. His views on the shortcomings of the Constitution are meant to stir his audience’s mindgrapes and get us thinking about how we view the Constitution: what still works, what should be tweaked, and what long-overdue changes we need to make. Disagreeing with Sabato’s ideas is just step one towards coming up with your own solutions. As a patriotic American and a political junkie, I love this stuff.
I understand that not everyone feels that way, but I still think it’s important for all of us to think critically about our Constitution. As unlikely as it seems that one of these amendments (or any, for that matter) will gain momentum anytime soon, it never hurts to try to learn more about the way our government works. Why do Congress and the President always bicker over who has the authority to conduct war? How come the Supreme Court seems to make so many important decisions? And, most importantly, why does our government generally suck? You can’t answer these questions without understanding the Constitution, its origins, and its limitations.
The Constitution is not just a symbol, like our flag or our anthem; it is the foundation of our government and our way of life. Everyone in this country should have some basic understanding of what that means, and Sabato’s book is as good a place to start as any.