One of President Barack Obama’s most scrutinized statements prior to the 2008 election was one in which he concluded that the U.S. Constitution was a flawed document since it was “a charter of negative liberties.” But according to CNN host and Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, the president might have been on to something.
On his Sunday “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program, Zakaria explained how the island nation of Iceland is scrapping its entire longstanding constitution and is starting from scratch, even accepting suggestions from its citizens via social media.
“We all know how Americans revere the Constitution,” Zakaria said. “So I was struck by the news that tiny little Iceland is actually junking its own constitution and starting anew and using an unusual, some would say, innovative mechanism. The nation decided it needed a new constitution and it’s soliciting ideas from all of Iceland’s 320,000 citizens with the help of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and this social media method has worked. Ideas have been flowing in. Many have asked for guaranteed good health care. Others want campaign finance systems that make corporate donations illegal. And some just want the country to make shark finning illegal.”
Zakaria explained that Iceland decided to start all over as a result of the global financial crisis and said it was significant in that Iceland had been governed by a representative parliament for over 1,000 years – one of the oldest in the world.
But he said the Icelandic process is also significant because it highlights how different their process is from what America’s founding fathers did.
“By contrast, any talk of revising or revisiting the American Constitution is, of course, seen as heresy. The United States Constitution was, as you know, drafted in a cramped room in Philadelphia in 1787, with shades drawn over the windows,” he said. “It was signed by 39 people. America at the time consisted of 13 states. Congress had 26 senators and 65 representatives. The entire population was about one percent of today’s number, about 4 million people. America was an agricultural society, with no industry, not even cotton gins. The flush toilet had just been invented.”
And Zakaria has his problems with the Constitution, as it is interpreted in its current form.
“These were the circumstances under which this document was written,” he continued. “And let me be very clear here, the U.S. Constitution is an extraordinary work, one of the greatest expressions of liberty and law in human history,” he said. “One amazing testament to it is the mere fact that it has survived as the law of the land for 222 years. But our Constitution has been revised 27 times, some of these revisions being enormous and important, such as the abolition of slavery. Then there are areas that have evolved. For example, the power of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is barely mentioned in the document. This grew as a fact over history.”
Some of the changes Zakaria suggested that would make it less “undemocratic” would be to eliminate or change how the Electoral College and the Senate operate.
“But there are surely some issues that still need to be debated and fixed,” Zakaria continued. “The Electoral College, for example, is highly undemocratic, allowing for the possibility that someone could get elected as president even if he or she had a smaller share of the total national vote than his opponent. The structure of the Senate is even more undemocratic, with Wisconsin’s six million inhabitants getting the same representation in the Senate as California’s 36 million people. That’s not exactly one man, one vote. And we are surely the only modern nation that could be paralyzed as we were in 2000 over an election dispute because we lack a simple national electoral system.”
One solution to these flaws: Mimic Iceland and use social networking to revise how the U.S. government operates.
“So we could use the ideas of social media that were actually invented in this country to suggest a set of amendments to modernize the Constitution for the 21st century,” he continued. “Such a plan is not unheard of in American history. After all, the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787 initially meant not to create the Constitution as we now know it, but instead to revise the existing document, the Articles of Confederation. But the delegates saw a disconnect between the document that currently governed them and the needs of the nation, so their solution was to start anew. I’m just suggesting we talk about a few revisions.”