How Long can the US Constitution Last?
Americans need to think about the demise of the US Constitution because the system of government that document enables could soon disappear.
Such thoughts are difficult for Americans because they teach us to view the Constitution as a sacred text. In reality, the Constitution is a document, a blueprint for a system of government devised by a group of men in 1787.
Obviously, what one group of people created another group can change or destroy. Indeed, most countries have had several constitutions or systems of government in modern times.
France, for example, has had Five Republics, two empires, and two monarchies since 1789. Similarly, Germany has had an Empire, the Nazi Third Reich, a Communist dictatorship, and two Republics on its soil since 1870.
America’s Old Fashioned Constitution
Yet the United States has had the same Constitution and system of government since 1789.
Even the Confederacy, the closest thing America has had to a Revolution since the 18th century, acknowledged the Constitution. The Confederate Constitution was a copy of the 1789 document with a few changes, such as a balanced budget amendment and term limits.
America’s Constitution has endured since 1789, even though it does not conform to standard modern democratic practices. For example, most modern democracies use a parliamentary model in which a legislative body chooses the head of government. However, America uses a presidential model in people elect the head of government.
Additionally, the United States is one of the few countries that combines the office of head of state and head of government. India, in contrast, has a figurehead President who serves as head of state and a prime minister who serves as head of government. The Prime Minister has power, the President conducts ceremonies.
In constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom, the monarch serves as head of state. For example, Queen Elizabeth II, not Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is Britain’s head of state. Johnson is merely head of government.
Similarly, many modern constitutions grant citizens basic benefits or economic rights. For example, a right to health which you can construe as a mandate for single-payer healthcare. Other constitutions recognize a living wage (minimum wage) as a right.
Indeed, some constitutions acknowledge daycare as a “right.” Yet the US Constitution does not acknowledge benefits as rights and American courts refuse to acknowledge such rights.
One reason for America’s underdeveloped welfare state is that there is no constitutional basis for benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. However, those benefits are popular and widely used.
America’s Archaic Constitution
Glaringly, the US Constitution has some archaic features. For instance, a two-house national legislature (Congress) with an unrepresentative upper house, an elected head of government, and indirect election of the president.
America’s government is cumbersome and convoluted. In contrast, the British government is pretty simple. In Britain, there is one electoral system, and a one-house national legislature (parliament) that passes laws by a simple majority vote. The former upper house, the House of Lords, is now a ceremonial body. Additionally, Britain has just one simple national election every few years.
In contrast, the United States has midterm elections every two years and national elections every four years. Moreover, there is just one national election day in Britain. In the United States, one or more primary elections precede the regular balloting.
Indeed, most US Representatives face two election contests (a primary and a general election) every two years. Consequently, the US Congress faces a permanent national election. British or Indian members of parliament face one election once every five or six years. US Representatives face two elections every two years. US Senators face two elections every six years.
Hence, America’s government is slow and often unresponsive to the popular will and national needs. For example, polls most Americans favor strict gun control legislation, high taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, and single-payer healthcare, yet such measures never pass. Likewise, Congress refuses to take aggressive action on Climate Change, which polls show most Americans want.
Finally, most Americans favor a peaceful or even isolationist foreign policy. Yet the federal government in Washington DC is aggressively militarist, internationalists, and imperialistic.
Predictably, there is widespread frustration with America’s Constitution. This frustration manifests itself in support for political figures such as former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) who ignore and trample Constitutional norms.
Other examples of this frustration include the 43% of eligible voters who refuse to cast ballots, and interest in revolutionary dogmas or changing the Constitution.
How Long Can the Constitution Last?
An interesting point here is that America’s Constitution is the world’s oldest functioning written Constitution.
The British Constitution is older; dating back all the way to Magna Carta in 1215, but the United Kingdom lacks a written constitution. Instead, the UK has a series of informal arrangements between groups in society that create a government.
For example, an agreement between the monarchy and the people grants legislative and executive power to parliament. Other agreements recognize Scotland’s presence in the UK, and the existence of the British Empire (or its lack of existence in modern times).
The advantage of the British system is its flexibility. They can change the British Constitution with a simple parliamentary majority. For example, in the mid-1940s, parliament gave the British people a constitutional right to healthcare.
The disadvantage is the lack of legal protections and formal procedures. For example, there is no First Amendment or freedom of speech or the press in Britain. In fact, Her Majesty’s Government can imprison anybody for saying the wrong thing under the Official Secrets Act as Julian Assange discovered.
Similarly, after the Brexit referendum in 2016, nobody knew if Brexit was legal or constitutional. Brexit foes argued convincingly that the Brexit referendum was unconstitutional because only parliament can make under Britain’s unwritten constitution. Hence, Brexit did not become law until parliament approved it.
In contrast, the US Constitution offers solid protections and simple procedures. However, those procedures do not always work. The British have the advantage of changing their government by a vote of parliament if circumstances change.
For example, creating a planned economy and a wide-ranging welfare state as a response to World War II in the 1940s. Then trimming the welfare state and abandoning the planned economy in the more peaceful 1980s. Or winding down the Empire and the massive military-industrial complex that supported it in less than 25 years (1945-1970).
In contrast, the United States cannot dismantle the gigantic Cold War era military industrial complex and incapable of building a modern welfare state. Indeed, America’s military-industrial complex seems to grow as its empire contracts.
Moreover, inflexible constitutions have led to governmental collapse in some countries. For example, the Roman Republic in the First Century BCE, France in the 1780s, Japan in the 1860s, the Soviet Union in 1991, and China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
History shows that inflexible constitutions such as America’s can lead to governmental collapse. Indeed, the US Constitution came close to collapsing during the Civil War and under strain in the 1870s.
So how long can the US Constitution last? History offers no simple answers here because written constitutions are a recent phenomenon. Republics and organized governments are ancient. However, the notion of a formal written blueprint for a government is a recent innovation created largely by the American Founding Fathers.
There were some long-lasting republics before America. The Venetian Republic lasted over a thousand years, and the Roman Republic endured for several centuries. The tiny Italian Republic of San Marino claims to date to Roman times.
However, the United States was the first nation based directly upon a Constitution. Additionally, Americans view their Constitution as the law of the land, rather than a guideline of how government should operate. In most countries, such as Russia, people view constitutions as an ideal to aspire to or a piece of legal propaganda to give leaders political cover.
Hence, nobody knows how long the US Constitution could last. Yet we could soon be approaching its end without major revision. Notably, the US Constitution has not undergone major revision since the early 1900s. In that era, three amendments; the 17th amendment (direct election of US Senators), 16th amendment (income tax), and 19th amendment (votes for women) changed the basic nature of the US government.
Since then, the US government has remained stagnant and regressed in some ways. For example, Congress’s ability and willingness to hold the federal bureaucracy , particularly the military, in check has collapsed.
Thus, it is impossible to tell how long the US Constitution can last. However, many Americans, including me, sense that some sort of explosion that will change the nature of our government is imminent. I don’t know what that explosion will be, but I fear it is coming. Hence, the days of the US Constitution could be numbered.