We need a new constitution: Here's how we save American democracy from charlatans, loudmouths and the 1 percent

Washington is drowning in lobbyist money and it has swamped the public good. It's time to start over from scratch

Published September 27, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

"Signing of the Constitution" by Howard Chandler Christy         (Architect of the Capitol)
"Signing of the Constitution" by Howard Chandler Christy (Architect of the Capitol)

This is the first of a two-part series; the second will run next weekend on Salon

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says that a clear-cut majority is disgusted with the present political scene and retains little hope that future generations will fare as well as we have. As candidates get down and dirty in the lead-up to midterm elections, 60 percent say the country is in a general state of decline. A mere 19 percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of Republicans in Congress; their Democratic colleagues (or “colleagues”) poll at 31 percent. But the most remarkable number is 79: that’s the percentage of the politicized public that presently voices its discontent with the entire American political system as constituted; and fully half of the respondents said “very dissatisfied.”

No one should be surprised. Congress is hated for good reason. It often seems that more representatives represent themselves, and cater to private rather than public interests. Government is meant to be a force for good, for fairness; not a stepping stone to private wealth and power for narcissists who grow up feeling entitled, or insensitive social climbers who live to pal around with the already privileged. As the Capitol building itself undergoes a facelift, that waggish definition of Capitol Hill, “Hollywood for ugly people,” is becoming more than mere aphorism.

What do the icy critics think of when they think of Congress in 2014? Perhaps it’s that there are too many tired, artless old men with bad haircuts and meaningless flag pins, commingling with Tea Party obstructionists--fatefully prone to insincere pronouncements about “the American people,” “freedom,” “sound policy” and “fresh ideas” as they stumble through misogynist gaffes. It’s known that these guys gravitate toward golf and strong drink. And, for some odd reason, inertia, too.

One thing (that virtually all can agree on) really stinks: Money makes our politics sordid. High-paid lobbyists exert as great a sway as ever. The formerly sanctimonious Eric Cantor, who worked against the interest of working people for years in Congress, gets booted from the House by an even greater ideologue, and promptly joins a Wall Street investment firm. We don’t want to know what he’s being paid. (We do, but we don’t.) It just makes folks angrier. This is hardly meritocracy, but he’s typical of what’s wrong. And for the record, some Democrats have cashed in, too. The system rewards the already privileged.

Though they haven’t articulated it as such, Americans want a new constitution that actually does what the original Constitution was supposed to do: serve the public good.

So, what would that document ideally look like?

It would surely reject outright the decadent, cowardly impulse to fashion a body of laws with special perks designed to prop up the few and wealthy while more or less throwing crumbs to the poor and powerless. Its overall function would be to improve the quality of life across the country, in places big and small. Let’s put it in all caps, and maybe stick it in the Preamble: TO CALL ITSELF A REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, A NATION MUST BE REASONABLE AND EQUITABLE IN THE DIVISION OF POWER.

What systemic changes would take place under this new, more sensible, and decidedly just Constitution?

It would limit the number of terms a representative or senator could serve, so as to introduce fresh blood from a pool of more visible talent. (Does 12 years sound reasonable?) It would not allow ex-congressmen to trade on their insider connections for at least five years–which might then produce fewer power-engrossing lawyer-politicians and more–let’s be really optimistic here–systems engineer- or bioethicist-politicians, i.e., problem solvers with a useful trade to fall back on after public service.

Next, let’s reform the debased Supreme Court by reducing tenure from life to 10 years. (Honestly, who’s not tired of Scalia?)

This is the thing. We all know the solution to our sorest problem. Let’s spell out what everyone’s saying, but voters, en masse, have failed to press for hard enough. It’s all the friggin’ campaign contributions. No more fundraising. Period. Taking two clear, unmitigated steps, the new Constitution would completely remove private money from electoral politics.

Step 1: It would continue to conduct congressional redistricting as necessary and proper (in accord with the national census taken every “0” year), but in a wholly unbiased manner by means of a mathematically derived algorithm that combines population distribution and natural topography. Partisan-directed state legislatures would once and for all be denied the power to gerrymander districts. How can there be any debate about this one? It so happens that Thomas Jefferson proposed such a grid plan in deliberating what became the Northwest Ordinance (1787): it erased existing districts and replaced them with boundaries that ignored class, race and every other factor that today’s paid political operatives can use to rig the system.

Step 2: Use tax dollars exclusively to fund national political campaigns. As students of history, the framers of our Constitution understood the classical meaning of the terms “republic” and “democracy.” Individually and collectively, they would have had a single word for Citizens United: CORRUPTION. Institutionalized corruption. Despite its contrived explanation, the 2010 Supreme Court decision is not about free speech; all it endorses is the thug’s motto: “Money talks.”

Remove money from politics and ideas flourish. One hundred percent public funding, and a designated campaign season extending months, not years. It can be done, people. They don’t know it now, but even the politician class will be glad for it. Do you think they live for the Iowa caucuses? Oblige them to spend more time studying and legislating and less time posturing.

The foregoing are the obvious moves the U.S. has to take to create the kind of governing system it has claimed to have, but doesn’t. (Part two of this series will identify more specific changes to Articles I & II of the federal Constitution.)

Now let’s return to where we began: the abysmal reputation of a static Congress. We don’t seem to promote enough smart, innovative, broadly knowledgeable people. We do, however, observe a good many uninspiring party hacks out there. And how many multi-term congressmen have crashed and burned owing to the ethically unsound choices they’ve made? If they see elective office as a stepping-stone–as merely a personal opportunity to rise socially or cozy up to a moneyed elite–then they are wrong for government. Plain and simple. Their job is to represent those who elected them; and with private money taken out of political campaigning, it becomes increasingly likely that “those who elected them” will mean “the people,” more than just rhetorically.

Good government does not exist without smart regulations that insure good character. We need to clip the wings of all the Governor Bob McDonnells out there. Nothing was so fundamental to the Revolutionary generation as character, which is why they were intentionally paid poorly for their public service. They got this right in 1787, insisting that government function as an antidote to arbitrary force and institutionalized corruption. They took it literally that the voters ceded power to their “governors” for a limited period of time. It was a known history of abuses of power that inspired the Revolutionaries to establish the first modern republic. Okay, that and an inordinate desire for Indian land.

When they wrote of good government, the nation’s founders highlighted the term “disinterested,” meaning free from self-interest. It was presented as an ideal, because they well understood that flawed humanity made pure disinterested politics unsustainable. That’s why doing right for the largest numbers was inscribed as the central aim of the representative system. It’s time for an update. Magnanimous behavior--political honesty--needs to be held up in modern discourse as our model for democracy, and narrow-minded favoritism recognized for what it is.

Our new Constitution would be written in such a way as to facilitate another campaign as well: a campaign against ignorance. Here’s a second axiom that belongs in all caps: THE HIGHEST OBLIGATION OF THE CITIZEN IN A DEMOCRACY IS TO REMAIN INFORMED AND TO ARGUE FOR SOMETHING. The sweep of history will sweep us by if we think we can get along by shouting slogans about our record as the “greatest nation in the history of the world.” People can disagree about the desired direction to take in our national life; but who would argue against having caring, hopeful, reasoning, discriminating voters (not those who only respond to attack ads) as the voters we want making democratic choices? So let’s create more of them.

Case in point. Not very long ago, as the civilized world shook its collective head, polling showed that nearly half of Republican voters were convinced that their duly elected president was an East African Muslim and a usurper. We must not cheapen the voting privilege by allowing angry nonsense to obtain such credibility. James Madison’s most palpable fear when he contemplated democracy was that heartless demagogues would sway malleable citizens. A republic run on gossip and angry misrepresentations is going nowhere. At least nowhere positive or productive.

Because political ignorance has festered for a long time, the campaign against ignorance must, of necessity, be fairly radical. Improvement will be slow. Attend first to the poor (rural and urban alike), those who were born with the fewest opportunities to advance in our highly competitive society. Don’t treat poor people--white, black, Hispanic, Native American--as waste people. And while we’re at it, let’s stop touting the “American Dream” when it remains unreachable for so many decent people with tremendous potential. The “Dream” has become synonymous with private gain. It deserves a broader definition.

Equality in education will serve to reduce inequality generally. Give everyone a boost, but especially those from traditionally underprivileged areas. Bring the best teachers to the worst schools, and pay a hefty premium to those teachers. Make a commitment to fixing these schools first. Let them shine on the outside, as a site for community pride. Give them great equipment and smaller classes. Make the learning environment of the poor superior. Take pride in actual democratic commitment. There isn’t enough of it.

K-12 is key, of course, but we can’t stop there. Both state and national governments need to pool their intellectual resources and come up with experimental means of making college affordable. The ever-increasing cost of college for middle-class families has reinforced the sad statistic that wealth and privilege almost always matter more than intrinsic merit. We can’t be satisfied with that outcome. Consider this fact: For decades, investment in public higher education has steadily declined. Not good. Not democratic. While we’re at it, unless they can be seriously monitored, and we mean seriously, let’s move away from the concept of for-profit charter schools, for-profit universities and for-profit prisons. They have already proven themselves unusually subject to private greed and corruption.

Because teachers tend to the development of young minds, they need access to a superior, up-to-date curriculum--what the American Enlightenment that our founders subscribed to called “useful knowledge.” Today, that translates into a more sophisticated foundation in the sciences and humanities, and a more marked engagement with other cultures. Start teaching foreign languages in first or second grade. Learn that the USA is not an island, nor the repository of God’s chosen people; it leads the world in software development and space exploration, true, but also in incarceration.

As we cultivate good, inventive, intuitive teachers to open the minds of a rising generation, we must also see to it that the best teachers are not dictated to by having to measure student success through standardized tests. Painting by number does not make a talented painter. SAT and GRE scores do not measure imagination. Also, reinforce what teachers do by adding counselors and school psychologists to our school systems. That’s not the hated nanny state; that’s investing in the future.

Our 18-year-olds are hyperactive online but, for the most part, socially immature. They learn how to party in college, while generally failing to complete reading assignments. The new Constitution would institute a two-year national service commitment, allowing students to obtain college admission at the end of high school--deferred acceptance. They would have the security of a spot waiting for them in college, but would in the meantime take a deliberate part in expansive national service programs. The government has run AmeriCorps successfully. Multiply that by a thousand. A math whiz from Vermont can teach high school kids in Zuni, New Mexico. A senior who loves environmental history might work for the Park Service or on an experimental farm. For some, it will be the armed forces. Develop pride, develop useful skills. Energize young citizens--remember, they can vote at 18. Get businesses involved, partnering with government. Teach real-life communication skills, with a dose of empathy. Don’t coddle, but compensate the young men and women for their service. Even those who don’t intend to go to college will profit from such an introduction to a varied, more interesting life.

And to pay for all this? Let’s be blunt about it: Tax those who will never hurt, who will never feel the loss of a few percentage points in their accrued wealth.  As things stand--and as incredible as it sounds--the infamous 1 percent own more than one third of the nation’s private wealth. How can we not oblige the ultra-rich to do more to support the education of future leaders Somehow, put that dictate into the Constitution. It makes practical sense. No one can claim that it places an unfair burden on the CEO who “earns” (rakes in, anyway) $10 million annually. The future will thank us for coming to our senses.

Protect Social Security by increasing the Social Security tax rate of those who earn over a certain amount (say, $300,000) in a given year. Close tax loopholes that continue to protect industries that otherwise feel no compulsion to collaborate with others for social betterment: they should not be bullied, just equitably taxed. When this was done before, the economy prospered. (Evidently, Republicans don’t like Eisenhower anymore.)

Along with an education push and revamped tax policy, we improve human life across the board when we stop destroying Earth. Every day is Earth Day, right? Take more seriously the moral component of the enlightened republicanism that our founders trusted in, and make publicity more difficult for the “poison lobby.” Those industries actively engaged in destroying the planet should not be getting away with any crap.

Instead of rewarding oil and coal interests with government subsidies, accord them the same treatment government has given to Big Tobacco for a whole generation, which has dramatically reduced the percentage of Americans who smoke. Just as no one objects to highway signs that read “Buckle Up,” would it hurt to see warning labels at the gas pump? Make those crass ads go away--take the one where the caring female executive of BP Alaska boasts of how the insufficiently regulated corporation responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster loves people and creates jobs and works for America. You shouldn’t be able to put a compassionate face on corporate greed. Let’s get priorities straight: Instead of permitting them to twist facts, make polluters pay for TV ads that aggressively promote a clean-energy economy.

We know instinctively that something is out of whack when such companies pay more to lobbyists than they pay in taxes; yet that happens as a matter of course today. Really? Yes, really. Big business is more in charge than ever. Make business executives prove themselves patriotic by cooperating with the majority’s interest in this country. Broadcast the fact that we are a nation that rewards enterprises that invest in renewable resources, that acts magnanimously to preserve the at-risk natural environment and that pays its fair share of taxes.

It does not mean that government looks upon its relationship to corporations as adversarial when it restructures the corporate tax code to make government work for better business and real people. We have the political tools, just not (up to now) the political will. Without harming capitalist enterprise, take the money out of the brand of politics that tempts elected or appointed officials to abandon the ethics they professedly bring with them into public service.

It should feel good--not intrusive--when government imposes huge fines on companies that pollute our air and water; or when government explains its requirement that we recycle, cease to litter, etc. This is what flows from being part of a community, small or large. The best way to look at the issue of preserving the planet when humans are so capable of ruining it is to adopt a long historical perspective. A constitution is nothing if it does not have posterity in mind.

This hypothetical new Constitution is not a new idea. Just a forgotten one. In his State of the Union Address in January 1944, a time as dark as our own, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the original Bill of Rights did not do all it should: “As our nation has grown in size and stature, as our industrial economy expanded, these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” His words could not have been plainer: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people--whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth--is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.”

He went on to enumerate an updated, modernized Bill of Rights that encompassed “the right to a useful and remunerative job”; “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation”; “the right of every family to a decent home”; “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health”; “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”; “the right to a good education.” Sounding a warning about the “rightist reaction,” he ended with an impassioned appeal: “I ask the Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights--for it is definitely the responsibility of the Congress so to do.” And lest there was any doubt whose welfare he thought of most prominently: “Our fighting men abroad and their families at home expect such a program and have the right to insist upon it.” In 70 years, little has changed. We need to re-adopt FDR’s mantra.

To contend with those who have been conditioned to fear “big government,” here’s the winning response: Let us profit from good government ideas once they are put into practice. Government performed a masterstroke at the end of World War II with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944--you know it as the GI Bill--enabling millions of veterans to go to college and better themselves. It’s proof that government can make a positive difference in citizens’ lives. Much as they try, the defenders of “free enterprise” will never convince the majority that we’d all be better off if the big banks and oil companies served as the model for economic justice in America. And is there some way to free the airwaves from the pestilential noise generated by those ideologues who shout ignorantly about getting government off their backs?

Let’s face reality head on: Democracy is an ideal, not a given; justice for all is an ideal, not a given. When the status quo leaves our national ideals behind, it falls to the governed to register discontent through informed dissent. The twin causes of democracy and justice cannot remain in focus without intelligent engagement on the part of the governed. If the kind of representative government we want cannot succeed by removing partisan gerrymandering and putting an end to unlimited terms, then the only hope of taking on intractable problems is to anoint a disinterested philosopher king. (Do we have to say that’s a joke?) Such people do not exist in abundance.

Meanwhile, the old Constitution is shaking in its boots. More and more, politicians are obtaining office by appealing to base emotions. We all know this to be true, and we hate it. Where the informational potential of modern technology has yielded to the stultifying hyper-drama of viral videos, it can seem like political life consists of a series of emotional swindles. Fame is rarely equated with achievement anymore. Loudmouths with sick ideas grab national headlines. (Donald Trump thinks he’d make a great president.) As politicians pander, national pride declines. National spirit is depressed. Do we need to repeat ourselves: Electoral politics is flat-out corrupt.

What does democracy mean under these conditions? What promise lies in the business of getting ahead at all costs? Or in the unmitigated voyeurism prompted by a mass culture daily saturated with news of mass shootings and manufactured celebrities’ mostly bare bodies? The bizarre and banal loom before our eyes and almost appear to outweigh what matters. Hunger and poverty are largely unseen and relatively untreated. A minimum wage that all but insures homelessness is shortsighted and should be highly embarrassing to the citizens of a republic. We should think large. Why don’t we? Does anyone doubt that the future will despise us for our relative inaction amid plenty?

This essay is not intended to demean Americans, who remain, by and large, a good and hopeful people. But they hurt. The outcry against income inequality and planetary disfigurement has provoked questions about the essential fairness of existing laws and of a political system that directly produces our dispiritedness. We hear it all the time now: The super-rich are getting super-richer, the majority is plodding along, and underemployment is a major concern. Income inequality appears to be an unstoppable force.

The American middle class no longer compares favorably to the middle class in Western Europe or Canada. Surely, it was not the intent of the U.S. Constitution that a smattering of billionaires would be exercising a nearly obsessive control over political speech or that the flow of money, above all else, would condition political persuasion. This is not democracy. By any definition. Let’s change that. Democratically.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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