Thoughts on the Constitution and why it works
Posted by sanityinjection on September 9, 2009
As every schoolchild knows, the Constitution is the principal document on which the government of the United States is based. For over 200 years it has reigned supreme over every political question our nation has faced. Advocates and opponents of every measure have sought to interpret the Constitution to favor their position. There is a broad acceptance that because of the Constitution, America is a government of “laws and not of men”.
The question I found myself pondering is why constitutional government has worked so well in the United States as opposed to other countries. Some readers may not be aware that many other countries have constitutions which like our own, guarantee the rights and freedoms of the people. And yet, despite the legal validity of these documents, in many of these countries the constititution is merely a piece of paper, wilfully and routinely ignored by the government. Look up the constitution of the former Soviet Union and you’ll be suprised by the many democratic institutions and freedoms it contains – none of which were implemented in the real world. Or witness a country like Sudan, where the constitution promises Western-style freedoms but women can be flogged for wearing trousers. Why, then, is the US Constitution revered and obeyed here with almost religious authority while other countries ignore theirs?
I think I’ve identified some of the reasons. One of the most important is the process by which the US Constitution was created. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it was not a revolutionary document. Nor was it quickly promulgated by a new regime seeking to legitimize itself after ousting a former government. Rather, it grew out of fears of instability and weakness and a desire to have a uniform set of laws governing the several states. It took years of negotiations, in which representatives of every state participated, before the final version of the Constitution was agreed on, and it had to be ratified by a supermajority of the states before it became law. As a result, Americans felt that their Constitution was not only “for the people”, but also “of the people” and “by the people”. This gave it a fundamental legitimacy that other nation’s constitutions, imposed by a particular regime or even drafted by foreign “experts” in many cases, simply do not have.
Another critical element is the presence of an independent judiciary – the Supreme Court – whose task is to defend the Constitituion by ruling on whether laws conform to its guidelines. Supreme Court justices, while appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, are the only government office in the US that serves for life. As such, they need not be swayed by the vicissitudes of public opinion or out of concern of losing their posts. The defeat of FDR’s court-packing attempts in the 1930s confirmed the independence of the judiciary from executive or legislative control. Again, this differs from other countries in which the head of the judiciary can be dismissed by the executive branch if they make a ruling that angers the regime.
Finally, there is the longstanding American principle of civilian authority over the military. Unlike in other countries, where the head of the military has a powerful influence over all areas of government, America was born with an aversion to military power being used internally against the citizenry which became enshrined in law. (One of the initial complaints that led to the American Revolution was the forced quartering of British soldiers in colonists’ homes.) America has never had a military coup in its history. Soldiers take an oath to obey the Commander-in-Chief who is a civilian and are taught to uphold the Constitution.
I have not done any kind of comprehensive study, but I bet that if you did you would find that countries with constitutions that are respected probably have at least two of these three features in common with the US – a homegrown, democratically produced constitution, an independent judiciary, and a military subject to civilian control. It’s not just enough to have a high-sounding document – the practical ingredients also have to be in place to ensure a government of “laws and not of men”.