June 20th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Is it time to update the U.S. Constitution?

We all know how Americans revere the Constitution, so I was struck by the news that tiny, little Iceland is actually junking its own Constitution and starting anew 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. 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.

There is a Constitutional Council. It incorporates some of these ideas, rejects others, but everything is done in plain sight on the web. As one member of the Constitutional Council said, the document is basically being drafted on the Internet. 

Now, why do they need a new Constitution anyway? Well, after Iceland was crippled in recent years by the economic crisis, they all wanted a fresh start. And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.

You might be tempted to say that Iceland doesn't have any reasons to be proud of its political traditions in the manner that the United States does. Well, think again.

Iceland is home to the world's oldest parliament still in existence, the Althing, set up in 930 A.D. The rocky ledge on which they gathered represents the beginnings of representative government in the world. So Iceland has reasons to cherish its history, and yet it was willing to revise it.

By contrast, any talk of revising or revisiting the U.S. 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. 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 - four million people.

America was an agricultural society, with no industry - not even cotton gins. The flush toilet had just been invented.

These were the circumstances under which this document was written.

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.

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 have been 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.

But there are surely some issues that still need to be debated and fixed.

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.

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.

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.

Anyway, what do you think? Should we do this? And if we were to revise the U.S. Constitution, what would be the three amendments you would put in?

Let us know in the comment thread and we'll post the best ones on the Global Public Square.

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Topics: GPS Show • Law • What in the World?

soundoff (2,350 Responses)
  1. danno

    What? change the Constitution? Mr. Zakaria that is why we can "AMEND". You know change it? It is a perfect system as it is. Iceland may have centuries of history in the area self government, but they can't get it right...after centuries. Mr. Zakaria, why did you choose the US? Why didn't you choose Iceland? Also, this may sound bad – but why would you as an immigrant (unless that's a really bad Brooklyn accent) want to change the freedoms you now enjoy? Isn't that why you came here in the first place? Or maybe why your parents did? Folks in Arizona are seeing something similar to this now – people are leaving CA and moving to AZ. They move away from CA because of how screwed up it is but want to change AZ to be like CA...strange. Anyway, to answer your question – what would I add – 1. Conscription. Everyone at the age of 18 be required to serve 2 years in the military (regardless of sex, race, religion). If you live here, you do your part to protect/serve here. Exceptions based on physical/mental abilities/defects. 2. Term Limits of ALL elected officials, like the Presidency. Limit elected officials to 2 terms.

    My $.02.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  2. HZD

    An education in history and politics would greatly benefit the author of this little opinion piece. First, suggesting that representative government had its advent in Iceland on some rocky ledge in the tenth century is laughable. What about Rome? Perhaps the fact that our own Founding Fathers looked to Rome and not Iceland would have clued us in to this.

    Secondly, whenever I hear that the electoral college is essentially undemocratic, I hear the echo of incensed liberals who are still steaming over the loss of Gore to Bush. If you read up on the founding of our country, you would realize that we were not founded as a strict democracy, which is impossible in a country this size. You would also realize that the whole point of the electoral college was to protect the smaller states by giving them a voice that would otherwise be overwhelmed by a few key large states.

    And trashing the Senate shows a lack of even remedial American politics. Go read the Federalist Papers.


    June 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  3. AJ

    What about a total change in the Executive Branch. I have often thought that in today's world, the problems that relate to domestic issues coupled with the international issues is too much for one individual and one platform. Wouldn't be easier for there to be one executive responsible for international policy and a different execuitve for domestic policy?

    June 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Don

      We formally broke away from the Monarchy/Parliamentary system circa 1776. I'm not willing to go back. Are you suggesting a possible combination of say Donald Trump or , Obama, or John Kerry as head of the executive function, and perhaps Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan as head of state? What a combination that would be! You do the mixing and matching and speculate the results.

      Lohan would be throwing a massive party using booze and Afghan drugs in Afghanistan, while Trump would be trying to sell it (Afghanistan) out from under them, as an example.

      June 25, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  4. Dan

    I would amend the constitution to make it clear that only people (living, breathing people) are legal persons and that corporations (who may never die and can't spend one day in prison [looking at you Goldman Sachs]) are not persons under the law.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  5. AJ

    What about a total change in the Executive Branch. I have often thought that in today's world, the problems that relate to domestic issues coupled with the international issues is too much for one individual and one platform. Wouldn't be easier for there to be one executive responsible for international policy and a different executive for domestic policy?

    June 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  6. keith

    why in the world would you do that? So people can be even MORE PC than they already are? Just leave it alone....its worked fine since its inception and it'll work fine in decades to come

    June 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  7. Kevin Childs

    Small, but definite steps should be taken. Looking at one aspect of a possible New Constitution, I see the electoral process being improved. With the advent of many new methods of information delivery, their should be little need for financing any campaign. In addition, use of assets that are owned by the citizens of our country should also be used to their full advantage. These assets being the radio and television frequencies that are used by private enterprise, but not owned by private enterprise. A broadcast station license is supposed to be awarded with "The Public Good" in mind. Getting back to the electoral process; a one month campaign should be all that is required for the public to be made fully aware of a candidate's positions, philosophy, or what ever else they wish to know about them. This would eliminate millions of dollars of needless expense, and also open up the process of serving in office to the general public, rather than simply to the candidate who generates the most money. One last note would beg that a new constitution be written in plain english, rather that the legalese that permeates every document in Washington.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  8. Sahen Rahman

    I am in full support of the drafting of a new Constitution through a constitutional convention. As you stated, the Constitution was drafted for circumstances and issues of the distant past and now has no relevance in the 21st century.
    My three amendments would be:
    1: Congressmen should be selected randomly from a list of qualified University professors, Senators should be elected.
    2: Universal Health Care
    3: Bullet Control. Possession and or purchase of more than 1 bullet should illegal.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  9. Marsha Who has Studied the Constitution from numerous perspectives

    Wow. Apparently Fareed has not done his homework. And no one bothered to check his facts either before he posted. Great for Iceland. We are not Iceland. We are the United States of America, a Republic. Not a pure democratic society. What a dork.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  10. Jake S.

    The major reform I would take to the Constitution is in relation to term limits. As it stands currently (representatives elected every two years, presidents four, senators six), there is no incentive and it seems many disincentives to making decisions that actually work, and thinking out the logical repercussions of those decisions that are made.

    Every elected official is in constant election mode until (as with presidents) they hit a lame-duck period, when no one listens to them anyway. Something must done to force these electees to raise their visions to the an appropriate time frame – the higher the office, the longer the timeframe they should be making decisions on. Our local city council can effect change tomorrow, or in the next week or month – the representatives, senators, and presidents should be looking and work 10-15 years out or further.

    As a modest start, I would increase all term limits by four years – elect representatives for six years, presidents for eight, and senators for 10. That would hopefully break the electoral stranglehold on the politicians mindset, and allow these officials to actually work. In order to help ensure that they do, I would also implement a defined recall mechanism for all. If a set percentage of the voters who elected them (for instance, an arbitrary level of 70%) decide that they are doing a terrible job, or have done something so improper as to warrant their removal from office, then that would happen. The official would be removed from office, and the seat reopened to a shortened campaign. Or the incumbent could survive the recall vote, and be on notice to change their ways.

    With regards to the existence of the senate, and the electoral college, I would say that both of those issues speak to a more central concept that perhaps DOES need to be changed. When the Constitution was written, its purpose was to establish a government that served both the people, as citizens of the United States, and the states themselves. Do we still need to recognize the states as principal actors, or not? I don't have any well articulated thoughts on the subject, but here are the questions I would begin asking if there was a movement to remove that recognition. First, if the state (as defined by the constitution currently) ceases to be a principal actor, then what purpose does the senate serve? Do we even need to elect senators? Secondly, and following from the first – if we have no more senate, do we still desire a bicameral legislature? If we do, what replaces the senate? Also, how would this effect a whole array of services and current separation between what is properly "state" and what is "federal?" Would it be more beneficial in terms of streamlining services and departments, but at what point do we need and want friction built in to ensure that everyone is getting their needs properly serviced?

    June 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  11. tankrothchild

    If CNN had it their way, Obama would just rule forever and he would rain down judgement as he sees fit. Kill democracy now! Socialism is the only ism.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Melissa

      Thanks for proving you know nothing about socialism whatsoever. Here's an idea, how about you get educated instead of believing everything the rethugs tell you.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  12. Bill

    Totally off base about the Presidential election of 2000. There was, and still is, a way to have resolved that situation within the law. The Lawsuits were a total distortion of an existing process, and the Supreme Court's big mistake was sticking their nose into the business at all. In Florida, the count would have continued until the Sec of State could determine "a winner". NOT the exact total of votes cast, but determine who won the election, whether by 1 or 1Million vote margin. Then the legislature ratifies or overturns the result and transmits the result to Congress. If the result was late (there was a deadline) Congress decides if they want to count the votes anyway. That whole process is coded into law, and we've been through it a few times in the past (Hawaii in the 60s most recently). The court lawsuit process was a shameful distraction, and made a political process out of the judicial process too. Stupid and Wrong

    June 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  13. TjinMO

    uh, fareed, dumbazz....we are a representative republic not a democracy....a pure democracy is mob rule....and the electoral college prevents urban areas from dominating smaller populations.....

    June 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  14. Nathan

    Instead of trying to adapt the Constitution to our way of life, perhaps it is time that we restored our way of life to the Constitution. The Constitution is a brilliant document and any attempt by someone who clearly does not understand it to change it should merely be ignored.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  15. Glades2

    Yes – undo Roe v. Wade by rewriting the 14th Amendment...

    June 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  16. Alex

    I am just glad it doesn't seem here that anyone wants to redo the Bill of Rights portion. It's pretty clear the Left already wants to curb free speech, get rid of the right to bear arms, and it's pretty clear both parties would love to do away with the Fourth Amendment (right to freedom from unreasonable/warrantless search and seizure)

    June 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  17. Sasha

    I agree that the Constitution needs to be revised. Its ludicrous to be operating our government on a document that is over 200 years old when the world has changed so much during that time.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  18. Dave H

    Mr Zakari fails in his understanding of the compromises that were made to get the constitution. Many of the issues that resulted in those compromises as still valid today. Political power by sheer force of population numbers will oppress some other members of the population who deserve to be heard. Keep the Senate just the way it is.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  19. Guester

    1) Term limits for congress
    2) Cap campaign contributions for all entities at a very low amount.
    3) Flat tax rates

    The above would do wonders for the country In my opinion.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  20. bynh

    "Iceland is home to the world's oldest parliament still in existence, the Althing, set up in 930 A.D. The rocky ledge on which they gathered represents the beginnings of representative government in the world." Has Mr. Zakaria never heard of Athens?

    I find Mr. Zakaria's description of the conditions under which the Constitution was framed, to be both unpleasantly condescending and suggestive of a global political agenda. I think he needs not only to read the Constitution again, but also to read much more about why it was written the way it was. For Americans, this is not just *a* constitution; it is *The* Constitution. Growing up abroad can create a very different mindset from that which is the result of growing up here. It was essential to produce a document to which all the states would agree at the time, so the slavery problem was not addressed, but the amendment procedure was included, for the sake of the future. As Mr. Franklin observed, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.".

    It is the Constitution that made this country the refuge where people such as the Roma and the Jews could find safety, when all of continental Europe was unsafe for them. IIt is also the Constitution that has made our worst social habits, such as the enslavement of Africans, able to be reformed in the long run. As long as we have the Constitution, and respect it, we remain a free people, and we shall never surrender The Bill of Rights, no matter what deceptive arguments are put forth in favor of our doing so.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  21. Pilot2969

    Read federalist 10... enough said.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  22. Guy Noir

    Zakaria is a man with no particular affinity for the U.S., who poses as an American as he speaks consistently of the U.S. in ways that diminish it. His overall view is clear when his writing is followed over time. This is not a Great Nation that can be improved, it is an average nation that needs to be remade in a socialist model.

    As if a 'cramped room' is relevant to the quality of the constitution? As if the gee-whiz setting for Iceland's exercise will make for a better outcome? Interestingly, he declares that their experiment has worked, though their still in the drafting phase. Such a premature declaration clearly reveals a bias toward it.

    (p.s. - the Althing may have originated in 930, but as he stated, the current constitution is younger than my father)

    Zakaria mentions items that could use changing - something that can be managed via amendments, as has been done many times - and uses them as the basis for his notion of scratching the entire document. He belittles American regard for the document by saying that any talk of amending it is considered "heresy", though it's been amended many times.

    When Zakaria talks of "revisiting" the constitution, what he's really talking about is flushing it, and replacing it with something more socialist-friendly. The constitution and the freedoms, rights and guarantees it provides are major sticking points for the agenda that much of the left has for America. The intentions of people like him are exactly what it is meant to protect against.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      What a clueless pile of crap.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Reply
    • Curt

      It seems like a lot of people are missing the point here. Or perhaps not, as the idea of the article was to spark debate as to whether the Constitution should be revisited rather than say: let's rewrite it with Iceland's method of social media. There seems to be debate but too much of it is centered on bashing what was said and why it's wrong and evil and un-American, rather than discussing new ideas. Which would seem to imply that the social media approach would get absolutely nowhere over here even if anyone did want to try it. And for those saying Mr. Zakaria needs to educate himself better on the system, I'm willing to be he has a much firmer grasp of our government than most people criticizing him. Again, it was an article to start debate. The point was to pick out a few areas to get people talking. For my two cents, all of existence is constantly moving forward. It's not possible to stay static forever.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  23. Jacek

    The electoral college is really not a problem, nor is the fact htat each state has 2 senators, as those senators are counterbalanced by the house of representatives. The biggest problem that we ought to be trying to tackle is just why policy is predominantly written by Lobbyists and not the elected officials, why those same lobbyists don't care what party a representative or senator belongs to, as long as their laws get passed.

    You see, because of the unfortunate inherent greed that we all have, the government has in effect become, ineffective, laws don't get passed, progress is not made, and the benefit to constituents and people is minimal at best. Why lobby, lobby lobby.

    We need to amend the Constitution in order to remove the cancer which is the lobbyist from DC.

    And making the presidential term like 6 years would prob also help, not much you can do in 4, just too much policy flip flopping if you ask me. But that's another story.


    June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  24. RM

    leave it alone. There are methods to ammend it. it was a simpler time and that helps the constituition cut to the chase, involve the lawyers and modern politicians and we will have the most complicated meaningless document immaginable. Also, be glad Wisconsin is equal to California in Senate votes, California's electorate has proven time and again it's inability to deal with reality and problem solving.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  25. Jennifer

    Re-writing your Constitution based on what's sent to you via twitter, facebook and youtube seems like a very, very poor way of reorganizing your country.

    Let's look at the numbers: 7 million people (approximately) use Facebook. Even balanced against just one country, that's 7 million out of how many billions of individuals? Do the ones not on Facebook (or Twitter or Youtube) have no say in their government? People who either dislike the technology or simply choose not to use it don't have a voice in their laws?

    Thank god I don't live in Iceland. And I hope to never see something this ill-conceived take place in the United States.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  26. Steph in WA

    I agree that the electoral collage should not be used. Look what happened when Bush ‘won’ in his second election. That was a fiasco. There should be other provisions to help the smaller states but it has to be changed.
    What about free speech? Something needs to be added to that so freaks aren’t running around bombing places (abortion clinics) or protesting fallen solders funerals and be protected because of free speech. Free speech my arse.
    My favorite: Right to bear arms. Come on, that was written when they never would have imagined the kind of fire power people have today. That needs total revision.
    Why would it be so bad to update our Constitution? We need it to be something to follow that is up to date. Companies have to update policies all the time.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  27. Mississippi John

    I find the idea of investigating the possibility of offering one or two amendments to the constitution interesting, but I do not agree with your implication that it is hopelessly out-of-date and requires wholesale changes.

    For example, you state that: "The United States constitution was, as you know, drafted in a cramped room in Philadelphia in 1787 with shades drawn over the windows. It was signed by 39 people." This is correct, but these were not just any 39 people. They were intellectual and/or political giants (Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, etc.), who in some cases had spent their whole adult lives studying and participating in representative government. In my opinion, their work has withstood the test of time extremely well.

    In addition, you state that: “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.” The United States of America is not an unfettered democracy of 300 million people governed strictly by the federal government; it is a republic of fifty separate states. The issue that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with the most was the method of representation to be used for the Senate. They came up with the compromise that the House of Representatives would be based on “one man, one vote,” and that the Senate would be based on, essentially, one state, one vote.

    Finally, you state that “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.” I agree with this, and support a constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote as the means for deciding presidential elections.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  28. Social media - "social"

    Keep social anything away from our sacred document – typical this guy works foir cnn... typical

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  29. Bob

    Here is my proposal for Amendment 28. The Congress shall have the power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the involvement of any corporation, business, or non-citizen, in the election of political candidates. Additionally, national political candidates may only accept monetary or in-kind contributions from individuals who reside in the district or state which that candidate may represent, and are eligible to vote for that candidate. - Basically the purpose of this is to limit political contributions to people you can vote for. If you are running for the House, you may raise money from any eligible voter in your district. If you are running for the Senate, you may raise money only from any eligible voter in your state. President? You can raise money from any registered voter. This would eliminate a great deal of money from the election cycle.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • Guy Noir

      What a simpleton's pile of crap.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  30. Come on CNN!

    It really bothers me that cnn allowed this to be published. It's not that the author didn't raise some decent questions about the constitution as a whole, it's that he did it in a very uneducated way. RickHouse had it right, the author needs to retract his statements, especially since he is affiliated with the obama administration, it is just kind of sad that this was a real article and embarassing to the presidents administration that someone with such a lack of understanding has a platform to spout this kind of stuff.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
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