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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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. Charles

    Bad idea on several fronts: (1) We can't get our act together enough to decide on basic spending and taxation measures to keep our country from going bankrupt. How, then, do you imagine we'll get together enough to alter the fundamental underpinning of our entire nation? (2) The Constitution already has a mechanism to change it; why not just use it?
    Now, as for your understanding of American Constitutional history: (1) the fact that we have two legislative branches - one based on population and the other not based on population - was intended to protect "little Wisconsin" from being bullied by the big population states. If you take away the Senate, then there'll only be a handful of states with the population to make things happen. (2) the Electoral College is indeed an outdated system that should be abolished by amending the Constitution. The College originally was for making the system work when communication was by horseback. That time is long since passed, obviously.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  2. Howard

    The Beginning -Middle & End= YOU ARE PLAYING WITH FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  3. William Meek

    Fareed Zakaria, I appreciate what you tried to do here. I too believe the Constitution again requires updating. I agree with many that the 17th amendment is the largest issue with the Constitution as it weakens the voice of the States in lawmaking therefore removing a check on popular vote. I think that the Electoral College forces a two party political system where you are either for them or against them. This I believe has created the polarization of our politics. Further, I believe this polarization indirectly created the majority of the problems we face today. I would offer the following as a solution.
    Require each party to select only one candidate for president. (Something like a petition will be needed to limit the number parties involved to those of the most relevance). Then elect the president by direct vote. (In case of no clear majority then the top 3 candidates run off, if still no majority then top 2). This gets rid of the Electoral College and allows each vote to mean something even if your candidate does not win.
    Allow the parties to select the Representatives based on the percentage of votes received (if one party had 14% of the vote then they select 14% of the House.) Allow the states to select their representatives in the Senate as they see fit (If the states want to throw away their representation then I see no easy way to stop them) this would restore the intended balance of the will of the people vs. the will of the government. Also and unlike our current system, it would allow a third party to have a strong voice in the form of the swing vote. The effect would be to centralize politics because radicalization of the parties like we have now would drive people to a third party. This would prevent things like the all or nothing budget battles we are seeing now.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • Greg

      Completely disagree with your terrible short sighted idea. The Electoral College is there to balance the weight of the population and to get the representation where it's supposed to be. A direct vote means people living in farm country will be stuck with representation from urban areas, at least in terms of political view point. We are NOT a democracy. Every single democracy has failed. We ARE a representative republic. Move to a democracy if you don't like it here. Oh, wait. 50% of your wealth gets seized by the IRS when you emigrate from the USA now.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  4. tdr

    Absolutely NOT. This isn't some Hollywood franchise that needs to be rebooted. This is the United States of America. One thing we can bring back is that old saying from the 1960's, "Love it or leave it!"

    June 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  5. Orlando Voter

    The constitution is meant to protect us from the rich taking over and people forcing their ideas and way of life on us if we choose not to live within a bubble. To protect us from taxation on things like roads and the Internet. It was meant to give us the freedom of speech and press and beliefs. It was meant to prevent people being slaves to the wealthy and to jobs. It was meant to set the stage for mankind to persue happiness and a better life among those who wish to control and mislead humanity which for in the most part, without those who want to rule and be wealthy, humanity is and has always been good, a creation of God or the universe, seeking and sharing, love, pain, and even suffering for the benefit of each other.
    JS

    June 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  6. Charles

    If I could make one change to the way our government is run, it would not necessarily be a change to the constitution. It would be to apply the constitution to our work place. First, I would repeal the evil Taft/Hartley. Then, I would fund as much of our adult education as possible into labor unions. Third, and this is the most important, I would create a new category of corporation, call it what you like, it would be modeled after the US Constitution.

    The Executive branch of the corporation would be the same as it is today. It would include the CEO and his officers and supervisors. The board of directors, the executive branch would change, dramatically.

    Their would be two boards-of-directors. The upper board, the current board, would remain the same, elected by the stockholders, one stock, one vote. To this would be added a second board-of-directors. Call it what you like.

    This board would be elected by the stock holders, one stock holder, one vote. The stockholder would have to be defined as the entity with voting rights. If a Mutual Fund purchased stocks on behalf of its members, and voted on their behalf, that is one entity, therefore, one vote. If a labor union purchased stock for each of its members, and distributed voting rights to those members by rule, each member would have one vote. As per our US Constitution, all budget votes and major expenditure and revenue votes would have to originate in this lower board-of-directors.

    If a corporation wanted to move its plant to a third world nation, it would submit its recommendation to the lower board of directors. Controlled by the labor unions, the plan would of course fail. A proposal to pay corporate fat cat CEO's bloated salaries and the little people little to nothing, would of course fail. With this important check and balance in place, the bloated salaries we currently see at the top would simply cease.

    The judiciary of this new corporation would be mediation panels set up by labor unions, corporate executives, and other special interest groups owning stock in the corporation.

    All that would be needed would be for a bill to be introduced and passed by our Congress and signed by our president, setting up this new corporation. This bill would also have to require that the federal government and all state and local governments receiving government funds give the strongest preference to these new governments when purchasing.

    Also, the government would encourage labor unions to set up apprenticeship programs. When workers became master craftsmen, the unions and the government would work with special interest groups to find individuals, corporate and special interest entities willing to buy stock in corporations these master craftsmen would create and create new companies to create more competition, lower prices and increase wages. This is the plan, how do we start?

    June 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      Charles dear fellow this is a discussion of the Constitution of the United States I think you are in the wrong place.
      By the way you should spell There as "there" not "their".

      June 20, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Reply
    • Sidney

      A separate constitution of the United States to regulate businesses: to protect people, the government, and the economy from businesses. Citizens are regulated by laws, while corporations enjoy less liability.
      Include Anti-lobying laws as so many in this post have mentioned. Upkeep trade laws, that many have been pushed aside in the past decade. Protect workers rights: let them have a say, instead of letting external shareholders dictate the company they work for. Prevent abusive corporate practices towards the American citizen. Protection from healthcare practices as some in this post have mentioned. Include already set laws to this constitution.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  7. dzz

    Great idea! Let's update the Constitution! First lets change the line "We the People" to "We the Corporations, Lobbyists, and Special Interest Groups."

    Hey, while were shredding it we might as well get rid of all those pesky Ammendments, especially the first 10. Maybe we can replace them with quotes from Jersey Shore or something.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  8. American Elephant

    Thank GOD the Constitution isn't Democratic! Real "Democracy" is mob rule. Whatever the majority says goes. Thank God we are a Representative REPUBLIC of independent states and unalienable rights that come from God, our Creator and NO Government can take away , that NO majority can take away, and can ONLY be taken away by a overwhelming super-majority of state legislatures and both houses of congress.

    Thanks GOD we are not the Venezuelan type democracy that you want us to be, where government decides what your rights are, where government decides what you can have and what you cant. Because that is mob rule, it TRAMPLES people's unalienable rights and it is EVIL.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Daniel

      REPUBLIC does not mean what you think it means, It just meant that system you have doesnt have a king or monarch. Germany is a republic but has proportional representation. Germany is also Federal it has an upper house called the bundesrat which represents states interest in fact the govenments the individual states are the representatives in this chamber. federalism is different than republic and still even federalism you can have 1 man 1 vote. in the bundesrat votes are apportioned by population get you're definitions right

      June 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Argle Bargle

      Hate to break it to ya, Jumbo, but your "God-give rights" are being taken away from you every day by your government which rules in secrecy and at the whim of the rich and big business.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      The new constitution should have a provision that only people of intelligence can vote. Belief in a bone idle old fart who created the universe from a puff of smoke 6000 years ago would automatically class you as BRAIN DEAD and therefore ineligible to vote

      June 20, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  9. Texas Andre

    Dear Mr. Zakaria,

    Thank you for another thought provoking article.

    Top three things I would add to the Constitution or add to a future constitution.
    1) A simple tax structure. As we see in Greece as well as in the U.S. many people are not paying their fair share.
    2) Corporate acountability. Corporations should always be allowed to make profits, but not at our expense.
    3) A revised judicial system. It is broken on many levels. State & Federal level.

    (on the ipad, so sorry for any spelling errors.)

    June 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Its interesting

      You thanked him for a thought provoking article.

      As you see by many of the simple minded answers..

      most people don't have many coherent, relevant thoughts..

      June 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  10. Michael yoo

    I think it's a great idea.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  11. keefah

    Let's make a new Constitution based on Twitter and Facebook comments. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!! Thanks Zakaria! You've saved me some valuable time - I won't waste my time ever reading anything you say again! That would be hilarious if it were a joke, but it's pretty scary that you weren't kidding!

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  12. GCV

    I think we need to look beyond the Constitution. It is 2011 now, not 1787. Our communication technology is vastly different to what it was in 1787. The Founding Fathers defined a democracy that worked within the limitations of the technologies of their day. Those limitations no longer apply. The government that they defined is simply not working in 2011. What part of the federal government is functioning worse that Congress? In my 32 years, I struggle to think of anything that Congress has accomplished that was effective. Congress is simply not solving the problems that a modern nation such as the US faces. We are all fools if we look at the failure of our government and, because of teachings back in high school, refuse to reconsider how a better approach might now work. We need to let go of blind ideologies for they are killing the US. We are a rational people after all. Aren't we?

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • William Meek

      GCV, I must disagree with your stated cause of the non-functioning of today’s government. I believe it is because of changes that where made (particularly the 17th amendment) that have caused the polarization that is at the heart of most of our problems. I do agree with you about the Electoral College though.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  13. scottrocks

    Are you out of your mind? The reason that it's so very difficult to amend the constitution is to protect the country from the extremes of politics. Opening the constitution to major revision would risk the moderation which the constitution forces on the politicians in their governance.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • GCV

      Moderation? The only moderation we have is gridlock in Congress.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  14. Daniel

    We just need two things right now:

    1. An amendment defining for-profit organizations as non-persons; and
    2. An amendment defining the giving of money and other assets as non-speech.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  15. Ron

    Given the fact that we have a constitution that has a system in place to amend itself there is no issue. We have made many changes by amendment over the years. To think that it would be wise to start over is foolish. It is always those that can't get their way that want to subvert the system.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  16. Ryan

    Term limits for senators and supreme court justices would be great ideas.

    As for a potential re-structuring of the economy – the public could have democratic representation in the investment process, instead of being held hostage to the whims of the minority with mass private savings (who have arguably 'earned' those fortunes by extorting their employees via taxation without representation on wages in companies')

    June 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  17. David

    Behind the Bible, the US Constitution is arguably the greatest document ever written. Amend as needed if we must, but the founders weren't interested in covering every consevable issue, they were interested in covering the fundemental, basic rights which we still enjoy today. No new document can conceive of our society 200 years from now any better than one that already exists.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      David,

      Oddly, you are exactly the reason I don't want to see a do-over of the constitution. Given our polarized politics, a constitutional convention 2.0 would undoubtedly degenerate into a clown show of special interest on the extremes of our society. Just imagine the constitutional war over abortion, or state sponsorship of religion, or the environment, or taxes. Our leaders of today simply dont have the wisdom and the ability to compromise like our leaders of old.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
      • Michael

        This was the first thing that entered my mind when I read the headline of this article. A constitutional convention would be comical and disastrous. Thinking we would go in to 'fix' just a couple of items like electoral confusions is naive.

        June 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  18. skarphace

    The biggest issue I see is 'winner-take-all' states. If I vote for one candidate I do not want my vote counting for the opposing candidate. I see no reason why this practice is considered constitutional. We need to abolish the outdated and misused electoral college alltogether and elect our President based purely on popular vote.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • I understand your frustration

      A popular only vote would lead to way more corruption in elections than those of smaller countries. There is a ton of money out there to buy votes, and it will flow like you wont believe.

      The system we have in place both gives a share of electoral power to the federal and state governments.

      This is what the founding fathers had in mind when they established it.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  19. J Lee

    The way a person reacts to any suggestions (or a call for suggestions) – irrespective of whether they lack intelligence or are great questions – speaks more about the person than the author here. A vitriolic diatribe, or brushing off any idea with absolute disdain speaks more about the one reacting rather the one originally posting. This is a country of free speech, right? so let people speak. And the constitution may be great, but anything can be improved. Whats the harm in thinking once? if you still dont like the idea, don't amend it. And no, Zakaria does not come from Pakistan (which by the way is a democracy , at least for now, and not a very stable one. He does come from India though, and that country is the biggest democracy out there with a fairly involved political process. It is undoubtedly more corrupt than the US. The question on equal representation per person or per state or both is a bit philosophical and is faced by his country of birth too. In a small country, specially a homogenous one, direct representation works best. In a large one, to avoid the rule of a faction or the predominant race or state, there is some indirect representation. The latter appears a lot more frustrating in a two party system though.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  20. Chieflaughingwagon

    Oh I'm pretty sure the first thing everyone would want to "revise" is our right to bear arms. Disarming Honest,law abiding Americans to pave the way for more lawlessness and power mad politicians would surely be a top priority. Morons.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • GCV

      I think that the morons are those that look around the world and can't see that the more violent societies (like our own) are those where the population are armed. We really need to get beyond the brainwashing that is done to our youth in high school civics class. The US is no longer that shining beacon of democracy that everyone strives to emulate. In fact, of the 30 nations in this world that are regarded as democracies, we only rate at a poor #17. We should be #1.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • Chieflaughingwagon

        It would be a lot worse if there werent armed citizens to defend this country and the weaker people who don't seem to cherish their lives enough to defend themselves against evil but would rather limit the power of those of us who do value human life and wish to protect it. The media has done quite well with their anti-gun campaign obviously.

        June 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  21. DJ

    Oh, surprise! He's Muslim!

    June 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  22. mbrittain

    The only way out of this is another civil war. It's going to come down to that anyway. Liberal and Conservative cant agree. A new constitution should only be fashioned by the victor of this 2nd civil war.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • GCV

      This second civil war has been underway for quite some time. By my recollection, it began with the ascension of Newt Gingrich and his goons in 1994. Ever since then, Congress has been a battleground. The first major battle was the battle to impeach Bill Clinton led by the hypocrite Newt himself. There have been countless skirmishes ever since. The electiion fiasco in 2000 only hieghtened the tensions between the two sides. The healthcare debate last year was probably the largest battle. It's surprising to me that the goings on in Congress haven't yet been recoganized as a war. Both sides are laying waste to this nation in their efforts to come out ahead. The damage done to the US over the past 16 years has been as large as any physical war could have ever afflicted.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  23. dc_phaeleh

    Fareed – Are you high? Rewrite the constitution? The very moment Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law was when this country went into the toilet. Why the US government handed over the money power to private bankers is beyond my wildest dreams. The Constitution has nothing do with the demise of the United States. It has to do with the muppets sitting on the Hill.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  24. austin

    I don't know where to start with this train wreck of an article. Clearly, Mr.Zakaria has no idea how our Senate is supposed to work. The states are supposed to be equal there, regardless of size to ensure small states don't get squeezed out of the process. Get ideas from Twitter and Facebook? I can't believe he actually put that into print.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  25. Paul

    Clearly Mr Zakaria does not understand the amendment process. There is already process to make changes to the Constitution. Perhaps he should go through the channels already there instead of going the easy route, and channeling a bunch of young adults at their computers who don't know anything about the government.I have read this guy for a while on different platforms. He is a hack who is not afraid to write articles with little to no studies or polling behind it with a catchy title.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  26. Pat

    The USA Constitution can be changed at ANY TIME. There's a well-defined process for it.
    If that process is not being invoked, it means we don't really want to change it.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  27. lawrence

    i would limit civil right groups like aclu . however the goverment could not exploit this law . the county needs less court fights over many religous reasons . we need to add to the constituoin we are a christian nation , but we also welcome all other religons but to the imigrants or visitors who end up living here we are a christian nation . thank you .

    June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • OP

      define christian nation for us.

      Sheesh, this post alone is the reason why I wouldn't trust any of our current leaders with rewriting a high school term paper let alone the consitiution.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • John

      You *do* realize the entire purpose of the ACLU (which it does superbly) is to protect and uphold the civil rights of Americans as guaranteed under the Constitution? Can't understand how this would be a bad thing . . .

      "Christian" nation? Uh, no. The majority of the Founding Fathers were most assuredly *not* Christian, and the best of them (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, et al) wrote convincingly of their opposition to the role of religion in the public arena.

      It's comments like these that make me terrified to open up the Constitution for revision :/ Who knows what cr*p would get in there from right-wing nut jobs?

      June 20, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  28. OP

    update the constitution?

    Most americans didn't even read the original. And if they did read the original, it was probably in some boring highschool class where the topic was taught in the most boring way possible.

    But if the constitution was ready for an update, I'd say abolish the SENATE. We have the technology to let people vote directly on laws created by the house of representatives. And if the laws were to revolutionary, the president could aways veto them. The house could override the veto with it's typical 2/3rds majority if absolutely needed.

    As it stands right now, the senate is the one mostly being paid off. It's the most corrupt branch of government with the supreme court being a close second. I forget who said it, but the senate was originally designed to "slow down" the people's will created in the house. IT was a way for the rich to stay rich. Guess what.... it's still performing it's originally design admirabley lol... to our detriment of course.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  29. Sailingwindward

    HELL NO, what sort of fool would let these Washington crooks rewrite the constitution, I'm sure they will only use the suggestions made by corporate & foreign lobbyists. " A fool and his freedom will soon part"

    June 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  30. Mike

    I can see it now. Instead of promoting new amendments as making the constitution more efficient and adapting it to the modern age, both parties will just run attack ads accusing the other of "ruining" it and trying to enslave the American people. And everyone will believe that. So no matter how perfect the amendments are, the public still would never give them a chance in hell of passing. Still, it is an interesting thought exercise.

    June 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
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