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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    Why don't you liberals just move to Iceland and help them make up a nation that's more to your liking. Clearly the constitution is always getting in the way of what you want, so just move to Iceland and help them create the liberal Nirvana you desire so much. Cradle to grave entitlements is what you want so go there and get them and leave our constitution alone. Since most of you nut-jobs don't seem to think that document is sacred, then go live where you won't have to live by it.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • W.D. Noble

      It's because of people like you that I fear any Constitutional modifications.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Trong Nguyen

      Iceland has ZERO illiteracy rate (which means YOU WIN on this count) and homelessness, uses green, geothermal energy to power the country, and yet can still see ways to improves themselves. Nice example, no? You are aware that our forefathers were also "nut-jobs" and neo-liberals at the time?

      June 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • DoesntKnowNothing

      Wade, Conservatives hate The Constitution more than Liberals. Voting rights for Women, Equal Rights for Minorities, and Freedom of Religion – these are all problems for Real Americans and Real Americans fought every step of the way to guarantee those protections – and you people still resent equality and freedom to be anything including UnChristian today.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Trong Nguyen

      Oh yeh, Iceland also had the FIRST WOMAN president... novel idea, huh?

      June 20, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  2. Trong Nguyen

    Because ANGER MANAGEMENT PROBLEMS is one of the great roots of conflict in the world, it makes perfect common sense that

    1) No government official shall be elected who has serious anger management issues

    We live in a "global world" (e.g. America does not constitute "everyone") that is shrunk by the proximity of the web community. We cannot honestly understand the true meaning of "global" without actually interacting with the rest of the world. Nevermind birthing issues, let's look at traveling issues... therefore

    2) No FEDERAL government officials will be hired who have not traveled and spent significant time in at least 10 foreign countries or have not done humanitarian service overseas (ie Peace Corps)

    Our laws are meant to protect the minority voice... In America, this refers predominantly to Atheists, gays and lesbians, etc. Instead of focusing on attaining equal rights for these groups, why not give them BETTER PRIVILEGES? For example, Atheists prioritize science over religion, so why shouldn't they receive the benefits of scientific technology over Christians – such as high speed internet, medical advances, and so on? Therefore,

    3) Create a brand new system of advanced healthcare and legal unions (call it anything but marriage) that actually gives these individuals and couples more privileges, rights, and protection than the existing system. (Why, you ask? Because when the haves and have nots reverse roles in this capacity, heterosexuals will be calling themselves homos in order to receive "equal rights." Will this lead to empathy for the "other"? It's a step that at least truly protects the underserved)

    June 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  3. W.D. Noble

    I'd say 'Yes; it's time', but with a healthy dose of fear and dread.

    The nation is as polarized as it's been since 1859. The ultraRight has sucked so much oxygen out of the political discourse as to shove it all to the right-hand side of your metaphorical radio-dial, where the likes of Rush Limbaugh and David Barton reside; the alternative is really a center-Right, occupied by Obama and the other pseudoProgressives.

    By example, Barton (the man who was one of the chief architects of the Texas schoolbook re-write) would love to get his hands on our founding document for real, not just for colorful misinterpretation. He'd cheerfully turn America into a theocracy where I (an atheist) and you, Mr. Zakaria, would likely be deported at worst or turned into second-class citizens at the very best.

    This is why I dread the prospect of revising the Constitution, as there are parts of the document which protect the rights of every minority in America.

    To engage in an Iceland-like process assumes (1) sanity among the populace, and (2) a lack of extremity.

    We have neither, nowadays.

    –W.D. Noble
    Portland, OR

    June 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  4. Justin

    If you get that twitter filth anywhere near the Constitution I'm headed to the nearest gun store...

    June 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Trong Nguyen

      Our government should just issue everyone a firearm (and train him/her how to use it properly) like they do in Switzerland, and then you wouldn't have to... Funny how everyone there is armed and yet they do not have the same violent crimes, etc...

      June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  5. Al Sanchez

    Less we forget–rewrite this "National Birth Right." No more anchor babies–that means from any illegal nationality that is coming here without permission!!!!

    Al Sanchez

    June 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Jeez

      Hi Al Sanchez,

      sounds like one of your ancestors was an anchor baby once... Mr Glasshouse, meet Mr Stone.


      June 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  6. Nice Try

    Mr. Zakaria, your are one of the most thoughtful commentators around, so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt on this rare example of a bad idea poorly presented. Slow news day, right?

    Others have said essentially said it, but (1) The US is not Iceland; the latter is a small country with a small population that can be governed effectively as a single political unit; the US is a vast federal republic of great geographic diversity with a large population of great cultural diversity and powerful dynamism; (2) the US Constitution may not be perfect, but it has provided concrete stability for the most spectacularly successful exercise in indirect democracy in world history; one should tamper with success rarely, if at all; (3) there is, as you pointed out, an existing mechanism for amending the Constitution, which has already been used 17 times (the first 10 amendments were done as a package deal); (4) there is no way on God's Green Earth that a modern exercise in Constitution writing would be measured or limited in the way you suggest, as a perusal of commentary to your article amply demonstrates!

    June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • mike

      Yes we should.
      Amendment #1...
      No more Muslims on CNN.
      It is looking like aljazeera

      June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
      • chickenman13

        Do my eyes deceive me, or is this really incredibly racist?

        June 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  7. Brad

    How about deleting the second amendment?

    "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

    Well-regulated militias are no longer necessary. They have been replaced by the National Guard and hundreds of police agencies.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • israel

      good luck with that one, you might as well ask the NRA to leave the country

      June 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • Rob

      your appalling lack of understanding regarding the 2nd Amendment is exactly why our forefathers did NOT want a true democracy (ie, mob rule) – because it's possible that people like you could come into power.

      Please read the entire 2nd Amendment, along with its history, and this time, try to understand it. The rights of the PEOPLE to bear arms shall not be infringed. We, the people, individuals. We all have that right, so that in the event of a corrupt Gov, we can revolt.

      I know, you don't think that would happen – I'm sure the ppl in Libya, Syria, etc didn't think it would happen either. And I'm sure they're all wishing they had that same right (2nd Amendment) guaranteed to them right about now.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Reply
  8. Robert Freund

    In my mind there are at least 2 major changes that need to be made to move ahead into the next century.
    1. Riase the requirement for state hood to 30 million and consolidate the states into manageable an less costly entities , including a maximum of 4 sides to any congressional district.
    2. While campaign contribution are "freedom of speech" we need a way to disallow members of congress from voting on issue that they have taken money for.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Brad

      Wouldn't that make only California and possibly New York 'States?'

      June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  9. israel

    when you have groups like the westboro baptist church and the kkk and neo nazis running around making a mockery of our consitution you KNOW it needs to be updated, these people operate based on hatred with impunity because the document is too broad and too broadly applied to us via the supreme court, the fact that a group can protest at funerals is disgusting by itself let alone that they take the oppertunity to spread a hateful message along with it, what's even more pathetic is grieving families who have been harmed by people like this end up have to pay $$$ to them in court because the bill of rights allows their hate speech, except the first amendement was written almost 300 years ago when our founding fathers had no clue or idea that people like this would ever exist in our world....the consitution needs updating, not a major upheavel, just more clarification to allow itself to be much better inerpreted, for example

    "free speech shall not apply to those who attempt to use this right to cause or promote a message of hatred for any one people or groups of people"

    our constitution most definately needs to be updated for the modern age because it was written in a not so modern age

    June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Juan Gargrassse

      WHAT OUR FOUNDING FATHERS NEVER KNEW WE WOULD HAVE CHARACTERS LIKE THESE IDIOTS IN OUR WORLD?? Our founding fathers knew we had BABOONS that exist in this world and whats the difference between them and you and all these other idiots? Who cares just shut up and sit down or go back to work for your boss, or you dont get any money, and If you dont like it then the competition will gladly take over your position in society, LOSER

      June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Rob

      "While I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it."

      That's the funny thing about the FREEDOM of speech – not everyone is going to agree with what everyone else says. Amazing to have that freedom, isn't it?

      June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  10. jim

    NO !!! get rid of career politicians who are turning USA into Communist police state. remember movie series AMERIKIA?

    June 20, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  11. Juan Gargrassse


    June 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  12. Evan

    How about more and clearer powers to the states and local governmnet so we have better representation? (and this is coming from a liberal)
    How about proportional representation for the house?
    How about only allowing one month of campaigning before an election to limit the amount of money needed to be raised form special interests?

    June 20, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • israel

      the states have proportional representation in the house, based on the population of the state at a given time (i think it's .01% or something along those lines) most of the state populations don't change drastically enough to change the amount of reps they have in the house

      June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
      • Evan

        We have direct representation which is why we have only 2 parties (each race comes down to only 2 candidates) in Europe they have Proportional representation which allows for multiple parties. This small change would greatly help the quality of representation because rather than your state having a couple of Democrats and a couple of republican reps that dont talk to each other your state would have a green party, a libertarian, a religious conservative, a socialist that would be forced to work together because no one party would ever have a majority.

        June 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  13. mike

    Sorry Fareed... You are the biggest idiot I have ever met. A socialist at heart, you have never had a "real job". Did you "consult" with Obama on this one too? Did you have breakfast with your buddy Soros? Sad, really sad, that CNN would keep you on the payroll.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • Joe from Ohio

      hey mike, just to let you know, glenn beck has been cancelled, so the crazy "george soros is satan" nonsense probably won't hold up anymore

      June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  14. Kevin B

    The problem is not with the Constitution. It's with people looking for ways around it.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  15. Joe from Ohio

    Hell yes its time! I'm tired of these backwards looking "patriots" wearing their colonial hats and constantly quoting the Constitution as if its the word of God. As good as the Constitution is, don't forget it was written by men, just men, who believed that women shouldn't vote and black people were meant to be slaves.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  16. Howard

    It matters little if the Country is a republic, a democracy, how brilliant our Founders were, or what any one person now thinks is the right way to run the Country. What is important is having an open, rational discussion about whether the current system of the US government is up to date and working as well as it should, and if it isn't, what will be required to fix it. If Constitutional revisions or a complete rewrite are necessary for the betterment of the Country, then so be it. If Americans are too small minded, too afraid, or too uninterested to undertake this task, then maybe you deserve what you get.

    I'm an American, but I've recently chosen to live in another country because I cannot believe or put up with the mindset of some of the so-called patriots with big mouths who want to send America back to the dark ages. The United States must move forward in a reasonable, rational way or the dream will eventually die. There is competition from other countries out there folks! All the petty bickering I see here and everywhere else is setting the tone for an earlier National demise. You need to get over it and get on with the real work of political participation, negotiation, and compromise until consensus can be achieved. There is a lot of work to do.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  17. GreenBean

    1. Abolition of the Electoral College
    2. Abolition of Campaign Fundraising – equal amount of public monies given to each candidate; no more
    3. Abolition of the Fed and IRS

    June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  18. Jimmy Lewis

    Incorporate Some Basic Revolutionary Tenets:

    1- Lawyers are banned from existence.
    2- Politicians and political parties are banned from existence, government leaders are chosen based on academic credentials, test scores, and where they hail from. In cases where many candidates exist, a lottery system is used to chose. They serve for 3 years, at the end of the three, they may be re-elected for 5 more years by 52% of their constituents voting for them, but they may not campaign.
    3- Prisons are restricted for violent crimes. Floggings, fines, forced destitution, public humiliation, and community service are acceptable punishments for all else.
    4- The drug war is over, and not to be refought. After 100 years of failed attempts, we acknowledge that we cannot change humanity, it can be regulated, and taxed, but not criminalized. Taxes are used purely for public education and rehab.
    5- Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, Kim Kardashian, and all of the Palins are to be banned from the media, and public appearrances, or they must forfeit their citizenship and move to Paraguay (whom we must pay to take them off our hands).
    6- All college tuition rates must scale back to a maximum of $6000 per annum.
    7- The defense budget must always be less than the education budget.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  19. levi

    the constitution is great it is the corrupt rotten government that doesn't follow the constitution that needs to get thrown out the window along with its zexual pervert judges!!

    June 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • Frank

      What an idiot.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  20. Frank

    A thoughtful and provocative column like this deserves better responses than it is getting here. The Electoral College and the Senate are, indeed, undemocratic. But perhaps the biggest problem we face is the system of single-member district, plurality voting that we use. It prevents the development of viable third and fourth parties, resulting in two amorphous and irresponsible coalition parties that cannot be challenged effectively. If we could adopt proportional representation in the House, many of the other problems could be addressed more successfully.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  21. MBradley

    Fareed – You know very little about the Constitution, it's underpinnings and what the founders meant when they wrote it.

    Go away; you're irrelevant.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  22. carlos

    Wow.. I can see that it is becoming appparent very quickly that -probaly 90% of the folks "sounding off" do not even have a beginners knowledge of history, civics or our great constitution. There is NO way I would support having the common ignorance rule.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  23. George

    If you don't like the constitution get the fuck out. The only change we need is the return of slavery

    June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  24. GrandmeWI

    We got through the great depression with the one we have. That's good enough for me.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Frank

      You don't seem to remember the court packing incident with FDR. The Constitution almost prevented us from getting through the depression.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  25. John B

    This article is a joke. Frankly, I believe opening up social media outlets as a platform for suggestions on how to frame a nation is insane! Now I cannot speak for Iceland, but America has become a nation of historical illiterates; completely devoid of even the most remote semblance of understanding with regard to the contents of of our constitution. I was recently hosting an medical intern (not an uneducated person mind you) and she could not name the current Vice President of the United States. Yet she lived on Facebook when she was not working, so I have to assume she would put her two cents in, should she be allowed to make recommendations for a new constitution. I find that scary! I don't want the uninformed masses making recommendations for how my country should be framed. Allowing them to vote is bad enough. In fact if any changes are made, I think we allow only tax-paying citizens to vote. Move to Iceland if this idea appeals to you, but the masses in this nation cannot be trusted simply because they lack the basic knowledge of how our way of life was created and how it will be sustained.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  26. anonymous

    The US Constitution doesn't seem to work for people who are not from the US, or grew up in a third world culture, and don't really understand the concepts enshrined in one of the greatest documents ever written by humans. Hence people like Zakariah they always seem to want to fix it for us. No thanks. If you don't like it, you're welcome to go off somewhere and build a country that suits your needs.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  27. sxott

    Your half black leader is going to loose epic style. Thank GOD for the bad economy. Try and change the constitution and you will have a war on your hands. Lots of us with no leader ready to fight.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  28. Harold

    If you didn't understand why it’s important that you are educated, functionally literate and a voter read these posts.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  29. mike

    Yes we should.
    Amendment #1...
    No more Muslims on CNN.
    It is looking like aljazeera

    June 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  30. Ron Cole

    Absolutely. The Constitution has always had too many flaws. The 3 people who essentially wrote it, Adams, Franklin and Jefferson all directly and indirectly acknowledged that in their time.

    My 3 Changes:

    1). Under no circumstances may an individual sign away his or her consitutional rights and guarantees. Any document drafted that does attempts such action, will be considered invalid on all legal levels from Federal to State to City, even military, etc.

    2). Only individual Americans and no other can lobby government. This includes groups of any sorts, companies, corporations, governments and the like. Only a single individual Americans can be considered an individual legally able to lobby governmkent. Governments, corporations, groups, etc. cannot lobby any form of government operating in the U.S. Or publically funded, administrated, staffed or influenced entity operating in any way as a government, or that could, or has the potential to influence any form of U.S. goernment in any way. All lobbying of any form of a U.S. government can only be done by an individual and must be done openly and in a public forum. This includes issues of national defense and security. Any legislation passed by government can be over ruled by public vote. Public vote can be called at anytime provided at least 1/2 of the registered voting population registers for a public vote. Over ruling legislation can only be done with a 2/3rds majority vote. Public vote superceeds the Supreme Court and any decision that institution may hand down. (Essentially total public control, not institutional control). The public may also remove any member of Congress or the House via the same public voting forum at any time.

    3). Campaign finance reform. Only individual humans can donate to campaigns. Only 1 dollar may be donated to any one campaign. Public broadcasting will be funded by government so that government may allow equal air time to anyone that seeks election. A life sentence in prison is automatically assign to anyone violating this principle if found guilty.

    Those are the 3 I would begin with. Wish we could suggest more.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
    • ChristianC

      Muammar Gaddafi is looking for a second in command. Perhaps you could apply?

      June 20, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
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