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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    war will happen

    June 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  2. Marcus

    This article is one word...

    SCARY.

    RON PAUL 2012!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  3. Name*Ile

    We are here by luck and chance. We have no right to update the constitution . We either accept it or leave this country

    June 20, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  4. Allison

    Mr. Zakaria is a biased liberal – he states that "conservatism has lost touch with reality", when it is the liberal, socialist agenda espoused by the left that thinks (despite all historical evidence) they can spend their way to prosperity.
    Mr. Zakaria – your lack of knowledge is truly unnerving. With only the popular vote, a candidate would campaign in LA, New York, Chicago and Houston – and tell the rest of the country to go away and do what they are told. As one prior poster noted, we are not, and never have been a direct democracy – the United States of America is a republic. The premise of the differing levels of representation and length of term between the House and Senate was to provide balance – the House would be the more populist voice, and the Senate would hold the longer view and provide balance.
    The Electoral College is necessary to maintain a balance between the states, because we are the United STATES.
    Finally – I swore an oath to "Support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same." Your argument is the same short-sighted cry raised by liberals when they can't get away with all the foolish ideas (ACORN anyone?) they they conceive in a continuing effort to hold power.
    Mr. Zakaria – if you truly think the Constitution of the United States is unfair, please leave. We will not stand in your way.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  5. Kent

    No The time to revise the Constitution isnt now or ever! It is However time to up hold and live bye it! Polititions today have no respect for the Constitution! Example: The call bye polititions for stiffer gun control laws! This was the past week, due to U.S. firearms showing up in the hands of Mexican Cartels! Hey Morons, isnt imagration the issue? Seal our borders . Why do we pay billons for Imagration depts. that fail to do there job!
    We are also inoccent untill proven guilty? How so? Get pulled over after a couple drinks and and fail to submit to a Breath Alyzer! I understand driving while intoxicated is wrong! But automatically, suspending a license prior to conviction is NOT Constitutional!. I could go on and on, All I can say is,it is pitifull! For the record I have a perfect driving record, a so does my wife! People need to speak up/ ! Why even bother with a Constitution that is totaly ignored? Our For Fathers are Ashamed!
    God Bless America!

    June 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  6. Jason

    No, we don't need to change the constitution. It was written in principle-form. In other words, they were written in a way that would allow the citizens to make their own sound decisions. Principles are only guidelines that is proven to raise the quality of life. THEY ARE NOT LAWS. Unfortunately, we are a country full of "Jaywalking All-Stars". In conclusion, we need to upgrade America's resolve in returning to the free AND RESPONSIBLE society it used to be. It seems that our version of freedom can be compared to giving a 7 yr old 100 bucks and sending him to the candy store by himself. We cry freedom but we have no sense of discretion nor accountability.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  7. JWACE

    My 3 amendments would be:
    1. Abolish the electoral collage and make the president and vice president direct election based on total popular vote. (the electoral collage is nothing but a formality and a waste of taxpayer dollars today)

    2. Modify the second amendment to exclude concealable firearms and assault weapons. (you want to shoot assault rifles? Join the army)

    3. Limit Senators to 2 total terms, and limit House representatives to 5 terms.

    I totally love how everyone keeps saying "we shouldn't touch the constitution"...you are making the author right when he says its taboo to talk about it. Republicans sure love to say "American's don't want that....thats not what America is about" when its convenient...yet they are scared to let American's discuss how to better the constitution. The founding fathers built in the ability to change it for a reason...that it would need to be updated.

    And I actually visited Iceland...the attitude there is that its the governments responsibility to keep order (police), defend from invasion (army), and to keep its citizens healthy. (universal health care)

    Its something that at least deserves a discussion...not to be immediately rejected and spit upon. After all, discussion is what adults do.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  8. Any losses of space exploration is the death of humanity

    The easiest way to revise the Constitution would be every time an election is held three laws are removed from the books. When everybody can understand the law and not just the lawyers a.k.a. Senators, House of Representatives, Supreme Justices and all the other lawyers that are serving in political offices. It is called getting back to the basics. We all know what is right and what is wrong. There is no need to complicated past and present law. If a law is old and time has passed so that the law is no longer valid, then it needs to be removed from the books. Eventually you have laws that are current and up-to-date and in the process update the Constitution automatically.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  9. Philip

    Mr. Zakaria's point is well taken. The Constitution was the excellent, pragmatic product of a time whose historical conditions are not our own. While there may be enduring core principles that are worth preserving, there are also compromises that are simply no longer applicable, e.g. the 3/5ths compromise for the slave vote - yes, the Constitution has been changed - and omissions which no writer of that period could have foreseen.

    I can think of two proposals to take into account modern developments, one my own and another recommended by a friend.

    1. That Congress shall make no law which applies to its members but not to the citizens of the republic, for example, special health care or pensions funds. This seems entirely in the spirit of the original document.

    2. A more concrete definition of the legal status and rights of the corporation. I believe the Supreme Court has ruled that the Bill of Rights equally applies to the individual as it does to the corporation, but this seems ridiculous to me. A corporation is not a person. I personally believe a corporation should not enjoy the same rights as the individual but should rather be bound to a more limited set of rights. Why not have a national debate about this?

    Reforms here would have far reaching consequences and address some of the recent thorny issues regarding campaign finance, lobbying and other corporate political activities which currently, and erroneously, fall under the first amendment.

    And could you imagine the conversation! If only we could keep it civil, what greater exercise in Democracy is there than an educated, respectful national dialogue on our founding principles and their ongoing relevancy in contemporary America.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  10. Jim J

    Many of us feel that we no longer have government "of the people, by the people, for the people", but instead are governed by a plutocracy of wealthy interests. I believe that this situation is the result, in part, of institutional corruption in government–especially the Congress.

    So I think the greatest weakness in our Constitution is the provision in Article I, Section 5, "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings." The result in Congress is a system of powerful committee memberships and chairmanships, seniority, secrecy and other perquisites that appears to violate Article I, Section 3 "each Senator shall have one Vote." I believe that the intent of this provision is to ensure an equal distribution of legislative power among Senators. [Curiously, there is no similar "each Representative shall have one Vote" in Section 2.] In the Senate today, there is certainly not an equal distribution of power among Senators. In fact the rules the Senate has established for its proceedings seem intended to guarantee that there will be no equal distribution of power among Senators.

    Congress has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to reform itself, unsurprisingly. I would favor an Amendment that abolishes the opaque and corrupt way Congress currently does business–by eliminating seniority, by appointing committee memberships and chairmanships either by lot or in rotation, and by abolishing secrecy in proceedings pertaining to domestic policy.

    I would also favor an Amendment which establishes term limits for legislators, say 3 terms each for Representatives and Senators. I would also limit terms for members of the Supreme Court to, say, 20 years.

    Lastly, I would favor an Amendment designed to reduce the influence of campaign contributors in two ways: 1) requiring complete transparency in reporting contributions, prohibiting corporate contributions, and 2) limiting the total amount of contributions per candidate per election. This latter should be possible were candidates to rely more on Internet campaigning rather than use of expensive traditional media.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  11. Carroll

    At the moment I can't think of something but I think something needs to be updated too the 21st century thow. And we have many more people that have voices. We don't have a committy to over see these changes are correct and thought out. Also I think some should just be as it is and deal with it.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  12. Norm

    Given the comments on this thread the LAST thing we need is to re write the Constiution with "public input". The general American public is, and always has been, a generally ignorant bunch.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      mostly why we drafted a document that can be understood by any idiot

      June 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  13. gab

    New Immigration Amendment to the Constitution of the USA:
    We are the Nation of Immigrants.
    There for every person at least 18 years old, who wants to stay and work in USA is eligible to get a work permit for three years after passing a background check.
    After three years he/she has to return to his/hers native country or can become eligible for a Green Card after fulfilling all of the following conditions:
    – Pass the new background check
    – Prove that he/she worked in USA at least two and half years
    – Prove, that he/she paid taxes for all three years
    – Pass TEOFL test
    Amendment to the New Immigration Amendment to the Constitution of the USA:
    People currently residing in USA out of status (illegally) has to immediately return to their native country or pay a $1,000.- fine and then they can take advantage of the New Immigration Amendment to the Constitution of the USA.
    To avoid paying $1,000.- fine – new immigrant may show his/hers patriotisms by buying a house and help the USA with housing problem.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      A "nation of immigrants" is not a nation, it's an open invitation to invasion, it's giving away your country to foreigners.
      America is not a "nation of immigrants" we are a nation of CONQUERERS and BUILDERS.

      Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

      The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

      Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

      What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

      How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

      And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

      But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

      They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

      Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  14. nick

    a mechanism for amendment exists. Circumvent it at our own risk. Those who understand the risks and chose to continue seek only the demise of the Nation.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  15. LT

    I actually like the ideas iceland has: Proper health care system. I've lived here 20 years became a citizen and thats the only thing that really needs changing right now. Nobody should go bankrupt because of insurance company /hospital/ Doctor /corporate greed . Most Americans are under the illusion that we have great health care. Not so- most of the industrialized worlds is much better. I know that because I lived there for thirty years.
    Its a scam that needs sorting out. Otherwise we will all be sick and broke! Put that in the new constitution I say.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
    • Marcus

      So... stay in Iceland. As for healthcare... get rid of HMOs which create this ungodly high medical cost average. Pay out of pocket for routine visits would cost $30 and health coverage is only used when needs for surgeries and emergency situation. Start healthcare saving accounts (HSA).... this is the only way we can make it work.

      We need to rid this country of the unfair entitlement programs, get our a**es out of the 3 wars we are in, and consider redoing our fake currency, the almighty dollar. Inflation will soon be too crazy, our Fed Reserve is giving money to banks like it is crazy. This will eventually have a washdown effect to the REST of the population after the wealth benefit.

      This economic downturn isn't even close to stopping. America has gone BEYOND the Constitution... and that is why we will be in the situation we will be in.

      June 20, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  16. Marco

    We should scrap the electoral college, make it illegal to tax wealthy states like those in New England for the sake of backward states like Alabama and Kentucky, allow states to easily secede from the Union, create an amendment that clearly establishes the separation of church and state and make it treason to challenge it, create real representation in the senate so tiny states couldn't hold the pursestrings of bigger states hostage, scrap the 2nd amendment which is irrelevant today and dangerous to boot, allow the people of Samoa, Puerto Rico, and our other territories to vote for independence, and finally to get rid of lobbying by special interest groups, private corporations and unions. We need to clearly define that corporations are not citizens, that they should not be allotted the same rights as citizens, and that they cannot interfere with government acting as environmental and safety watchdogs.

    The US Constitution was by far the most advanced set of laws compiled in its day. But that was 1780, and now it's 2011. It's not holy writ, it's a document written by very intelligent people that had absolutely no way of foreseeing what the future would bring and how badly it would be misused. We need a Constitution that guarantees the well-being of the citizenry, first and foremost.

    All of you bigots criticizing Fareed Zakaria have animal IQs and couldn't lick his shoes intellectually. Go read a book other then the 2 or 3 passages from the Bible and Mein Kampf that you feel justify your existence.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  17. Krehator

    Uh people......... The Constitution has already by rewritten in the way it is openly interpreted into something totally different than what was originally envisioned. We would simply be updating it to nail down the issues that are swinging in the political wind. There is too much room for interpretation, and modern times have made many right completely obsolete.

    If you keep the Constitution the way it is it will become completely useless to the people! It will surely continue to be a mess that serves the rich and powerful. Their lawyers will make sure of that! Every right you THINK YOU HAVE won't be worth the paper its written on!

    June 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  18. EdR

    Other than a couple of dick heads in the crowd, these comments are actually very insightful, thoughtful, and well written. A breath of fresh air from the typical partisan BS that presented here. Thank you all.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  19. anonymous

    My Zakariah trust-o-meter just took a nose dive to some unfathomable negative number on the dark side of the black hole that is ANTI-AMERICAN.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  20. Spam Eater

    H-E-L-L N-O. This has to be the absolute dumbest article I have ever read on CNN and that is really saying something. Don't worry, the nation will get a fresh start in January, 2013. It just won't happen to be the kind of fresh start the anti-American sociaist Democrats like the author of this article are hoping for.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
    • Krehator

      Huh? I'm sorry Mr. political party thug but you may wish to enlighten us when either of the two parties have fixed anything?

      When it God's name did the illustrious GOP help me out and change America for the best, and for all of us?

      I don't see it, and frankly, I don't think many other people see it either. The yo-yo blame game is getting old. The "experts" have been in control and led us downhill.

      June 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  21. Majav

    Comparing Iceland's homogeneous and enlightened population of 300,000 with America's diverse and often reactive and backward population of 300 million is pretty naive. I would be comfortable living in Iceland without any constitution at all but I wouldn't step foot in America without the protection of its constitution. Many Americans are gun-totting religious nut jobs and at least the rule of law is on my side. Normal every day Americans need protection from fringe elements be it racists, skinheads, neo-Nazis, or mercenary corporations like Walmart. Of course the constitution could be immensely improved but I would rather keep it as is than let nut jobs tinker with it for their own off the wall agendas.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  22. Robin

    President Gore might've spared us a decade of wars + financial crises. We'll never know.
    Its important to imagine that we could get a freer + more fair election process, incorruptible by politicians, republicans + their corporate masters, supreme court justices, et al. So, here's my top 3.
    1) popular vote for all states + territories.
    2) outlaw corporate personhood.
    3) strengthen the separation of church + state, top to bottom, for the common good of all citizens inclusively + exclusively.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  23. hellsno!

    You're a idiot for writing this stupid carp and implying our constitution needs to be revised because some random country is doing so. Our constitution is. Timeless document. It does not need revised It IS OUR COUNTRY. And is to be protected from all enemies foreign and domestic. We can amend it as needed. You're a moron for writing this.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  24. Lizzy10

    The Constitution has a way to be changed, it's called an amendment. You don't need to throw out what works, you need to have amendments to breath new life into it. The Constitution wasn't meant to be a static document, that's why the framers gave us the right to amend it.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  25. Helmich Visscher

    To my humble opinion the weakness in the system of representation in the USA is, that a group/party representing 10% of all voters does not get a single Representative in the House. The group or party is unlikely to win a single district. Certainly, that is not proportional representation. Representation is done by voting district and resuts in one representative of each district. Yes, it is evenly distributed by area's.
    A party/group of such size should have 10% of the seats in the House. It would make a totally different political system.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  26. Todd

    I usually like your reporting. Quite a lot as a matter of fact. But, in this instance not so much. I read none of the 1500 comments, but still feel compelled to argue a couple items. First, the Senate is a representation of the member States versus the House being more representative of the population. Most Americans do not want New York and California running things. I.e., It was done right the first time to balance population with a guaratee of some member autonomy. Second, the Constitution cleary spells out a government of 3 branches with checks and balances so your judiciary argument is far less than uncompelling when compared to Justive Marshall's decision in Marbury vs. Madison. Finally, the document you propose undoing has led this Country and frankly been the inspiration of the free world for numerous decades. You are trying to stand on the shoulders of giants, be careful you don't slip.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  27. Chris

    You can't get republicans and democrats to come to an agreement on how to cross the street properly and you think they can accomplish something like this? Dream on! 🙂

    June 20, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  28. Timmay

    I like our Constitution just the way it is. If you don't, feel free to go somewhere where they have a "more modern" constitution.

    By all means, go ahead and propose your changes. Good luck getting it approved and ratified. Most of us are happy the way it is.

    kthxbai

    June 20, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  29. Epimetheus

    I am not quite sure why anyone would pay any attention to what Zakaria writes, says or believes; especially in regards to our Constitution. A quarter of a century of living in this country hardly begins to legitimize his pipe dreams. His opinions on this country are about as salient and valid as the Pope's opinions on ahcieving the best orgasms. He is an unbelievable bag of chutzpah and hubris. I would love to buy him for what he's worth, and selll him for what he thinks he's worth. I suspect that when he gets through saving America, that he will be off peddling new clothes to emperors.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  30. History Lover

    As tempting as this seems, we cannot simply throw away our Constitution.

    While there would be benefits to doing so, such as revamping civil service reform and changing the dominion of the private and public sectors, there is one major issue.

    That issue is the electoral college. Upon hearing those words, the 2000 general election pops into everyone's minds and
    brings up the controversy etc.

    But the electoral college, while being indirect, is not necessarily undemocratic. It actually promotes democracy because it balances out the popular vote; if only popular vote was
    allowed and used, a highly unfair advantage would swing to voters of populous states, thereby leaving the Midwest, Rockies, and less populated states, notably more agricultural and less industrious, in the dust.

    By doing away with the electoral college presidential candidates would only campaign in populous states, rendering the lesser populated states useless and unnecessary. That doesn't sound very democratic to me.

    Furthermore, the Senate was designed to counterbalance the House of Representatives. For example, Texas has a far greater population than Rhode Island, thereby earning it a larger voice in the government. But imagine if the Senate was taken out of the new Constitution.
    It would be detrimental to our government. States like Texas and California with huge populations would dominate the political landscape, again, rendering the lesser populated states powerless.

    The Virginia and New Jersey Plans were iniciated by our Founding Fathers so that the smaller states would have a voice in the govetnment which was proportionate to population while also equal in representation respectively; the Virginia Plan became the House, the New Jersey Plan the Senate.

    Without the Senate or the electoral college, less populous states would get the short end of the stick, and generally, that would also mean that one political party would dominate because Republicans dominate rural, agricultural areas, while Democrats dominate major urban areas, the areas that would have the most voting power.

    So as far as I'm concerned, the Constitution may not be perfect, but it promotes equality, liberty, and democracy.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Reply
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