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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    It is rare that I can be so disappointed by your ilk, but I expected more of you personally. 1. You have been here long enough to understand why the US is a federal republic and why it conducts its national elections by means of the electoral college: the system works. Common sense dictates that an individual state's ability to influence a national election should be limited. Imagine the moral hazard posed by asking a state to report the popular vote. Imagine the same entrusted to a cental government. 2. You have a problem understanding scale. For example, when naming a European state, you may want to pay them the compiment of comparing them to Texas, or Florida. However, when positing an argument for the re-examination (with an eye towards change) of the US Constitution, you may want to refrain from even mentioning Iceland, describing the whims of a population having the size of, and fewer problems than, (with all due respect) metropolitan El Paso. 3. Those that answered "China" are not smarter, they are better informed, noting that the question itself was in error when not naming their adversaries as the United Nations.

    June 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  2. Tom Gregory

    Lobbying by corporations is probably a threat to the electoral process. And, lobbyist funding of Senators and Congress is a proven approach to winning elections. Where does lobbying end and bribery begin? One solution is to let voters have a direct vote on legislation. Then the corporate (and other) lobbying would be in the open for all of us to see, and recognized as propaganda or just information (that can be fact checked).

    June 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  3. Tom Gregory

    Direct voting (democracy) on legislation has been opposed for a number of reasons:
    1. Many of the US Constitution founders were opposed (Madison, Adams).
    2. A public vote on close elections/legislation was too slow in the old days (no internet).
    3. Fear that the public would be a “tyranny of the majority” (and undo property law and minority rights).
    4. Fear that the public would vote themselves “largesse”.
    5. Fear that an uniformed/ignorant public would make bad laws
    6. The “direct vote democracy” only works in small “town hall” type places.

    Reason 3 fails to give enough credit to the Constitutional amendment process, which currently requires more than a simple majority. The Constitution with a good Bill of Rights and a separate Judiciary could protect the minority.

    Reason 4 turns out to be true in a republic (representative government) as well. We have given our debt to our children and grandchildren.

    Reason 5 has never been proven as far as I know. Although, all the childish and bigoted comments here gives one pause.

    Reason 6 is not true. California (and others) have used “initiatives” to pass laws. Clearly they have to be well written or they fail as unconstitutional in the courts.

    So, lets consider the direct vote. Search these comments using the Ctrl f keys and search term: SR , (SR with a space at the end) to see a hybrid republic and democratic election process and how to get one.

    June 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • KIRK

      you reason to question the founders doubts are flawed sir
      you said reason 5 never proven look at the german democracy you are wrong a democracy voted in hitler
      all democracies in history became an Oligarchy im not kidding in saying i woudl violently oppose this as would millions of americans you would start a violent civil strife
      you would destroy the union wit h this one thing it has been proven in history and would happen again read the remarks of the founders on democray again i seethat you have skimmned it but acces the library of congress and read for yourself
      we are a constitutional republic for a reason and millions would by violence strike down that idiotic idea
      the falicy is that democray grants rights NO it does not it like two wolves and a sheep voting on whats for dinner it not fair for the sheep mabye you can understand in that simple form
      by force of arms NEVER we are a consttitutional republic even the strates are republics by law FOR A REASON

      June 25, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
      • Tom Gregory

        The German Weimar Republic was a parliament (with repreesentatives and therefore a republic). Hiltler took illegal control of Germany with the Nazi Party, which did not have a majority (but controled propaganda). Reference: Wikipedia

        June 30, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • KIRK

      lol stupid idea as we infact already have dthe poeples house and its what has the restrictions on it IE the senate and the predesident and the supreame court and you want to take those restrictions off

      June 25, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Reply
      • Tom Gregory

        The House Representatives are selected first by parties and geography (districts), then we finally get to vote on that minimal selection (in reality just 1 of the 2 parties). Those parties and the House Representatives are mainly interested in getting relected and will go with whoever has the propaganda/cash to support them in that effort. That will now be the corporations, who now have unlimited propoganda capability as a result of the Supreme Court decision on campaign financing.

        June 30, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  4. KIRK

    Our fathers no more trusted in the people always to do the right thing than they trusted in kings. In the republic they created, the House of Representatives, the people's house, was severely restricted in its powers by a Bill of Rights and checked by a Senate whose members were to be chosen by the states, by a president with veto power, and by a Supreme Court.

    "What kind of government do we have?" the lady asked Benjamin Franklin, as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention.

    Said Franklin, "A republic – if you can keep it."

    June 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  5. Charles

    Yes, I think there should be some changes. Fundamentally, the document is strong, but it does not mean that improvements can not be made. I think that there should be guidelines regarding the content of riders on bills. Many states have rules that force riders to be substantive and related to the content of the bill versus random special interest riders that get passed along with a bill or are used to stop a bill from being passed. Riders invite even more political games that degrade the efficiency of the legislature.

    June 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  6. WhereInTheConstitution.com

    What Zakaria doesn’t understand is that the process of changing the Constitution was made purposefully arduous and difficult in order to prevent changing it in response to the whims of mob rule or public opinion. Modernizing the Constitution is not necessary; forcing the Federal Government to act within the confines of the Constitution is. So before we ask Facebook and Twitter users to crowdsource a new Constitution, we ought to ask our elected leaders to read the one we have and follow it. As for everyone two cents on what the rules should be or what rights should be guaranteed, that’s what State and local governments are for. The Federal Government has very few things that it is truly allowed to do; the rest belongs with the individual States.

    June 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • kirk

      now that is so very true FOLLOW IT AND MOST OF PROBLEMS SOLVED it when we dont we get in trouble
      changes no worries as long as you do in within amendment guidelines

      June 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  7. Rick

    I blame Star Wars for giving republics a bad rap

    June 27, 2011 at 4:19 am | Reply
  8. mike

    This is one of my favorite "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 senate is not there for the People...That is the Rep job. The Senate is there for the state that is why no matter the size you only get two. The screwed up part is until Hardin or Wilson time the Senator was put in office by the GOV and the state house not the pop vote. That is the way our founders wanted to insure the states rights where maintained. Remember we are a Rep Republic NOT A democracy.

    June 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  9. Texas Rebel

    First I would like to ask Mr. Zakaria if he is a US citizen. Second I would like to know how the people in India or Mexico would feel if there was a mass migration of Natural born generational American citizens into their respective countries who proceeded to take control economically and politically while your, politically elite and economically well placed freely traded your countries blood and treasure to the rest of the world. My guess is that they would probably be dead or in prison, if it were even possible for them to immigrate at all. The one thing that real American Patriots will not tolerate is tampering with the document that defines our country. If you have or will read carefully the documentation that our founders left us in the form of The Federalist Papers, Constitutional Debates, and other sources you will find that we were warned about the very thing that is happening in America today. Undue Foreign influence, political factions, standing armies, failure to abide by sound Republican principles (the founder's version of it not today's). So what if it was framed in a dark and shaded room by a few individuals, how many private and secretive meetings take place in Washington today? Will we wake up one morning and find that another right or freedom we once enjoyed has fallen prey to executive or legislative fiat, or that our economy belongs to China because we can't pay off our debt to one of the last and most powerful communist oligarchs left in the world (Is industrial capitalism such a good thing after all?)?.So what if we were an agrarian society then. If anything industrialism has moved us closer and closer to an Orwellian social Marxist police state and farther away from the founder’s vision. I fear that we have been too kind and too generous with our modern dreams of a multicultural utopia. My children, their children, and future generations for decades to come will suffer because of it. Comments about it speak about it; after all it is your first amendment right to do so. But if you don't like it please feel free to depart these shores for your Indian homeland, take with you what you have learned here and see what changes you can effect in the land of your birth.

    June 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  10. UnecessaryEvil

    This guy is a moron, the constitution does not need to be rewritten. It is perfectly up to date even in 2011. Only someone who is an illiterate can not understand the Constitution. The Constitution is NOT a living document. This country is a Constitutional Republic, not a Democratic/Democracy, as it says in the Constitution itself.

    If there is anything I would do, it's what I would remove. First I'd remove government power over Copyrights and patents; abolish government power to make roads, the post office, and getting rid of the "General Welfare" clause.

    July 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  11. Don

    Fareed – Pretty but vapid. Let's see, the court has the ability to change every part of the constitution because it evolves. But we had to pass the 14th amendment...Now they want the ability to jam down a total rewrite. The consitituion is not a living document it is an amendable document. Amend it 1 million times as Dr Evil would say. But do the work you lazy sacks. If you think there is enough popular support to force universal healthcare, housing and food as a right provided by the government. Get legislation passed in 2/3's the states...

    July 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  12. Derek

    This article demonstrates a very basic and and profoundly disturbing misunderstanding of the role the Constitution plays in the United States of America. Perhaps Iceland can "junk" it's constitution and start all over, but the United States cannot. The reason for this is simple: the Constitution of the United States of America *is* the United States of America. Every official of the United States Government, including state and local officials have all sworn an oath to this document. The authority of every government official, whether elected or appointed is derived from this document. The Constitution is what every member of America's armed forces is sworn to protect. At the very moment that the Constitution was "junked", this nation would cease to exist and, even if a "new and improved" constitution were to be written, the new country created would not share a common lineage with the old because the prior constitution was not merely amended, it was reaplaced. No person swearing an oath to the old constitution would be bound by the new and no treaties with the former country would apply to the new. This is not true of every country that has changed its constitution but it is absolutely true with the United States because it derives its ENTIRE existence from the Constitution.

    On the other hand, there already exists the means to alter the constitution through the process of amending it. It has been done many times before, though it is a process that requires an enormous political will. This is a good thing, because if the Constitution was easy to change, frivolous and faddish changes would probably have done the country in long before now.

    So, the article is pointless and should insult the intelligence of every American.

    July 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  13. Tim

    We are a republic, not a majority rules democracy. Fareed Zakaria obviously doesn't understand that our country is to have a rule by law, not by the majority. Basic Rights were written into the law so as not to become a socialistic paradise. Now certain things like slavery needed to be abolished, but other things shouldn't be changed. I'll keep my constitution thank you, even if it isn't "hip" or "modern".

    July 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  14. Chris Mizera

    Congressional Reform Act of 2011

    1. No Tenure / No Pension.
    A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

    2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.
    All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

    3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

    4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

    5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

    6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

    7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12.
    The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

    If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S. ) to receive the message. Maybe it is time.

    July 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • Monica

      Chris, I agree with you this should be done now.

      December 9, 2011 at 8:43 am | Reply
    • pmc42

      Your "Congressional Reform Act" sounds more like a "Congressional Dream Act".

      If all your 'reforms' were enacted, there would be few people wanting to be in politics! People that go into politics, go into it as a career, not just out of patriotism or desire to "make a difference".

      If you were applying for a job and found out there were no great benefits, or pension, or a career opportunity in that field, would you really want the job? If you knew it would take a long time to make a difference in company's success and you were told you could only work there for a few years, would you be excited to be employed?

      Being in gov't as a Representative or Senator is a unique position which requires a lot of incentives to have somebody want to be one,...unfortunately. We have recently had long-time politicians who have left Congress simply because they got tired of trying to accomplish something they wanted to. Burn-out happens in spite of the perks. However, they don't go away empty-handed; they've usually acquired a nice nest egg over the years.

      Anyway, dream on! 🙂

      March 30, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply
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    November 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Reply
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    December 8, 2011 at 5:07 am | Reply
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