Constitutional amendment, Part I

I think the most important challenge facing Americans today is constitutional amendment.

Think of that as sub-headline.  It’s misleading, sure, but it is supposed to get you into the body of the essay.  We’ll see.

Let’s work first on the misleading words I built into the title.  You may have noticed that although there is a capital C in the word “Constitution” in the title, there is a lower case c- in the word “constitution” in the subheadline.  That wasn’t a mistake.

The Constitution of the U. S. should always be capitalized. [1]  But anything can have a constitution.  If it has several elements that “stand together” it has a constitution [2].  A viable family has a constitution.  The United Kingdom has a constitution.  A senior center has a constitution.  And none of those are written documents.  They are the crucial infrastructure of ongoing social units.

But, of course, not everything that has a constitution has a good constitution.  The Federalists argued that the Articles of Confederation was not a good constitution.  The landscaper we consulted about our back yard (when we had a back yard) said that our soil’s constitution was poor.  And he suggested “amendments” to it.

con amd 1How you “amend” soil depends, of course, on what is wrong with it. [3]  This gets more complicated if you have something in particular you want to grow.  If you just want “good soil” and it is “too acid, you add a bunch of lime and you have “mended” the flaw in  your soil.  There are amendments for nearly anything and nearly any soil is good for growing something.  Some soils, much maligned, are good at growing moss, dandelions, and crabgrass.  Gardeners tend to call those “bad soils” which really isn’t fair, but gardeners are a constituency—they stand enduringly together—and they have a point of view.

But if you have a particular plant in mind, corn, for instance, and you want to grow it on a rocky island in the Aleutian Islands, you have other problems as well.  You have a kind of soil that can’t (a)mended and no one is suggesting that we mend the climate so that corn can be grown “too far north.”  That rocky, parched, frozen soil will (does) grow something, but it won’t grow what you want it to grow.

At that point, you have two choices.  You can go somewhere else, somewhere more hospitable to corn. [4]  Or you can decide to value what the soil and the climate will give you.

[Note to the reader.  This has gotten entirely out of hand.  I have just gone back to the title and renamed it “Part I.”  I am not going to be able to say what I want to say in one average size post, so let’s just serialize.]

James Madison had this kind of thing in mind when he wrote The Federalist #10, justly famous as a work of political theory, but written as a letter to the editor by a proponent of the new federal Constitution.  People told him that you really can’t have a popular government of a territory as large as the 13 states.  He said you could if you used the size as a feature, rather than lamenting it as a flaw.

The problem is “faction.”Madison defined a faction as follows:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Note that a faction is bad because the common impulse is bad.  It is “averse to the aggregate interests of the community.”.  He had two solutions.  The first was to make the electorate so large that small factions would not be a serious threat;  as they get large, they develop internal contradictions and implode. [5]

The second was to establish a two-chamber legislature where only one of the chamberscon amd 2 could be filled up with populist zealots.  The other chamber would have people “whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices .”  He had the Senate in mind when he chose those glowing words and he hoped that they would take care of the hotheads in the House of Representatives.  It requires only that they have enlightened views and virtuous sentiments. {6}

These are not “amendments” in the governmental sense because they were built into the Constitution along with a process by which further amending might be done.  But they are amendments in the sense that we can amend a soil that is flawed for the crop we have in mind, which, in this case, is representative democracy, known at the time as “republicanism.”  The natural limits to the coherence of factional groups and the presence of sober-minded patriotic citizens who are part of the legislative process and the amendments to the soil and they will allow us to grow a representative democracy.

If we are committed to representative democracy as the crop and the flaws we face can be mended, we should set about mending them.  If, on the other hand, they are—as in my Aleutian Island example—beyond the reach of amendment, we are going to have to go somewhere else (hardly practical for a modern nation-state) or change our “preferences” to a crop that our soil and climate will grow.

In Part II, I want to look at what our soil and climate are and to consider what it would take to amend the soil to make it compatible once more with democratic government.

[1]  It would be nice if it were also honored, but I am trying to restrict myself to language use at this point in the argument.

[2]Not to overdose on word origins, but once you get the hang of the stit- element of words, you see it a lot.  Following Eric Partridge’s account, I derive the Latin statuere, “to set: with is “a derivative” of stare, “to stand.”The prefix com- may mean “together,” as it often does (companion) or it may be an intensive.

[3]The Latin menda is “a fault or blemish.”That is why it needs to be “removed” in some way.  That sense is still available in the Latin ex- + menda, which became emendere, which became (after the French were done messing with it) amend.The a- still represents the “removal” part of the word and the “mend” the flaw to be removed.

[4]  Although it is hard not to notice that agricultural interests with a lot of money are buying up land “too far north” for what they are growing now.  You can be as skeptical as you like about the debates of climate scientists, but big time agricultural money in being spent on land where those crops have never ever (in this epoch) been grown.

[5]This is, for science fiction fans, the psychohistory solution in the Foundation Trilogy.  Maybe that’s where Madison got it.

[6]  Rep. Madison, allow me to introduce Sen. McConnell of Kentucky, a living breathing refutation of that half of your solution.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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