This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Walt Whitman got it right, ten years before the founding of The Nation, when he advised Americans to “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul….” This goes double for the left, which cannot afford to neglect the crumbling infrastructure of our democracy, or to treat as sacrosanct a creaking constitution that thwarts rather than extends the will of the people.
Nothing locks in inequality and dysfunction like a constitution so imprecise that it allows right-wing judicial activists to make buying elections easy and voting in them hard. But don’t just blame “constitutional conservatives” for turning our founding document into an outline for oligarchy. Fret about liberal constitutionalists who imagine we’re just one thrilling presidential appointment away from making our democratic vistas real. Like Democrats dreaming of another FDR, liberals waiting for another Earl Warren miss the point. Our democratic destiny is not something to wait for—it’s something we have to make happen. Dissident Americans have been bending the arc of history by rewriting the US Constitution since amendments were added with quill pens. Today’s dissenters should be about the business of doing so once more.
The Constitution began as a flawed document based on compromises between barely reformed royalists and slaveholders whose definition of “liberty” did not include the “property” they finally agreed would be counted as three-fifths of a human being. The most enlightened thinkers and the boldest rabble-rousers were not in the room at the founding moment. Tom Paine was fomenting revolution elsewhere and imagining progressive taxation. Ethan Allen was still in trouble for challenging organized religion with his pamphlet Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. Daniel Shays had yet to be pardoned for arranging a popular rebellion against oppressive debt collection. Instead of democracy, the Constitution of 1787 gave us an unelected Senate, an Electoral College and too many structures intended to control the unruly masses. Americans who had fought to end the abuses of old elites objected to the prospect of being abused by new ones: they demanded and by 1791 had won the ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. Seventeen more amendments have come into being since then, including some that radically restructured how members of the executive and legislative branches are chosen and serve, and others that extended the franchise even more radically—to African-Americans, the poor, women and 18-to-21-year-olds.