The United States has in its legal code today one of the most important documents in the entire world, The Constitution. This document is, without hyperbole, the foundation of modern Western democratic society and an inspiration for hundreds of documents like it around the world. And yet, it is quite old, and lacks the same unabashed respect it from the public it once had. There are several reasons for this; the document can be considered regressive, the government it was supposed to regulate realistically no longer exists, and it has been altered or worked around countless times.
So is it dead? No. It is still the foundation of this country and its legal structure and is still the framework in which all laws should be made. But there can be no denying that its prestige has taken a hit and its status as sacred text for all Americans has dwindled. It’s been polarized and disrespected in debates and it has even been dubbed inferior to other constitutions by a fair number of citizens.
Does this mean that the values laid out in the document are no longer in style? This is certainly part of the issue, but to me another major aspect of this failing is the fact that the document is not approachable to the average citizen and its meaning is tossed around by politicians loosely. We rely on the Supreme Court for interpretation of the Constitution but their definitions are difficult and only address single issues at a time.
What I would argue gets forgotten in these discussions, or abused in these discussions, depending on your perspective, is the fact that by and large the Constitution is a restrictive document rather than a proactive one. The promises made in it are mostly limits on Federal power and a framework for the laws to be built around. In more recent times it has been expanded to make more promises of protection and include more citizens in its blanket but most of this happens through struggle to get amendments passed or relying on the Supreme Court to interpret it to protect specific people’s rights. It does and always has granted freedoms to people but less often has assured security in their lives. Culturally, it can be argued, the document is seen as Libertarian defense against government intrusion but often has been neglected when dealing with issues relating to that very problem, whether due to its lack of foresight or manipulation by those in power.
One way to get around these issues for some is to treat the constitution like a living document that bends towards the moral principles of the time a particular issue comes up. The problem here is that with its open status it lacks the ability to make promises and provide freedom, it is now a suggestion or a framework only, defying its very purpose for existing. Another solution is to read the document as narrowly as possible, ensuring protection to its ideals. The issue here is the fact that the structure of government defined in the document is not one that ensures all people the freedom they need or the services they depend on. Just alter it through the proper channels one might say, but one might retort that that policy gives massive power to those trying to maintain the status quo. Is that the point? If it is, do we need to change that? I can’t answer these questions easily and the scariest truth of all is that they need to be answered someday, and as before, we may not come out of that process clean.