What if the US had to write a constitution from scratch?

(Also appeared in the August 19, 2005 Christian Science Monitor)

What if, like the new Iraq, we in America had a matter of months to draft a new Constitution? Could we do it? No way – we can barely meet our annual October budget deadline.

First, we’d argue over whether current amendments should stick around; over whether there should be new language articulating a right of privacy. Someone would float a provision protecting the flag from the scourge of desecration. Another would propose limiting the right to bear arms, so Uzis don’t flood the cafes. Someone would maintain it’s critical for us to define when life begins, so we can protect the unborn from abortion. And so on. You can make your own list from today’s headlines.

Indeed, the main stumbling blocks for the Iraqi negotiators – the status of religion in government and its effect on women; the way to parcel out cash-generating natural resources; and the way the political parties can coexist – are ones we share here, in the land of the free. Recall, as just one example, the fierce battles over the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courtroom.

On many of these questions, I fear we’d never agree. Like the Iraqi negotiators, we’d need another week. At least.

I feel for the Iraqis, portrayed in the media as bumbling when it comes to new nation stuff. The Bush administration doesn’t help in this respect, damning with faint praise its efforts to develop a police force and speaking of “training wheels.”

The White House response to Monday’s missed deadline, while calculated to put the best spin on things, has clear notes of disappointment, as when reluctantly giving a child a second chance at some task. Liberals, not to be outdone in the unhelpfulness department, have jumped on the setback as more evidence the war was a fool’s errand to begin with.

But a new constitution is a trick I doubt we could pull off here. Our pride in being the shining example of democracy is a bit overblown. We’re coasting on past successes.

For all the talk of a “real” America where people share a common ground, that place recedes into fiction the moment the public square is entered. Out in the public square, compromise is derided as capitulation, tolerance blasted as weakness. The atmosphere is brutal. Every advantage must be pursued, or your allies will excoriate and excommunicate you. Ask the senators in the “Gang of 14,” the ones who forged a compromise avoiding a shutdown of the Senate earlier this year, how happy their own party members were about the helpful efforts. Well, Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, for one, is now facing a primary challenge.

What have we done for democracy lately? This isn’t a question posed to some government institution, or even a political party. This is a question we can all ask of ourselves. What have I done, today, to make the public square the kind of place where debate can occur? What have I done to ensure fairness for the other side as well as my own? Most important: What would I be willing to give up for the good of the nation and not just my corner?

These are unwelcome questions. They ask individual citizens to put their own well-being behind that of the nation. It’s the kind of sacrifice we ask of soldiers. We should ask it of ordinary people, too. And we should outright demand it from the political leaders who now pollute the public square with vitriol and make progress impossible.

In Crawford, Texas, grieving Cindy Sheehan won’t budge until she gets a meeting with the president so she can demand that he end the war in Iraq. President Bush has dug in, refusing to meet with her. Outside agitators have entered the fray, and it’s already escalated to vandalism and name-calling. Another bad example we should hope others don’t emulate.

Iraq, I’m optimistic, will be able to draft its constitution in a reasonable amount of time. Lives depend on this. Here at home, I’m just glad we don’t have to.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.

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