The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

Oct - Nov 2007 Issue

A More Perfect Constitution – A Q&A with Larry Sabato

By on November 11, 2015 with 0 Comments

forumsabatolgDr. Larry J. Sabato is the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and the Founder and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Politics. Dubbed by Fox News as “America’s favorite political scientist,” he is also a prolific author, having written over 20 books. His latest is “A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country.” In it, he calls for, among other things, a Constitutional Convention to consider changes to our Nation’s governing document.

The Forum asked him recently about the book and why he thinks we need “A More Perfect Constitution.”

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RF: Could you tell us a little bit about the book? 

LS: Much of the Constitution’s superstructure needs no fundamental fix, including the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, and the Bill of Rights. The fault is not with these basics, and it’s important to stress one fundamental truth from the outset: The framers of the Constitution did not fail us. 

My purpose in writing this book is to start a creative conversation – the kind of discussion Jefferson would have thought would happen naturally every couple of decades.

Our forefathers designed the best possible system that could be achieved at that moment in time. They understood that some of the necessary compromises in the Constitution were flawed, yet the Constitution of 1787 reached the pinnacle of equity in the world’s history to that time. The framers left it to us, and expected of us, that we would continue at regular intervals to perfect their work. Yet, we avoid change—even a robust discussion of it—and prefer insufficient tinkering to the substantial reframing that is required. 

This book is an attempt to alter America’s political ossification. I defy anyone to characterize this book ideologically. Some of my proposals are liberal, some moderate, some conservative, and most are structural, lacking any kind of ideological tilt or motive. I am trying to move the debate beyond divisive ideology, to the big picture of what makes our country and Constitution great, and how it can be improved. 

I want to follow the founders and framers’ advice and try to build a better mousetrap. That is what successful, championship countries do continuously. We have lost our way a bit on this score. 

RF: What prompted you to write it? 

LS: I come to this subject as an admirer of the magnificent achievements of the nation’s founders and the Constitution’s framers. 

Like almost all Americans I grew up believing in the Constitution — every bit of it. But having chosen American politics as my primary passion in life, over decades of daily thinking about the issues that confronted the nation, I gradually began to see that parts of the system were no longer working very well, that the day-to-day, incremental political process was inadequate to fix the root causes of the system’s dysfunction. 

2In this, I was encouraged by the bright young people in my classrooms, who asked good questions, pointed out wrongs that needed righting, and were unwilling to accept ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ as the final, correct answer. My purpose in writing this book is to start a creative conversation – the kind of discussion Jefferson would have thought would happen naturally every couple of decades. If we choose to act, change will be the result. 

We the people can move the discussion about constitutional revision forward, and bring together like-minded citizens to participate in a movement to reform our own government and make it work better for our families, communities, and country. 

RF: We face a host of challenges as a country — from over 10 million unaccounted-for immigrants to a growing entitlement burden that is crowding out other national priorities. How would holding a Constitutional Convention help solve these kinds of problems? 

LS: This is a great question because, on the surface, people may not see the connection between pressing headline issues and the Constitution. Yet every single thing the government touches relates directly or indirectly to the system we have created. When the system works well, the solutions to problems will be a bit easier to reach. 

There’s no more important issue than war and peace. Both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts have illustrated a modern imbalance in the constitutional power to wage war. Once Congress consented to these wars, presidents were able to continue them for many years— long after popular support had drastically declined. A convention could limit the president’s war-making authority by creating a provision that requires Congress to vote affirmatively every six months to continue American military involvement. 

As for domestic issues, the structure of Congress directly affects all legislation, and its chances of passage. I’ve focused a great deal in this book on the Senate, because it is the graveyard for so many useful reforms. People are stunned to discover that if the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17 percent of the country’s population. This small-state stranglehold is not merely a bump in the road; it is a massive roadblock to fairness that can, and often does, stop all progressive traffic. So to stress my point again, structure matters enormously. 

Finally, I’ve tried to design a reasonable form of the Balanced Budget Amendment. Like the [U.S.] Comptroller General, I am pessimistic that we will come to grips with our $9 trillion national debt and $50 trillion in other promised obligations without a rational, phased-in amendment of this sort. 

Americans respond to crises—but how much easier it would be if we could avert the crises years or even decades in advance. We would lessen the fiscal pain greatly. 

RF: You are essentially calling on the States to rise up and call for a Convention that would radically reshape the federal government. Given that states are increasingly reliant on the Washington bureaucracy for a not insignificant part of their funding, do you think this is something they would really be inclined to do? 

LS: From my earliest studies (on the American Governors and the fifty states in the 1970s), I have been a fan of federalism and the states. The states will be big winners if they pursue the route I have suggested leading to constitutional change. There are a dozen major examples, but let me offer one. 

I propose a new Politics Article for the Constitution— needed because neither mass democracy nor political parties existed at the time of the Founders, and the lack of any rules or direction has led to the mess we are experiencing now in the presidential nominating calendar. My new system guarantees that every state and region will have an equal chance over time of going first, normally the most influential position in the primary calendar. 

I’ll grant you, Iowa and New Hampshire won’t like this change, but the other 48 states—with 97% of the nation’s population—will like it. 

RF: One of the reasons the Founders were eventually able to reach agreement in Philadelphia in 1787 is that they met in private, thus allowing them to talk candidly about the problems facing our country at that time. Would private deliberations of this nature be needed if a Convention were held today? With the 24/7 news media and the pervasiveness of special interest groups, would that even be possible? 

LS: No doubt some delegates elected to the eventual Convention would have many off-the-record chats amongst themselves, and that’s fine, but we are in a different era. This book welcomes mass participation in the process. Indeed, citizen activism is a necessity if a new Constitution is ever to come to be. 

The Internet connects citizens into the process, above and beyond the ballot box. This is a good thing. Constitution re-making will be generational, and the discussion will last many years at all levels and in all communities. The very process makes people more civic minded and better informed. For those who worry about a “runaway Convention” or mobocracy, they can save the investment in Pepto-Bismol. 

Thirty-eight states would still have to ratify each and every change to the Constitution. That means that successful changes will need a near-consensus to pass. Nothing from the Left is going to pass the Red States, and nothing from the Right will see the light of legislative day in the Blue States. 

If anything, my process and the Constitutional Convention will empower moderates—the very people who are undervalued today, the very people who read this excellent magazine! 

RF: In addition to revamping the three branches of government, you also write that a new Constitution should require the American people to serve as well – either in the military or through some other kind of mandatory national service. Why do you believe this is important? 

LS: Enjoying the benefits of living in a great Democracy is not a God-given right. In exchange for the privileges of American citizenship every individual has obligations to meet, promises to their fellow citizens and posterity to keep. 

A cultural sociability and an outgoing spirit, coupled with innate optimism and enthusiasm, infuses the American people. At the same time, it is obvious that – except perhaps in some wars – we have not been able to capture and channel the full energy of America’s volunteer spirit as well as we could have. A constitutional clause can finally achieve the goal universally. Nothing can do more to make America a better, fairer nation, with everyone pulling his or her own weight. 

There is no serious question that universal service would be in the short and long-term interests of the young. Their world view would be broadened enormously, and their lives would be far richer for the perspective they gain. This new constitutional provision can make America, more than ever before, an exemplar of idealism and a beacon of hope for people everywhere. 

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If anything, my process and the Constitutional Convention will empower moderates – the very people who are undervalued today…

RF: As part of the book, you conducted a poll to gauge people’s reactions to some of the Constitutional changes being proposed in the book. Could you talk about the results of the survey? What changes earned the most support? What changes earned the least? 

LS: In the fall of 2006 the highly respected Rasmussen Reports conducted a telephone survey on the topic of potential changes to the Constitution.  Respondents were asked twenty six substantive questions about their reaction to various proposals. 

In general these survey results bode well for the promise of serious debate about constitutional change. Of the seventeen reform proposals in this book that are included in the Rasmussen poll, eight of them already draw majority support. In fact, the proposal which garnered the most support of any in the survey was to require a mandatory retirement age for judges at 75 years (77% approval). Probably some respondents were expressing strong dislike for judicial law-making, while others simply preferred to avoid the hubris that comes with long tenure in any position of great power. 

At the same time, Americans display a healthy degree of initial skepticism about many proposed alterations to their founding document. Unsurprisingly, then, our survey found that proposals which would most radically alter America’s constitutional machinery were met with more skepticism from the public. Therefore, the notion of a more representative Senate earned a 74% disapproval rating. 

There is no doubt that the push for a major overhaul in government will be a slow, uphill, perhaps generational battle – and that is exactly as it should be. It is reasonable to assume that detailed discussion and debate over time would encourage growing acceptance of at least some currently alien constitutional reform ideas. Inarguably, additional debate would sink others, or cause still more creative proposals or compromises to be floated and accepted. 

All of this is to be expected in the normal course of events leading to a Constitutional Convention. 

RF: At this point, do you think there is support in Congress or among the States to undertake this kind of bold plan you are proposing? If not, what will it take for a plan like this to succeed? 

LS: Goodness no, nor should there be. Constitutional revision is as serious a step as any democracy can take. It must be done with excruciating care, after lengthy discussion and debate for years on end. It may be decades before a Convention occurs. Or perhaps individual amendments drawn from the more popular of the ones I have suggested—or others offer on our website – and this will be the result. 

I honestly believe that no one with an open mind can read “A More Perfect Constitution” and conclude that nothing at all needs to be changed or reformed. At the very least, we’ll do what Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and other Founders wanted us to do: think deeply and frequently about the Constitution. My book is meant only to stir the pot and start the debate. The worst that can happen is for Americans to go to their Constitution and read this brilliant text again. 

As Chief Justice John Roberts recently remarked, “The one thing people don’t do, and by that I mean law professors, judges, law students, not just normal everyday citizens who are engaged in other occupations, nobody reads [the Constitution]. We talk about it a lot. We have cases about it. But to actually sit down and read it doesn’t happen that often and that is a very rewarding exercise. 

With “A More Perfect Constitution,” we’re going to do something about this.   RF

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