America’s long, slow constitutional meltdown and the perils of literalism

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 26, 2020

Ed Luce, the Financial Times’ US editor, recently asked what America can do to avert a constitutional meltdown.

It’s a good question considering the strains are increasingly evident. The Christian conservative right has managed to seize control of what’s legal in America via the Supreme Court. And smaller rural conservative states continue to have more of a say in the electoral college and the Senate than larger liberal ones like California.

Mr Luce quoted Norm Ornstein, a scholar of US politics at the American Enterprise Institute: “If the system is the same in 2030 as it is now, America will start to fall apart”. For, said Mr Ornstein, within 20 years, 30 per cent of the US will elect 70 of its 100 senators.

That can’t be right and the simplest remedy, Mr Luce writes, is “to amend the constitution to make America more democratic”.

But simple doesn’t mean easy.

Constitutional amendments are just too hard to do in a polarised country because they require approval by three-quarters of America’s 50 states and two-thirds of each chamber of Congress. As Mr Luce points out, the last major amendment to the US constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was reduced to 18. Accordingly, the amendments that might now help balance things out in today’s America are unlikely to go through.

If so, the US will have shown itself to be unwilling and unable to change, to be nimble in adjusting to new needs.

In that case, writes Mr Luce, America may either break apart or accommodate itself, Ottoman-style, to “a slow-burn constitutional crisis…tenured stagnation…to paraphrase distilled wisdom from almost any civilisation, whether it be in the Levant or North America, and all points east and west: ‘If things cannot bend, eventually they will break’.”