The U.S. Constitution is easy to read. Only about 4,500 words long, it can be studied in less than an hour. The language is a bit dated, but a common person with a basic knowledge of the American government structure can understand the intent behind the clauses.
The authors of the following article came from three different political persuasions but after studying the Constitution together they realized its unifying message. If a system is fair and easy to understand, political divisions can find common ground. It is in this respect, the U.S. Constitution offers its greatest advantage.
[Excerpts of article first published on The Hill website.]
Studying the US Constitution Can Bridge Political Gaps
BY CHRISTINE COOKE, KYLE TREASURE AND AMBER MAXFIELD
A Trump voter, a Hillary voter, and a nonvoter walk into a room – and study the Constitution of the United States, together. That wasn’t a joke. That’s precisely what the three authors of this article have been doing regularly for the past few months.
The truth is, we see the world differently in many ways but also have a lot in common. We share a desire to better understand the U.S. Constitution. We want to join the conversation, not just add to the noise by being opinionated but ultimately uninformed.
So for this Constitution Day – Sept. 17 – we’d like to share three things we’ve learned:
1. Understanding the Constitution will help you identify fake news and other distractions.
Major news sources focus primarily on the federal government but often neglect state and local politics. That’s a problem because it suggests that all noteworthy government action is at the federal level.
You may be familiar with “checks and balances” – the relationship between the three branches of government. But the Constitution is also very clear about federalism – the proper relationship between state governments and federal government. Woven throughout the Constitution are mechanisms to make sure federalism permeates our entire system. Did you know that prior to the 17th Amendment (ratified in 1913), the Constitution called for state legislatures, not the general electorate, to elect U.S. senators?
The thesis of the Constitution is to limit power, both horizontally and vertically. Imbalanced coverage of politics at the federal level can become a distraction from government at the state and local level.
Though media and commentators often criticize congressional gridlock, it isn’t entirely a symptom of a broken system: It’s an outcome that our founders anticipated. Like the constitutional amendment process, change in law is supposed to be slow. Frequent changes in law are not usually healthy, regardless of whether the policy is considered a “win.”
During recent presidential administrations, we’ve seen what happens when law is quickly changed – executive orders lead to chaos and anger. While news outlets cover the pros and cons of executive orders, the truth is the Constitution does not explicitly say anything about executive orders.
2. Studying the Constitution has a unifying effect.
Regardless of political party, policy preference or voting decisions, Americans share something remarkable – the most provocative governing document in the history of the world. We share a common story of independence and freedom. That’s a point worth emphasizing.
The game of politics is naturally divisive. Politics can give us a sense that government and civics is really about teams – your team versus my team, the winners versus the losers. Conversations get ugly quickly when we are hyper-focused on parties in power, nominated candidates, and legislative agendas.
On the other hand, unity is found in principles. Americans believe in liberty, equality and opportunity – unifying ideas.
Naturally, Americans who are united in these principles still may never agree on everything, and that’s OK. In fact, commentaries on the Constitution like the Federalist Papers show that conflict and compromise have always existed. But recognizing the persistent threads in principle give way for a launching pad in common ground, revealing that you and your neighbor voting for different candidates is merely a product of a two-party system. Perhaps the only true conflict is between these principles and our inability as a nation to follow them.
3. Reading the Constitution is easier than you might think.
The Constitution itself isn’t that difficult to read, in part because it was intended to be read by farmers (18th-century American voters). A lot of information is explicitly spelled out. It’s certainly easier than the Bible, for instance. Sure, there are interesting interpretations of clauses and complicated case law that give phrases greater meaning, but not all of the text is that hard to discern. Give it a go.
Of course, to really understand all of the text, commentaries provide context. There are a lot of options out there. Take a look at the Avalon Project out of Yale Law School (they publish the Federalist Papers online). Peruse Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution. There’s also just good old-fashioned Wikipedia or Google to answer basic questions (like what is the president pro tempore of the United States Senate?).
Keep in mind that the Constitution isn’t very long either. In total it contains 7,591 words, including the 27 amendments. A quick read in comparison to say, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which was 257,045 words, making it 34 times the length of the U.S. Constitution. Many of us read that magical book in a week or less. While the content of the Constitution may not feel as riveting, it’s worth it.
Christine Cooke, Kyle Treasure and Amber Maxfield are with Sutherland Institute, a nonprofit think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.
This article was first published on The Hill on 17 September 2018