Daniel Lazare writes: Americans have succeeded in modifying the Constitution only 17 times since ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Since amendments tend to come in clumps during periods of exceptional turmoil, this means that decades can race by without any change at all. For instance, the US was constitutionally frozen for nearly 60 years prior to the Civil War, and then spent another 40 years in a constitutional deep-freeze during the Gilded Age that followed. Only one amendment, the 27th, concerning the scheduling of Congressional pay raises, has been approved since the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s and early ’70s, and that one was drafted in 1789 and then gathered dust in various state legislatures for more than two centuries. Excepting this unusual amendment, the present constitutional ice age could wind up outlasting the first.
Arguably, this Constitutional paralysis is the real source of American exceptionalism – not America’s military or economic clout, but its basic political structure, so unlike that of just about any other country on Earth. It’s certainly the source of its exceptional political psychology. One might think that Americans would be impatient with a Constitution that frustrates any and all efforts at reform, yet the response has been the opposite: instead of growing angry, people have reassured themselves over the years that immobility is all to the good because anything they do to change things can only make them worse. In effect, they’ve taken the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and turned it around. Since a fix is impossible due to the system’s deep-seated resistance to change, then it must not be broken at all. In fact, it must be perfect and therefore divinely inspired. And if the Constitution is divinely inspired, can the US be anything other than divinely inspired as well? [Continue reading…]