Have constitutions out-lived their usefulness? The temptation to tinker with constitutions seems to be a growing trend in many democracies and, even more so, in many quasi-democracies. Equally, sticking to a constitution that is out-dated, seems almost as bad. The question, therefore, has to be asked, what is the point of a constitution in an era where so many things are in flux that any document, old or new, would seem to be so full of holes, and be less and less likely to represent any country as a whole? Hence the question: Have constitutions out-lived their usefulness?
The original purpose of a constitution was to bring together the value system of a country into a document that reflected the dreams and desires of its people. In other words, to enshrine a culture in the written word that could be passed on to future generations.
That worked when countries were somewhat homogeneous, at least in their shared history or desires. It doesn’t work as well in multi-cultural societies or in rapidly evolving societies. In the first case, the diversity that would have to be included is often contradictory and, in the second case, the concepts involved are almost out-of-date before the final draft is written. An exercise in frustration?
More recently, politicians and dictators have seen constitutional changes as a way of embodying their own ideas, concepts, biases and/or a way of formalizing control and consolidating their power. Those are abuses that the original concept of a constitution did not anticipate. I repeat, have constitutions out-lived their usefulness?
A few examples.
In 2014 Tunisia adopted a new constitution. It made the country a democracy, guaranteeing religious freedom and equality between men and women. Earlier this year the current president snuffed it out, suspended parliament and held a rigged referendum on his new constitution. It was approved by just 28% of voters, and gives the president the power to rule by decree, makes him unimpeachable and allows military courts to try civilians among other abuses of the citizens. It will probably stay that way until he is assassinated, and a new government, or president, writes another constitution. OK, you say, but that’s what happens in countries like Tunisia.
The U.S. constitution is held up, at least by Americans, to be the shining example of how constitutions should work. In fact, the man-in-the-street believes this so strongly that they treat the 250-year-old document, and all its words, as sacrosanct. Apart from the fact that this is logical nonsense, Donald Trump effectively killed that belief by ignoring many of the constitution’s concepts: He then, either went to court to prove his “loopholes” were legal (some of them were, much to everyone’s surprise and disgust), or he just ignored them completely. He showed that the constitution could fairly easily be manipulated or ignored, with few consequences…….and he is still a possible candidate for the presidency in 2024. Not quite Tunisia, but close.
Again, have constitutions outlived their usefulness?
These are not the only cases: Chile has just rejected its new constitution by a large majority; since 2015 over a dozen African presidents have tinkered with their country’s constitutions to enhance their powers; full-blown constitutional rewrites have occurred in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela; and we won’t even talk about the laughable constitutions of China and Russia.
Catherine the Great of Russia must be turning in her grave, or laughing herself to death, at what the world has done with her concept. Debatably, she wrote the first modern version of a constitution. Amazingly, in her own hand. It hardly resembled today’s constitutions but it was a document that tried to embody her idea of what Russia was and should be. She had no reason to use it to give herself more power. She was already all powerful, so such an idea would probably never have occurred to her. She appears to have thought that her efforts would actually help her Russian subjects.
It seems to me that whether you change your constitution every five minutes, or stick doggedly to every word as it was originally written, the idea of a constitution doesn’t work very well in the current world. The problem is what would you replace it with? A few countries have survived without a constitution at all and, although that doesn’t work very well either, it seems to work at least as well as those countries with a constitution. Yet again, and finally, have constitutions out-lived their usefulness?