Why 11,000 Failed Attempts to Amend the Constitution Matter to the 2016 Election

It’s been a while since I’ve last addressed the role of expanded federalism historically, and its significance in the 2016 election.

Of all the things that really capture what American politics are about, it’s the fact that our government can and does change — sometimes the very foundation of our government, the Constitution itself.

The Constitution was the very creation of federalism. The states gave some of their rights and political power to the newly created federal government, which in turn granted guarantees in the form of the Bill of Rights that these new powers wouldn’t abuse the states that created them.

The Framers of the Constitution knew it was a flawed document and built in methods to change the document’s nature as the nation evolved. By 1789, 5 of the original 13 states were free states, ones that had to compromise on several sections protecting the institution of chattel slavery for at least 20 years — otherwise the Constitution would never have been ratified.

But the real test of time was that these, and other wrongs, have been consistently addressed and corrected throughout America’s history.

One reality, though, remains — It’s very hard to change the Constitution, with over 11,000 failed attempts compared to 27 successful amendments.

Consensus Is Hard To Build In Our Government

The Second through Fourth Congresses gave us an early glimpse of governmental gridlock in American politics.

While Washington had a sympathetic First Congress, things began to sour in the Second with the House turning anti-administration by the end of its term.

It's very hard to change the Constitution, with over 11,000 failed attempts compared to 27 successful amendments.

Washington would use his power of veto for the first time during the Second Congress. Unlike the parliamentary system of Britain, the executive was not merely a rubber-stamp of the majority’s will.

The key to remember is that we cannot reminisce about the way things never were in our government — compromise, consensus building, and statesmanship have all been key from the very beginning. There was no magical camaraderie that held the government together and made it function flawlessly.

And it’s been hard to do this from the beginning. In the generation of the Founders, only two additional amendments were ratified, one on sovereign immunity of the states, the other clarifying the presidential election process.

From then on, it would take a Civil War to create an atmosphere were more amendments would be passed.

2016 And Beyond: Ideas Doomed To Failure

Any political idea, no matter how novel, that bases its reality and success in the creation of a constitutional amendment is doomed to failure from the start.

It’s all too easy to have the Utopian ideal that if we just had the political will to do it, everything would work out okay — but it doesn’t work that way in real politics.

Even the grandiose idea of calling a constitutional convention from the states is unlikely to succeed in today’s political climate. While the Republicans dominate state legislatures, they still don’t control enough to reach the two-thirds mark (even assuming they voted in lock-step) required by the Constitution.

Sadly, on the other extreme, there are ilks that believe that the Constitution is a literal document — not one that has evolved over time.

Anyone believing that ignores over 220 years of change in America — slavery, women’s rights, popular vote, and voting rights for those of military draft age.

The idea we need to get back to in America isn’t entrenched in some new amendment, it’s the very process that gave us the Constitution in the first place — compromise and a willingness to accept less than perfect legislation for the betterment of society.

Too many of the ideas for amendments are designed to increase polarization, not decrease it — and considering the nature of polarized politics in America, they would soon join the other 11,000+ failed attempts to change our Constitution.

We need politicians who will reach across the aisle, ones who will practice the art of compromise. But most importantly, we need politicians who are not stuck in the mode of single ideology worship that creates and perpetuates the political mess we have today.

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