I have said many times over many years that I think that The Constitution of The United States is broken. I have recently been asked to give specific examples of what I mean when I say that. This is, of course, a very fair question to ask. To answer it, however, I will both give some background information to help explain WHY I feel the way I do on this subject (which is the topic of this first part of this article) and, as I don’t think that it is helpful when people say what they think is wrong with something without actually offering any possible solutions to the problems that they see, I will also provide specific examples of WHAT I would specifically suggest to fix these perceived problems (which will be the topic of the second part of this article). I will do this by primarily suggesting how I think specific aspects or parts of The Constitution can be improved to better accomplish the goals of the founders. Now, with my suggested changes, I will not be offering specific wordings for those changes. I believe it would be pre-mature and a poor process to do so within the scope of this article. I think that that there needs to be some agreement first about what changes should be made, then establish specific goals and objectives for those changes, as well as agreement on why a specific change should be made and what its purpose would be, and THEN, work on the actual wording to be forever enshrined in The Constitution. For me, then, to actually propose specific wording changes at this stage in the process would be pre-mature. In addition, I am rather… verbose… and I personally think that such wording needs to be as concise as possible.
Let me start by telling my readers why this topic interests me and why I feel I am qualified to write an article on this subject. When I was a 16-year old kid in high school, I was able to get involved in several college student organizations at Texas A&M University. This was a very unique period at A&M in the mid-1970s, which is what made this possible. As a high school kid, I was still an outsider in those groups. This allowed me to be an observer of the organizational group dynamics. In one of the organizations, after I had been in it for a couple of years, there was a huge internal crisis which literally tore the organization apart. This was the first time I ever got to experience what I came to call the ‘second generation effect’.
It was for this group that I wrote my first constitution, a 25-page thing that no one ever got to see because when I had completed it, it was stolen before I could present it. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t very a very good constitution, although I do not have a copy I can read to verify that. What writing it began for me, however, was hobby of designing fictional organizations and writing constitutions for them that lasted well over a decade. I would do this in the same way that some people do crosswords or jigsaw puzzles and, to me, the process was, and is, very much a logic puzzle. Along the way I have written five to seven actual constitutions for real organizations and, because of what I watched happen in those groups I was part of while I was in high school discovered a desire to help other people create better organizations themselves. I eventually earned a Master’s degree that would allow me to work as a student activities / college union professional, which also provided me with the means to collect constitutions from all kinds of organizations from many different locations to study. This has allowed me to see many commonalities, both good and bad, among those documents and helped me to formulate a guiding philosophy for designing and writing constitutions for ANY organization. That philosophy is:
“You can NOT, by definition, plan for the unexpected… but you are a damn fool if you do not prepare for the predictable.”
In case anyone is interested, by the way, I think that my next project along this line will be to try to incorporate a city in the unincorporated area in which I live and try to create an actual ‘laboratory of democracy’.
The second generation effect is when an organization which has been created by people with a common understanding of why they created the organization themselves begins to have people who were NOT part of the organizational creation process reach a level where they begin to have a greater controlling influence on the organization than those who did create it.
When an organization is created, those who created it usually have a common understanding of the principles and processes they expect the organization to operate by. Because of this mutual understanding, they are generally very minimalist about what they put into the organization’s founding document(s) or constitution because they think that more is unnecessary for the very fact that all of the original members have a consensus about those principles and procedures. As a result, they leave those principles and procedures unspecified in the organization’s founding document(s). Even where these people have differences with each other, they are actually bound together by their mutual understandings about the organization. They simply don’t see how others who will come along later will not share those bonds and will not view the organization in the same way that they do. This is what results in constitutions and founding documents which are what I classify as the ‘we create this group, and we will do things and we will be friends’ category of constitutions and founding documents. This is also what I call the ‘first generation effect’.
So, why are the ‘first generation’ and ‘second generation’ effects important concepts when talking about our Constitution? It is very simple. I think that the founding fathers operated under the first generation effect when they wrote The Constitution. Their common experiences with the separation from Britain, The Revolutionary War, and The Articles of Confederation created a common bond which unified them on a subconscious level. Even with their many disagreements and differences, they were still bound to each other by what they had experienced in common with each other.
This period saw one of the most remarkable collections of great men and great minds in one place and one period of time in all of human history. I still can’t figure out if history gave us this moment and gathering of mental giants, or if the moment and gathering of mental giants gave us history. Which one is responsible for the other, I frequently wonder? The result of their gathering in Philadelphia in 1787, The Constitution of The United States, is an amazing and awe-inspiring document. In fact, I think that it has single-handedly shaped where the world has moved since it was created more than any other single document, philosophy, event, or person since then. The downside of what they did in Philadelphia is that they had no other real historical examples which they could study, other than their experiences under The Articles, to see what would work and what wouldn’t. They pretty much only had theories and ideas to use. They also came up with a minimalist document that left much more unwritten and which would rely on their common understandings with which to fill in the gaps than it actually specified about the operation of the new government which they were creating.
In 1991, I was hired for my first job as a Director of Student Activities at a small, private liberal arts college in Illinois. At this time, the Student Activities Board was an unconstituted committee of the school’s Student Forum. I decided that the SAB needed to be a separate organization with its own constitution and I created a committee of students, faculty and staff to help design the organization and help write it’s constitution. The Forum’s advisor was also the school’s government teacher and ‘expert’ on the U.S. Constitution. One day, in passing, she stopped me and asked why the document I was trying to create needed to be as long as it was. After all, she pointed out, the U. S. Constitution was only 4,543 words long (honestly, I remember it with her saying it was only 1,458 words long, which is the length of The Declaration of Independence and not of The Constitution but I will give her the benefit of the doubt by assuming she said the correct total). I responded by telling her “Yes, and it isn’t a very well written document.” She got very angry and, without allowing me to explain to her what I meant, she stormed off. She never again spoke to me civilly and I was terminated at the end of the school year WITHOUT getting my SAB constitution ever publically discussed or voted on, much less passed.
When I said that The Constitution was not a very well written document, I meant no insult to it or to the great men who wrote it. I meant simply that they didn’t have the advantages of history which we have upon which to base their document. NOTHING is ever as good as it can be on a first attempt (look at how much better The Constitution was than The Articles were), and distance is needed to see how things work (or don’t work) as desired, and what can be done to improve it. I think that this is a necessary evolutionary process in any long standing organization. I also never got to explain to her my theory of the second generation effect or how I think it illustrated the fundamental flaws in the document.
I think that there are many reasons that more things were not spelled out better in The Constitution. One of them was the first generation effect of common understanding and fellowship. Another was that the Federalists, under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, did not WANT things to be spelled out better so that they could use the ambiguities of the document to argue that it said and meant things that it clearly didn’t. As is common in history, those of a more liberal ideology will concede things to their political opponents in order to create a consensus while those of a more extreme conservative ideology will simply take those concessions as wins for their side and an indication of weakness for the other side, and will then proceed to try to use that point as a baseline from which to further advance their cause at the expense of those they oppose. A defining characteristic of a liberal personally is individualism and efforts to strive for common agreement and consensus, while a conservative personality is more commonly seen as wanting unification among those who agree with them for the advancement of their agendas, suppression of individual internal disagreement and accumulation of power for their group. (Please look for a future article to be written by me on the subject of groupthink, conformity and shame theory to further explain this claim.)
By the 1820s, the first generation of those who created our American constitutional government was mostly gone from the scene and the second generation was in control. As I have personally seen in all too many smaller organizations, the second generation, not having had a hand in giving ‘birth’ to an organization does not feel limited by the voluntary constraints by which the members of the first generation operated. A key aspect of the second generation effect is the rise of members who are more interested in their personal power than in the greater good of the organization. These power-seeking second generation members will also look for weaknesses, flaws, loopholes, omissions and ambiguities within the governing procedures and document(s) of an organization to see how they can be utilized to advance their personal power or parochial interests at the expense of the greater good of the entire organization. I also do not know how to test it, but I theorize that it is the very weakness and flaws in an organization’s founding documents which ALLOW the second generation effect to occur. The better that things are clarified, and potential problems identified and provided for, the longer an organization can go on with unity and consensus. I believe that it is the failures of the first generation to study more closely when they create their organization and better provide for potential problems in the future within their founding documents that is the cause of the second generation effect, and not the fault of those in the second generation.
In American constitutional government, this was seen in the rise of a professional political class; party politics holding dominance in the elected branches of government; party and regional (state) concerns being held as being more important by those elected officials than the greater good of the entire nation; and a desire for gaining and using personal power bases in order to control the functions of government at the expense of those who do not help the person wielding that power.
One last aspect of the generation effects is a blurring of the lines between and the convergence of common misunderstandings of the differences between and meanings of both ‘power’ and ‘authority’. Contrary to common belief, the two ideas do not have the same meanings and, in fact, are completely separate concepts from each other. This is why they are both used together… power AND authority, like assault AND battery. Authority is the RIGHT to do something. Power is the ABILITY to do something. While power and authority might reside together in some cases, it is much more common to have an exercise of POWER by a person or group who do not have the AUTHORITY to do what has been done, or a group or person who has the AUTHORITY to do something but does not have the POWER to accomplish the desired action (much like when the Supreme Court ruled against Andrew Jackson regarding the Cherokee Indian treaties with The United States and Jackson, supposedly, commenting in response that “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”) Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and John Calhoun are all classic examples of second generation personalities.
Part II of this article will deal with the actual flaws, weaknesses and omissions which I see in our Constitution and my personal suggestions for correcting them.
Rhys M. Blavier
“Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all, Honor”
© copyright 2009 by Rhys M. Blavier
Thank you for reading this article. Please read my other articles and let me know what you think. I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our government and how we can build upon and improve it based on what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.