For a ‘Young’ Country, the U.S. Has an Old and Outdated Constitution
US Renew News Op Ed | By: Alexander Clarkson | June 29, 2022
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The belief that the United States is a uniquely youthful society in contrast to an aging and decadent Europe has become so entrenched that it is rarely questioned. Whether out of politeness or genuine belief, Europeans encountering this recurring trope often turn to their own, emphasizing their belief that a European point of view is more mature than that of the supposedly youthful and naive United States.
Very rarely is there much consideration about what it means for a society to be “old” or “young.” Sometimes commentators point to the steady birthrates and higher immigration that once sustained a more youthful and dynamic labor market in the United States. Yet in the past two decades, U.S. demographic growth has slowed down to a more “European” balance between older and younger generations, with all the societal and policy challenges that entails.
The emphasis on Europe’s age is certainly more accurate when pointing to its history of continuous settlement going back thousands of years. By contrast, the colonial-settler foundations of U.S. society in the 17th century mark the beginning of what is at most a 400-year history of what would now be recognized as a distinctly American way of life. Yet in many European cities, much of the urban landscape of industrial Europe emerged at the same time as similar processes in the United States. For every ancient cathedral city built many centuries before the first colonial settlement in North America, there are cities like Sheffield in the U.K. or Dortmund in Germany that only expanded at the same time as Chicago or St. Louis.
While European societies can look back to long histories, the forms of identity on which their political systems hinge are much more recent. Medieval linguistic and religious traditions provided the cultural foundations of state formation in Europe. But the emergence of national identities as we would understand them now was a product of the economic and social changes that engulfed Europe at the same time that the settler communities of North America’s Eastern seaboard began their expansion through the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples. The formation of nation-states in much of Europe only took shape in the century after the start of the American Revolution in 1776. And as the U.S. experienced vast territorial expansion and profound internal instability, culminating in the Civil War of the early 1860s, every European society was experiencing its own period of disorienting economic transformation and vicious political conflict.
During this period, almost every European state developed a lasting constitutional order, long after the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. In the 234 years since then, France has lived through two royal dynasties, two empires, three revolutions, a fascist collaboration regime and five republics, each with its own distinct political system. Though Germany’s basic law was set out in the West German Constitution of 1949, only with the absorption of East Germany through reunification in 1990 did the modern German system fully take its current form. The constitutional orders of Greece, Spain and Portugal only emerged after the fall of dictatorships in the 1970s, while the political systems of every Eastern European state, from Estonia to Ukraine to Albania, are all products of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s.
The European state in which radical constitutional experimentation and improvisation are most effectively hidden by a facade of symbolic continuity is the United Kingdom, which consolidated as a cohesive state with the merger of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707. For all its royal pomp and circumstance, however, when looked at more closely, the U.K. as a state has gone through dizzying institutional and political change in the past two centuries. The brutal war that led to the formation of an independent Ireland in the 1920s marked the most fundamental break of all. But the devolution of substantial power to the Northern Irish Assembly, the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s also represented huge changes to the basic configuration of British political life.
Combined with Britain’s fraught involvement in European integration as a member of the European Union, by the early 2000s the U.K.’s constitutional order had been fundamentally transformed. In the context of a society undergoing such vast and sudden changes, it is far less surprising that a huge institutional gamble like leaving the EU gained so much traction among voters during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The European integration process that elicited so much hostility among parts of the British public marked the most radical constitutional innovation facing European societies. Though the first steps toward what is now the EU were taken with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the EU came much closer to its current form as an increasingly state-like entity with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. With such rapid consolidation of the EU’s collective currency, parliament, legal system and border controls, the period between 1992 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 marked a massive transformation in how power is organized across Europe. Even as they try to diverge from the EU’s system, successive British governments have struggled to manage the shock of leaving, showing how deeply intertwined the economies and constitutional orders of European states have become with EU institutions.
While the EU has experienced a succession of shocks that have kept its young system in a state of flux, the polarization and gridlock paralyzing U.S. politics have been severely exacerbated by an inflexible U.S. constitutional order that is beginning to show its age. Even as European states experienced dizzying constitutional turnover, the last significant changes to the U.S. Constitution were put in place with the creation of the Federal Reserve and introduction of direct elections to the U.S. Senate in 1913, and the expansion of suffrage to women in 1920.
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Yet after decades of relative stability, the United States’ political system was already beginning to show signs of stagnation and dysfunction in the years before former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian populism brought it close to the breaking point.
In the early 1990s, growing ideological polarization between Democrats and Republicans hollowed out procedural conventions that had provided the basis for effective governance. In the wake of Pat Buchanan’s ferocious “Culture War” speech at the GOP convention of 1992, the Republican leadership’s focus on mobilizing the party’s base and polarizing the electorate turned U.S. politics into the zero-sum environment that enabled Trump’s rapid rise.
An awareness of such dynamics and a more critical view of old tropes that portray the United States as young and Europe as decrepit does not mean ignoring the strengths of U.S. society or the weaknesses of the EU system. But it can provide a clearer understanding of the challenges both face when trying to secure stability, prosperity and democracy.
If one sees European integration as a state-building process, then the disparate responses to the repeated waves of crisis that have hit the EU and its neighborhood begin to make more sense. As a new system, the EU’s structures were often still only half-formed when plunged into managing crises that threatened to overwhelm the continent’s societies.
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So, it should come as no surprise that substantial numbers of European voters proved to be susceptible to populist demagogues who promised to restore order in a disordered world. Yet operating in a young system that is still being formed also gives policymakers room to experiment and improvise as they try to help European societies adapt to a changing world, which explains how those same crises also drove significant advances in the process of integration.
In the United States, the institutional continuity provided by a constitution that has remained largely unchanged since 1920 provided the basis for decades of political stability and economic growth. Yet the breakdown of bipartisan consensus since 1992 has made that constitution seem increasingly unable to manage a technologically advanced urban society with a population of 330 million people, while also making it impossible to overhaul it.
Despite all the signs of systemic dysfunction, it is the chaos of the Trump years that has finally made it impossible to ignore the extent of the problem, building momentum for a much wider debate. If the political will can be found to reform the United States’ ancient constitution, then perhaps the country will once again enjoy the opportunity of being young again.
Alexander Clarkson is a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London. His research explores the impact that transnational diaspora communities have had on the politics of Germany and Europe after 1945 as well as how the militarization of the European Union’s border system has affected its relationships with neighboring states. His weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.