Needed for America: A better operating system

Writing under the handle “Bronxiniowa,” Ira Lacher, who actually hails from the Bronx, New York, is a longtime journalism, marketing, and public relations professional.

Bringing in my 7-year-old Windows laptop to the repair shop—I confess I hold on to my computers as long as I hold on to my cars—made me think about how America is like a PC.

PCs, based on the Microsoft Windows operating system, are greater than the sum of their parts: a box made by manufacturer A, a motherboard from manufacturer B, a hard drive from manufacturer C, a power source from manufacturer D, and so on.

Similarly, America was pieced together as a conglomeration: 13 semi-autonomous colonies, now 50 semi-autonomous states, which differ in ethnicity, topography, religion, and economy, among others.

The Constitution was designed not as a unifying operating system but as a series of giant compromises to keep states from warring with each other. So states can mandate what is considered criminal conduct, mandate their own penalties for such conduct, ascribe and proscribe rights, and more. In fact, it took the Supreme Court to rule, in 1819, that yes, federal law had primacy over state law.

But America’s history, as it relates to the Constitution, has been a series of legal hiccups, as states then and now seek to go their own ways.

The Preamble of the Constitution defines the document’s purpose: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But America is batting a sorry 1-for-6, with the lone hit a standing military. We have a wispy union, much less a more perfect one. There is a vast difference in what constitutes justice and, especially regarding women, some religious minorities, persons of color, and degree of wealth, a lack of general welfare and the blessings of liberty.

Were America a PC so dysfunctional, its user would have upgraded it to a newer model years ago. Or abandoned it altogether for a Macintosh. Macs employ hardware and software designed, manufactured, and vetted by Apple to work well together. America could become more like a Mac than a PC—if we were to refine the Constitution to instruct our leaders how a large, powerful nation needs to function today.

We’ve done it before, when we wisely scrapped the disastrous Articles of Confederation, a sop to individual states at the expense of a unified national government. Arguing against the articles, in “Federalist No. 21,” Alexander Hamilton wrote: “If we are unwilling to impair the force of this applauded provision, we shall be obliged to conclude, that the United States afford the extraordinary spectacle of a government destitute even of the shadow of constitutional power to enforce the execution of its own laws.”

But, in their obsession to keep America from resembling the British monarchy we had just expelled, delegates to the Constitutional Convention eschewed a strong central authority in favor of giving the states massive power. This contributed to the polarization that led to the Civil War and continues to stoke the extreme polarization of the 21st century.

It doesn’t have to remain thus; just craft a new Constitution that would make America more like a Mac than a PC. Mandate that our basic laws apply uniformly from state to state, as original equipment manufactured parts integrate better among each other than aftermarket components. This is essential because, as personal computers have evolved from the heavy, loud black boxes of the last century, America hardly resembles the new country of 240 years ago.

“As we get further from the drafting of the Constitution,” wrote Sarah Isgur, a former Justice Department spokeswoman and a contributing editor at Politico, “the more changes should presumably be needed to keep that document up to date as technology changes, social mores shift and (hopefully) the United States learns a few things about governing along the way.”

Isgur, who served during the Trump administration, came at the idea from the issue of executive branch overreach, manifested by Republicans and Democrats and including undeclared wars, immigration bans, and health care mandates. The judicial branch has detractors on both sides for decisions on gun ownership, women’s rights, and more. And then there’s Congress, which seems to exist solely to prevent the executive branch from implementing policy.

Critics of rewriting the Constitution scoff, saying the American system is too fragile to be tinkered with. Famously, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia told CSPAN in 2014: “I certainly would not want a Constitutional Convention. I mean, whoa, who knows what would come out of that.” Wilfred Codrington III, a fellow at the progressive Brennan Center for Justice, argued that such an enterprise “would have free rein to everything from our systems of checks and balances, to our most cherished rights, such as freedom of speech and voting for our leaders.”

But when this was tried in simulation, a strange thing happened.

In 2020, the National Constitution Center, a forum for Constitutional scholars, brought together three teams, of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, and instructed them to devise what the Constitution might look like if written today. Writing about the results in The Atlantic, the center’s president, George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, was surprised that despite the expected biases, all three teams independently agreed that a reformed document should limit presidential power and increase Congress’ oversight of the person and the office; institute term limits for Supreme Court justices; and, with libertarians dissenting, scrap the Electoral College in favor of direct presidential election. “[T]he areas of agreement—reining in presidential power and reducing partisanship in Congress—are far more surprising than the areas of disagreement,” Rosen wrote.

Sadly, neither team proposed reworking America from a PC to a Macintosh, which would entail structurally refining American federalism. Doing so would realize the observation of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who admired American federalism for its differentiation between “government,” policies pertaining to the entire nation; and “administration,” how each state, based on its particulars, such as population, geography, economy, and so on, runs its highways. Echoing Tocqueville, Marc Landy, political science professor at Boston College, wrote for Real Clear Public Affairs,” The remarkable energy that decentralized administration fuels is what enables citizens to secure their liberty and successfully govern themselves.”

Except it doesn’t. Ask any trans person who can’t use a public restroom. Or any woman forced to bear a child.

America needs a national policy on fundamental issues affecting individuals in every state.

Society is changing faster than imagined by anyone, much less the rich white men who, living in an era of comparative stone knives and bearskins, cobbled together the document intended to micromanage America in an era of computers. As any PC user can tell you, sooner or later, one or more of its disparate parts fails. That leaves you to choose between replacing the component, setting it up for future failure, or scrapping the whole thing for a system that just plain works better.

Top image: Technician puts the CPU on the socket of the computer motherboard. Photo by TimeStopper69, available via Shutterstock.

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  • I agree with Ira.

    We need a new Constitution. The original Constitution was drafted by a bunch of rich white men laboring under the knowledge, customs and ideas of 236 years ago. I have read the notes from the constitutional convention. There was indeed a lot of disagreement. Very few of the votes on various items in the Constitution were unanimous. And the votes were not taken as individual votes of the delegates, but as votes of the states. It was pretty clear that the delegates, and probably most Americans, saw themselves not as citizens of the United States, but as citizens of their individual states. I’m not sure how much that attitude has changed. The reality is that we want the level of government that will give us what we want to have the most power.

    But back to a new Constitution. This past session there were several bills in the Iowa legislature calling for a constitutional convention. But the Republicans want to restrict, under penalty of criminal prosecution, the convention delegates to vote on just the issues the Republicans want to change. In my opinion, that defeats the purpose of a constitutional convention. As long as we have so many state legislatures under Republican control, a constitutional convention is not a good idea.

    Democrats need to get their act together and take back our government at all levels. Then a constitutional convention could really create a new constitution for all of us.

  • How about 32 states each with about 10 million residents?

    We have too many governors and legislatures.