Politics

Google's Constitute Project Could Lead To New Method Of Constitutional Reform

| by Will Hagle

The U.S. government is based on a document that was written 228 years ago. As much as the libertarian movement pines for a more strict adherence to the Constitution, the country’s current state of affairs prove that some type of political restructuring is needed. While nations in the Middle East and around the world have been wrestling with the issues of power and government for the last several years, the United States has remained unchanged. In many ways, it seems unchangeable. It’s the world’s only superpower, it has the strongest military, and changing the Constitution in a peaceful manner is an arduous, nearly impossible task. 

It has, however, been attempted before. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and New Hampshire all called for a second Constitutional convention in the 1970s. Since 2010, four additional states have requested a convention to amend the document. Article 5 of the Constitution itself allows for “a convention for proposing amendments” if requested by two-thirds of the states, otherwise amendments must be passed and approved through Congress as they have been throughout the U.S.’s history. As much as it may seem like an impossibility, the idea of a second Constitutional convention has been in the discussion for decades. 

As the web and social media have spawned protests and revolutions from Hong Kong to Egypt, there’s a growing movement of people pushing for a new Constitutional convention to take place through the medium of the Internet. Constitute, a web project developed at the University of Texas at Austin with funds from Google Ideas, Indigo Trust and IC2, is an important first-step in opening up the political discourse to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The site allows users to compare all of the world’s Constitutions in either English or Arabic, cross-referencing and analyzing passages based on similar topics or laws. The most promising aspect of the project is the ability for users to collaborate in writing their own, new Constitutions using Google Docs. Multiple people can write in a document, copy-and-pasting directly from existing Constitutions if they so choose. 

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Although Constitute is more of an educational project than a revolutionary tool, it does raise the possibility of future political debate being filtered through the Internet by allowing all types of people — not just those in power — to contribute. As the Gallup chart above shows, Americans’ level of confidence in the federal government has been on the decline for several years. With Congress’s current 17.4% approval rating, it’s unlikely that any serious Constitutional amendments will be passed anytime soon. The last U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, and there will inevitably come a time when Americans realize that that document won't be able to guide the nation through the constantly changing and always uncertain future. There are reasons to be skeptical of deviating from our current guiding principles, but any non-violent debate about political reform could only be beneficial. When that time comes, the Internet should be treated like the valuable, democratizing tool that it is. Constitute is far from the answer, but at least it has demonstrated that online political debate and discussion can be peaceful, transparent, and collaborative. Perhaps someday it will translate into true political reform.