“Fault Lines in the Constitution: the Framers, Their Fights and the Flaws That Affect Us Today”
by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson.
Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta, 2017, 235 pages, Grades 6-9.
The United States Constitution has always been a subject of controversy. At the Constitutional Convention, much of the dispute revolved around how much power larger, more populous states would have in the new country and how much power smaller states would retain.
After some acrimonious debate, the Constitutional Convention accepts the Great Compromise in which the Senate is composed of two officials from each state and the House of Representatives is based on population. But this is just one of the many issues that challenged the Founding Fathers and still challenges Americans today. What are some of these challenges? Are there fault lines in the Constitution? If so, what are the fault lines and how do we solve them? Cynthia and Sanford Levinson, a husband and wife team schooled in public policy and legal research, tackle many of these difficult issues in this book.
The authors divide their concerns into seven areas. The first area is the legislative domain; the second is how voters are placed in their respective districts by redistricting; the third concerns voting rules and who is qualified to vote; the fourth discusses presidential elections and the Electoral College; the fifth talks about the problems of an incapacitated president; the sixth examines what the Constitution says about governmental actions during times of emergency and the seventh addresses possible changes to have the Constitution adapt to modern changes in society.
For the purpose of brevity in this review, I will concentrate on two basic issues the Levinsons discuss. The first is the Electoral College. They accurately state that the Founding Fathers did not support the contemporary view of one person, one vote. The writers of the Constitution did not believe that the populace would always make good decisions and that a barrier needed to be in place in case the populace made a terrible decision. Hence the Electoral College. The Levinsons repeatedly attack the Electoral College because they feel that it is undemocratic and gives too much power to smaller states.
The second issue discussed in the book is voter suppression through gerrymandering and requiring some type of voter identification at the polls. Regarding gerrymandering, the authors point out that congressional districts are redrawn after every 10-year census. The first convoluted attempt at this practice was done by Governor Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812. When he was done redrawing the district lines to ensure his party would be reelected, the district looked like a salamander. So his last name Gerry was combined with the last letters in salamander to get the political word “gerrymander.”
The authors continue to examine many other issues in the constitution. Repeatedly they examine why states with smaller populations have the power they do. In the end of their exhaustive analysis, they give the Constitution a C+ for effectiveness.
I understand some of their concerns but arrive at the much higher grade of an A for effectiveness. The difficulties they describe in the amendment process, for example, is really the opposite in my opinion. By making amendments hard to pass, the states must have a real pressing reason to enact them. This is a good thing. Their liberal way of viewing the Constitution may also open the document to legislative distortions.
Having said that, they raise some valid points. For example, if an epidemic explodes in the country, should the president be given the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus detailing the reasons for an arrest? There is nothing in the Constitution defining the answers to such question. So how do we decide?
This book would be excellent for a social studies class in middle school. The Levinsons raise important questions that need to be addressed as we face our future. I hope you get a chance to read the book.