When Good Constitutions Go Bad

“Non,” “Nee” and now the UK isn’t even going to ask. The European Constitution itself is a massive document of more than 250 pages and 448 – or is it 465? – articles, drafted via a year-long, open access process. But somewhere the process – and the PR – failed. The U.S. constitution has only seven articles, and its writers knew it had to be simple and readable if it was going to pass. We want to know what’s in a constitution: whether the key is in the writing or the ratifying or the PR or all of it. Was the American experience an anomaly – or an example?

Kim Lane Scheppele

John J. O’Brien Professor of Comparative Law and Sociology, University of Pennslyvania Law School

worked on the Afghani and Hungarian constitutions, has been invited to help write one for Iraq

[over ISDN from Philadelphia]

Akhil Reed Amar

professor of constitutional law at Yale, just completed a biography of the US constitution

[by phone from New Haven, CT]

Richard Corbett

blogger; UK Member of the European Parliament; and Chair of the Constitutional Affairs committee

[by phone from Strasbourg, France]

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  • sp113

    OK, I’m not sure if I am even putting this in the correct place, but let me spill my thoughts about the radio program….

    I’m not sure I get the whole point of “open source” as a radio program.

    OK, you can send ideas and comments about the show to the show.

    Yes, they weblog the show…and you can download it as an MP3 file podcast.

    But, in the end…it HAS to be a decent radio show!

    Seems like an awful lot of “geek talk”, and self importance.

    Maybe after you settle down from the “launch”, they will start devoting

    more programs to a single topic (a topic that isn’t about themselves!)

    Why are you not on on Friday nights?

    And lastly, I came to this site….and couldn’t even figure out how tos end you an email!

    Where do I post this comment…..old shows, shows that aired, new shows, past shows!

    The whole web site looks much too complicated for the average listener (Me) to figure out.

    All this for a 1 hour show?

    I was a big fan of “the connection”…but somehow Chris seems to have discovered cyberspace…and is now forcing it on everyone.

    I think the “open source” idea is good…but it can’t overwhelm the entire process of a ‘radio show’.

    You need to find a quick and easy way to explain the philosophy behind the show.

    SOmething like, “I’m Chris Lydon, and welcome to Open SOurce, the radio program…..where YOU are the source.”

    …or where the source is ongoing.”

    …the show that keeps evolving.”

    Something like that…a simple one or two line phrase that isn’t distracting, but describes that this show is different…and here’s how, etc.

    I asked a colleague if he’s been listening to your new radio program…. His response:

    “I did, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out what the point was.”

    I think the show is much too distracting…with a lot of the cyber crap.

    Get back to the folksy congenial style of Chris Lydon making topics interesting.

    Don’t overwhelm everyone with stuf that the majority of people don’t have time to think about.


  • One suggest (as regards this topic) and a a quasi self-intersted suggestion.

    The suggstion: there’s a guy whose name I’m forgetting who is a young law school grad who helped write the interim Iraqi pseudo-constitution. And may have a book on the subject already. Sorry I’m not more precise, but I’m sure Google will handle the rest.

    The other thing, and I’m not sure what the ethics are here, but I’m a publisher. Publisher at an indie press called Soft Skull Press. We’v a book coming out next month called A Box of Longing with 50 Drawer: A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. 52 poems, one for each word in the Preamble. Could be an interesting sidebar?

    And could also be totally inappropriate for me to be pitching, but then again, maybe that could be part of the iterest o fthis Open Source project: listeners get to hear the pitches from the publicists? (I’ve always wondered how publicist at Random House pitch to producers…)

  • aaronsw

    Diana Johnstone, author of French say “Non”, might be good.

  • Hooray! We’re talking about a federation of nations! Europe is working on one –but all of us need one. To start, we need to imagine it, and hope for it. Americans have a special knowledge of beautiful, habitual Constitutionalism — but we need to revive conscious thought about it. Let’s talk on!

  • Abby

    From the blog crooked timber, I learned of this blog manifesto by former French law teacher and current information technology specialist Etienne Chouard of Marseille.


    It’s been 13 years since I studied French formally, but here were his basic principles for a consitution. He argued that the citizens should vote no, since the european constitution violated nearly every one of them.

    (1.) A constitution ought to be readable so that the people can know what they’re voting on.

    (2.) A constitution should not impose a particular partisan political economy

    (3.) It ought to be revisable. (I found this interesting, since our own U.S. Constitution is notoriously hard to modify.)

    (4.) A Constitution should protect against tyranny through the separation of powers.

    (5.) A constitution should not be imposed by the powerful, but established by the people.

    M. Chouard also wrote at length about what is often called the democratic deficit in the EU. THere is simply too much power for the Heads of state, even more than the power of the commission, and inadequate power for parliament.

    He also criticizes it for growing out of a prior economic arrangement. He seems to believe that the political organization ought to predate and be superior to the economic. Otherwise the people lose their sovereignty to the sovereignty of a neoliberal market economy.

  • I’d like to hear about constitutions and myth-making. The document itself and its paratext (everything surrounding it – the writing, ratifying, naval blockades, etc) can contribute a great deal to national identity and sense of mission. Aren’t constitutions in a sense the creation myths of nation states?

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  • Anyone have an IRC channel yet for “radioopensource” yet?

    The one I saw last week on FreeNode does not seem to exist anymore.

  • Your technology works fine!

    Before I put some comments here in this block thanks to my linking to this very topic, the post of my own blog pops-up here. Very nice.

    Bottomline of my post:

    So my *short* ( ..) question to mr Corbett is how are we going to have real European polticians?

    Where do we find them and more importantly: what cultural and institutional changes are necessary and possible to supply them some kind of forum?

    In the elections for the European parliament I am not even allowed to vote for mr Corbett.

  • Administrator

    Frans – thanks for hopping in and commenting! (Everyone offer Frans coffee and sympathy — it’s late in the Netherlands)

  • Is a more united Europe dead? From the language this American still living in Paris reads in the press and hears from many of the politicians it is. But this is only one step in a very long process – a set-back, no more. It has shaken up ‘the establishment’ and the people are discovering how much power they have.

    Perhaps those in power will start listening a little bit more, rather than continuing on with business as usual. Open up the process, and welcome the people in – you’ll be rewarded.

  • Shall we try a WikiConstitution Process? (I am serious.)

  • Question for Prof. Scheppele: It may be too late — but in the case of Iraq, what happens if the Constitutional Assembly decides to include strong references to Islam this summer?

  • While badly paraphrasing the famout quote about The People given accurate information will make a correct decision, I must point to this Indyblogs entry today regarding the French refusal to ratify the EU Constitution:

    Why the French referendum failed

    Andrew Ó Baoill 15 June, 2005 12:50

    “This is surreal! Giscard d’Estaing blames the failure of the EU constitution in France on the fact that each household was sent a copy of the full text of the constitution….”


    Full text of referenced article therein:

    Giscard regrets constitution sent to French people

    15.06.2005 – 09:49 CET By Lisbeth Kirk


  • jborisch

    The show recording attached to this entry seems to be the “Passage to India” show. Is there a show for this entry? Am I missing something? Thanks, and great work everyone.


  • juh

    In June we started a project dedicated to a better constitution for Europe called Wikitution.

    I presented the project on the First Wikimania Conference in Frankfurt on August, 6th.


    You are welcome to join and participate!