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U. Virginia Prof's New Book Aims To 'stir The Pot', Revise Constitution

This story was written by Sarah Norris, Cavalier Daily
Voting on Election Day seems to most students to be an opportunity to exercise change within the political system. Voting, however, does nothing to curtail the political factions, expensive campaigns and negative campaigning that some see as plaguing American politics. Instead, a change within the political system itself is necessary to control current inequalities, according to University of Virginia Politics Prof. Larry Sabato.

With his newly released book, "A More Perfect Constitution," Sabato said he sought to revitalize the political system by reforming and revising the Constitution.

Sabato first began to outline his book in 1976, while teaching at Oxford. He said because British students have a different point of view on the American system, their penetrating questions helped him formulate a more critical frame of reference for his book, and he started to think about the connections within American politics.

"I felt this was an opportunity to outline some possible changes," Sabato said at the unveiling of his book last month. "I wanted to provoke thought and encourage other ideas."

Sabato articulates 23 changes to the Constitution in his book, which include altering the structure of Congress, revising the length of the presidential term and transforming the current primary system to a regional lottery plan. He said he hopes his suggestions will encourage people to think about what revisions they would make to the Constitution.

In the last 220 years, Americans have amended the Constitution just 17 times, excluding the Bill of Rights. America has an obligation to constantly review the Constitution and make the necessary changes, preserving its relevance for the American people, Sabato said. He emphasized that the founders designed the Constitution in such a way that it could be reread and reworked to accommodate the changing circumstances of time.

"I want to start a discussion and debate about a subject that the founders wanted us to have," Sabato said. "By not revising the Constitution, we have failed them."

On the back of his book, Sabato quotes Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington to emphasize the degree to which the founding fathers believed in a flexible Constitution. According to Sabato, these political thinkers believed that the Constitution would be continually revised to reflect the changing nature of America.

"'No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,'" Sabato said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. "'The earth belongs always to the living generation ... Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.'"

During his talk, Sabato discussed a chapter that recommends a constitutional convention that would allow for citizens to meet and debate the current issues as well as to vote and enact change. The Center for Politics led a constitutional convention last month designed to mimic the feel of an authentic convention in Washington D.C, where politicians and academics debated constitutional issues. Several students gave positive feedback on the convention.

"With the publication of Professor Sabato's book and the constitutional convention, the entire administration once again shows its commitment to promoting active participation in the social sciences," third-year College student Kirk Smith said.

The constitutional convention presented a broad range of topics for discussion and debate. Sabato said this convention, like his book, was meant to be a forum intended to spark discussion about the Constitution, not to stress one reform over another.

Sabato's suggested modifications sparked controversy and enraged members of both sides of th political spectrum. He said he received letters from conservatives attacking the book for being too liberally minded and liberals attacking the book for being too conservatively minded.

Sabato said his book suggests only structural changes, unaligned with either party, that would serve to improve the overall interaction between the government and the citizens. A few of the changes discussed in the book include a single six-year presidential term that could be extended another two years by referendum and limiting federal and Supreme Court justices to a 15-year term. Sabato also proposes a larger House of Representatives that would allow for a more diverse Congressional body.

"Non-partisan changes are the only changes to the Constitution that the American public will allow," he said. "There are not enough truly red or truly blue states to pass a partisan constitutional change."

Responsive letters and the ensuing debate represent a fulfillment of what Sabato said are his goals for the book: to open a dialogue and create controversy.

"Whether you actually agree with Sabato's proposals or not, he provides a solid argument that some sort of change to the Constitution is necessary to solve the political problems troubling America today," Harvey said.

Sabato emphasized the civics lesson behind his book, rather than the necessity of each of his changes, adding that he does not even agree with all 23 suggestions. Sparking an interest in the Constitution and exposing the public to civics is more important, he said.

"In our day and time, you have to stir the pot to get attention," he said. "I wanted to start a debate and be provocative. I would love it if people went and read the whole Constitution."
© 2007 Cavalier Daily via U-WIRE