Thomas Jefferson believed that the Constitution should be revised every generation. Instead, the Constitution was amended 27 times. However, perhaps the most critical question confronting the nation today is whether a document crafted by the best minds of the 18th century is fit for purpose given the rigors and seemingly intractable political divisions of the 21st.
Consider three thought experiments. First, suppose the COVID-19 pandemic mutated again to a virus that was not only more virulent and deadly but resistant to the vaccine and 5,000 or tens of thousands of Americans were dying a day. What would the government do and what would the Constitution permit?
The United States has experienced massive unrest from the Shays and Whiskey rebellions to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln revoked habeas corpus. During the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic in the midst of a world war, the "red scare" and letter bomb terror attacks, thousands of Americans were arrested under the Sedition and Espionage Acts without due process and many were deported.
After Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to detention camps for fear of committing treason, espionage or sabotage to aid Japan. In the early 1950s and the McCarthy reign of terror, accusations of being a communist wrecked the personal and professional lives of thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.
Could this happen again? To contain a far more deadly pandemic, mandates to close businesses, schools and limit assembly would be required. In today's dangerously polarized environment, would any extreme actions be possible when too many Americans regard the pandemic as a hoax or insufficient grounds for impositions on individual freedoms?
Second, suppose the domestic terrorist threat of right-wing White supremacists and other extreme groups leads to massive acts of violence? That would mean balancing infringements on civil liberties, particularly the right to bear and carry firearms with restoring control and quelling violence. Indeed, would intrusive surveillance as well pre-emptive arrests be imposed?
Third, suppose there was no vice president. If the president were incapacitated permanently, the vice president would take that office. If the vice president, for whatever reason, likewise was removed, a replacement, according to the 25th Amendment, must be approved by majority vote of both houses of Congress. In a Senate split 50-50, the possibility of the "minority" party voting en masse against any candidate would leave that body in deadlock and with no vice president to break the tie.
These are hypotheticals. But in today's septic environment, such scenarios cannot be dismissed or limited to blockbuster movies and works of fiction. They could happen. However, a larger danger looms.
The Constitution is based on divided government and checks and balances. In a nation as politically divided as America is, when truth and fact are discounted, ignored or rejected and both political parties view the other often as "clear and present dangers," can any government function? Or is failed and failing government the new unacceptable "normal?"
The impeachment of Donald Trump and subsequent trial exacerbate these constitutional flaws and ambiguities. Barring unimpeachable incriminating evidence, Republican senators will likely vote to acquit Trump, arguing that trying an ex-president is unconstitutional. But no matter the verdict, the nation will be split even further.
About half of America believes Trump is guilty of inciting and provoking the insurrection on Capitol Hill and must be held accountable and punishable. A substantial number of Americans believe this is a vindictive Democratic political witch hunt and Trump is innocent. One result is that the trial will detract from the necessity of dealing promptly with the pandemic, its relief, the economy, the growing threat of domestic terrorism and eliminating the poison that infects America's political system and society at large.
Whether the Senate will find a way around the dilemma of conducting other business during a trial is an immediate issue with long-term and highly negative consequences. And with the specter of international actors exploiting these conditions, it is easy to draw more dire predictions.
The United States is not the former Soviet Union, imploded by an irrational political system built on falsehoods, evasion of truth and fact and an attempt for reform that proved catastrophic. Yet, some of the parallels cannot be completely dismissed. Given this daunting array of challenges, will the Constitution be capable of weathering these crises?
It did in 1861 and a civil war in which about 750,000 Americans died in battle. This is not 1861. But Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a vicious political war in the midst of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and Trump's radioactive residue. The Constitution will be battered. The question is how much and how badly?
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation."