Not the garbage bin, mind you. The recycling bin. We need a New Governing Charter (NGC).
Every major figure and issue that rages today doesn’t just implicate the U.S. Constitution—it exposes one or more loopholes you can drive a truck through. Trump, Biden, Court-packing, COVID lockdowns, the Electoral College & election integrity, the Southern border, abortion, Ukraine, trans, guns…you name it. The 27 Amendments have been band-aids.
To mix in still more metaphors: the Constitution is bankrupt. It’s not that our founding written mandate doesn’t contain many brilliant ideas that are still relevant; it’s just that the liabilities exceed the assets. I say this not as a flame-throwing anarchist but as a social liberal who, though steeped in the Chicago School of Economics, sides more with the likes of Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman & Abraham Joshua Heschel than Nobel laureates Milton Friedman, George Stigler (under whom I studied) and. Gary Becker. As someone who’s worked for the U.S. Department of Justice (in DC and Seattle), who’s been researching and teaching leadership and ethics for a decade (Georgetown University), and is a native Washingtonian who’s seen first-hand how Politics corrodes even the best of intentions—I’m convinced we need to draft a national charter.
It’s preposterous & obstructionistic for “the Right” to say the Constitution is “hallowed” or on par with The 10 Commandments. It couldn’t even get traction absent 10 Amendments. (Yahweh didn’t need a Bill of Rights.) The document talked the talk at least as much as walked the walk. All men were not created equal; women were ignored. Only one of the signers didn’t “own” slaves. It’s not that there weren’t many more ethical approaches; it’s just that the marbled morality of Thomas Jefferson prevailed over the uncompromising position of John Woolman.
But it’s equally wrong for “the Left” to deny that the Constitution was a vast improvement over what existed on Earth; in many ways, it has stood the test of time. The concept of government by the people was genuinely emancipatory, and the set of checks and balances was brilliant. The Hutus and Tutsis were at each others’ throats for centuries before the Belgians arrived and started chopping off hands to get at the rubber, and the separation of Church and State was a towering advancement; Rousseau’s social contract and David Hume’s rational empiricism replacing the political whims and theological bulls of Pope Pius VI, John Calvin, or King James.
How might we tackle such an ambitious project? First and foremost, we need true leaders that almost everyone can rally around. (Nazis may have the right to march in Skokie, but they don’t merit the privilege of having a seat at this table.) The USA is still a very young nation, yet it’s produced some of history’s most inspiring and constructive leaders. It’s still producing them. But their voices are drowned out or self-suppressed by a deeply toxic climate that our confusing and frayed Constitution enables.
So how might we go about finding some faithful public servants? I suggest the following leadership traits for 3-5 co-chairs of the New Charter Commission (NCC).
- They agree that NCC’s spirit aligns more with South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission than the Nuremberg Trials. The aim is Restorative Justice, not Retribution.
- Adequate representation. South Africa couldn’t include everyone on its Commission, but Desmond Tutu & Willem de Klerk, led by Nelson Mandela—resulted in real buy-in.
- Non-political. Unfortunately, almost every prominent political leader is now tainted, fairly or not. The selection criteria have to transcend “bipartisan,” arguably even “apolitical.”
- Non-religious. Being devout shouldn’t preclude membership any more than it should for membership on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the leaders must have a track record of (as former Attorney General Edward Levi believed) leaning into ethics, not religion. As Bishop Tutu had on many occasions risen above the confines of his vestments, he was a natural choice for chair. The U.S. has no such religious leader today.
Do I have any leaders in mind? Yes. I’d propose three co-chairs.
Krista Tippett. Perhaps more than anything else, America needs a bridge-builder in the public square, and Tippett has been building them for decades on NPR, and now her On Being project. Indeed, On Being’s six “Grounding Virtues” seem ideally suited for the NCC: (i) words that matter; (ii) hospitality; (iii) humility; (iv) patience; (v) generous listening; and (vi) adventurous civility. So far as I can tell, she’s universally loved and respected. If there is a sole chair, she might be the natural choice.
Jonathan Levi. With a resume that includes constitutional scholar, dean of Duke’s law school, former law clerk for Justice Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court, son of Edward Levi, and with a temperament much like his equable father (who taught me), Dean Levi strikes me as an ideal co-chair. He’s researched deeply and creatively into such critical issues as the most feasible forms of representative democracy and the importance of a broad buy-in to the notions of an absolute commitment to the impartial rule of law.
Alan Mulally. The incomparable Peter Drucker said, “If Business can’t solve America’s problems, no one can” because businesses can’t legislate or print their way out of fiscal crises. They must provide solutions that are effective and sustainable. This explains why top leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith calls the former CEO of Ford and Boeing “the greatest leader of our generation” and why Fortune ranked him as America’s #1 “greatest leader,” the world’s #3, and the world’s #1 greatest business leader. Mulally’s charisma is infectious, and his Working Together Management System© is applicable not just to Ford and Boeing but also to the USA.
I can think of many other great leadership candidates, from Marilyn Gist to Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez (Martin Sheen’s legal name). Still, I’d leave it up to Krista, Alan, and Jonathan to decide whether they wanted to expand the co-chairs to five (an odd number might seem best, but so might be the commitment to unanimous decisions, which argues for a smaller number).
Eric Lindner is a non-practicing attorney whose diverse background includes parking cars in Poland, being the research assistant to the dean of the University of Chicago law school, teaching ethics at Georgetown University, and co-founding Substack’s Under the Hood: The Power of Principled Leadership. The author of Hospice Voices: Lessons for Living at The End of Life & Tiger in the Sea: The Ditching of Flying Tiger 923 and the Desperate Struggle for Survival, his writing has also appeared in Apple News Plus, RealClearMarkets, Popular Mechanics, American Heritage, Time, The Economist, and The Washington Post. The Washington DC native moved to central California in 2019.