If you visit the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., you can read on the wall Thomas Jefferson’s perspective on constitutions. It’s a slightly edited version of a letter he wrote to a friend in 1816:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
While it’s gotten little attention in the U.S., Chile is currently putting Jefferson’s views into action. This Sunday, September 4, the country will vote on whether to adopt an entirely new constitution written by a convention last year.
Current polls suggest that the new constitution may be voted down, with support having fallen precipitously since the beginning of the year amid widespread disinformation. One recent survey showed that 37 percent of Chileans approved of it and 46 percent did not. However, voting is compulsory for all Chileans not overseas, and enough remain undecided to tip the balance. The perceived stakes are high enough that forces rejecting the new constitution ran over pro-constitution cyclists with a horse and carriage.
The proposed constitution is quite long — arguably too long, since complexity is always useful for the powerful — with 388 articles. Highlights include:
But the significance of the proposed constitution is not simply its specifics. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the fact that it’s gotten this far is a vivid illustration of how regular people can generate an explosion of political imagination if they ever get the opportunity. And if the constitution is adopted, it will inevitably expand the imagination of regular people in Latin America and elsewhere — just as American leaders have long feared.
American corporations and the U.S. government have enthusiastically meddled in Chilean politics for centuries, but our involvement intensified during the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, successive U.S. administrations were anxious to prevent Salvador Allende, a popular socialist politician, from being elected president. After Allende narrowly lost the 1958 contest to the conservative, wealthy Jorge Alessandri, the U.S. spent heavily to support Alessandri’s government. When Allende ran again in the next election in 1964, the U.S. successfully went all-out to stop him from winning, with a huge investment of funds funneled into Chilean politics via the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But Allende ran for president yet again in 1970, and on September 4 of that year, the worst nightmare of the U.S. came to pass: He won. The Nixon administration was desperate to prevent him from taking office. Their panic can be gauged by notes taken soon afterward by Richard Helms, then the director of the CIA: “1 in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile!; $10,000,000 available, more if necessary; full-time job — best men we have; game plan: make the economy scream.” The next day, Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, warned American newspaper editors off the record that Chile could be a “contagious example” that would “infect” U.S. allies in Europe.
Despite this, Allende was sworn in. Nixon and company did not give up, however, conducting an enormous covert campaign to undermine Allende’s government. On September 11, 1973, a military junta led by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power, with Allende dying under murky circumstances in the presidential palace. The coup does not seem to have been directly organized by the U.S., but it’s obvious that we created the conditions that made it possible, and the plotters knew that America wouldn’t mind at all if they took over.
Pinochet’s new regime swiftly rounded up troublesome Chileans, killing over 3,000 of them. Meanwhile, his economic team — nicknamed the “Chicago Boys” due to the education many of them had received in right-wing economics at the University of Chicago — moved to restructure the Chilean economy. This was a success, in that both poverty and corporate profits (Chilean and American) increased.
Chile’s first real constitution had been instituted in 1833 and then was replaced by a new one in 1925. Within days of taking power, Pinochet’s government had begun to consider creating yet another. In 1980, it held a plebiscite on what it had come up with. Sixty-five percent of voters approved the new constitution, with the help of thousands of the government’s secret police casting multiple ballots.
The 1980 constitution was an attempt by the junta’s intellectuals to insulate the country’s economic functioning from any future eruptions of democracy. It forbid union leaders from participating in “political partisan activities” and gave the president the power to suspend “the rights of association and unionization” and generally “determin[e] the cases where bargaining is not permitted.” Notably for today, it also granted the “rights of private citizens over waters.”
This worked, to some degree. Pinochet was eventually extracted from power via plebiscite, and the country returned to formal democracy. Then Chile elected a liberal doctor named Michelle Bachelet as president in 2006 (and then again in 2014). Bachelet’s father had been tortured to death by Pinochet’s agents, and she herself underwent less severe torture. But while she managed to reach the top level of political power in Chile, several of her initiatives were struck down as unconstitutional by Chile’s Supreme Court.
The path to the potential new constitution began in 2019. Protests by secondary school students about bus fare hikes morphed into huge demonstrations by everyone focused on Chile’s extraordinary levels of inequality. Soon a new slogan spread among participants: “A new constitution or nothing.”
In 2020, the country held a referendum with two questions. First, did voters want a new constitution? Seventy-eight percent said yes. Second, should a new constitution be written solely by delegates elected by popular vote or a half-and-half mixture of current members of Congress and newly elected delegates? The mood of Chileans toward their political class can be judged by the fact that 79 percent of voters wanted the first option. In 2021, 155 delegates were elected under rules that required gender parity. The eventual winners included 77 women and 78 men. The fruit of their labors is what will be voted on this Sunday.
In 1824, eight years after Jefferson wrote about the need for constitutions to change with the times, and just two years before his death, he wrote to another friend about why political progress can be so difficult. People, he said, are
naturally divided into two parties. 1. those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests … call them [whatever] name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. … Aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.
What will happen now in Chile can’t be predicted. But the fact that the referendum is happening at all, and that Chile has come this close to monumental political change, demonstrates that everyday people clearly do want to participate in how their country is governed — and have a lot of ideas about how to improve things. This by itself is a huge victory for Jefferson’s small-d democrats.