States’ rights. Gun rights. Equal rights. We toss them around, selectively, as givens in our country, grounded in our constitution. Yet we’re not quite sure how those rights came about and how they can peacefully co-exist.
Last night PBS aired the first episode of a four-part series called Constitution USA, taking a look at the document we all like to invoke, conveniently, as protection for our rights. “Many of us don’t have any idea what the Constitution says,” says host Peter Sagal (of Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me fame). “Of course, that’s never stopped us from arguing about what it means.”
Sagal traveled across the country interviewing lawyers and academics about the Constitution’s history and spoke to ordinary people whose lives have been directly affected by its interpretation — hoping, in the end, to remind us all how the Constitution, now almost 225 years old, continues to define us as a nation.
In the first episode, Sagal delves into the concept of federalism, the balance of power between a strong national government and independent states. Along the way, he talks to those who think the federal government has grown too big and is infringing on individual rights. On the flip side, Sagal meets with those who point to the contributions that only a strong central government can make — building interstate highways, protecting food and drugs, and maintaining clean water and air — and reminds us how, in times of crisis, it’s the federal government that steps in to make a difference.