Hello I'm Phillip Bennett, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and graduated from Harvard University. I've been a journalist for more than 30 years, starting out as a foreign correspondent in Latin America. I was later the managing editor of the Washington Post. Today, I produce documentary films for the PBS series, Frontline. At Duke, I teach about media ethics, journalism about wars and national security secrets, and I direct an oral history project that is creating new ways to watch, search, and publish interviews. The US Constitution is kept in a glass case in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington DC. Its four pages contain about 7,600 words, the length of a long magazine article. Reading the whole thing takes about half an hour. But of course there is much more to the document than this. The US Constitution is the operating system for the world's oldest existing democratic republic. Its contents and the interpretation of those 7,600 words, have provided the context for almost every major political crisis, controversy, and public policy debate in the United States over the last 230 years, through the present. So what does the Constitution say? And how does this archaic text continue to shape politics and policy? The Constitution is not just the operating system of our democracy, it's also the owner's manual. Who are the owners, we the people, these are the opening lines, written in 1787. We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Now that's a heavy lift. So how did the authors of the Constitution think they would accomplish all this in one document? First, they designed some basic rules for government. And second, they tried to describe the higher mission and purpose of this new country, and the roles of its citizens. In seven articles, the Constitution lays out the basic architecture of the US government. One of it's big ideas is, the separation of powers, the division of government into three branches. The Executive Branch, led by the president, the Legislative Branch, made up of the two houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and an independent judiciary, including the Supreme Court and other Federal Courts. This is what's often called a system of checks and balances. The Constitution was designed to keep any one faction, or any individual from getting too much power. The authors wanted to prevent mob rule, or a dictator, either tyranny by the few, or the many. Instead, they envisioned the branches working things out through deliberation, consensus, and a contest of ideas, persuasion and politics. In a similar way, the Constitution created the rules of the road for how state governments and the federal government should work together to form a more perfect union. In addition to the articles in the main text, the Constitution includes 27 amendments. These have been added over the years, to update the Constitution on issues like slavery, which the original document failed to deal with, or to clarify other issues. The amendments are generally devoted to spelling out, in greater detail, civil rights or the scope of government authority. The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. You're probably familiar with many of them, including these examples. The first amendment guarantees liberty of worship, speech, and the press. Opponents of gun control measures cite the second amendment as Constitutional support for their position. The 13th amendment, adopted in 1865 after the Civil War, abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. The 19th amendment in 1920, guaranteed a women's right to vote. And in 1971, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18. It's hard to amend the Constitution, especially when there's intense partisanship and political gridlock, such as recently. The last contentious amendment was ratified more than 40 years ago. So how can the constitution keep up with changes in American society? What role does it play as the rule book for judging disagreements and disputes today, over law and policy? When the Constitution was written, there was intense debate about what the words should say. Ever since, there's been intense debate about what the words mean. The truth is, that interpretations of the Constitution can vary widely, and change with the times. The most important interpreter of the Constitution, is the Supreme Court. The principle of judicial review gives the Supreme Court the final say about whether laws, regulations, or other actions by the government, are constitutional. Decisions on cases brought before the Supreme Court have changed how we understand the Constitution, and how it's applied on everything from racial segregation to abortion, from marriage, to the President's war powers. On the court there are different schools of interpretation. Some justices have been originalists, faithful to the original text of the Constitution. Others have viewed the Constitution as a living document, open to more flexible interpretations. The Supreme Court is generally cautious about creating new legal precedent. But even so, every session of the court is an exercise in applying interpretations of the Constitution to real world issues that directly affect many Americans. The Constitution is seen by people across the political spectrum as a blueprint for holding together a large and diverse country. However, some critics say its checks and balances have contributed to dysfunction in Washington. With branches of government paralyzed in gridlock, and incapable of solving big problems. For these critics, the Constitution is an antiquated operating system for our democracy. Sluggish, buggy, and insecure. Over our history, the meaning of the Constitution hasn't been left only to the Supreme Court. In practice, politicians and voters have also influenced how we understand our founding document, and its role in how it organizes society. This is one reason for its enduring relevance. After the Pentagon papers case in the early 1970s, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, just as Potter Stewart, wrote the following. The Constitution, he said, establishes the contest, not it's resolution. Congress may provide a resolution, at least in some instances, through carefully drawn legislation. For the rest, we must rely, as so often in our system we must, on the tug and pull of the political forces in American society. In other words, the viability of the Constitution depends on us, this remains true today. There's a vast amount of material available on nearly every aspect of the Constitution. And it's worthwhile taking 30 minutes to read the document itself. You could also read the news for a week, while noticing every story that has some relation to the Constitution, you might be surprised.