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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What Does the Constitution Look Like?

I have often wondered what the Constitution looks like. Not the written document. We have seen that, and the florid graphic of "We, the people..." from the preamble is an iconic image persistently displayed throughout our history. But I mean, what does the Constitution really look like? Four years ago, when we began the Peter Jennings Project, I had contemplated having a photo exhibit accompany our annual event at the National Constitution Center in February -- pictures from the year's journalism that demonstrated constitutional principles at work. I still hope that we will one day do that.

But there are many ways to apprehend this question and a quiet trend in the world of design is offering a compelling one. As with so many trends, it is not so much new as it is renewed. For instance, at the West Point history department, where I work, there is a fascination with a graphic treatment of Napoleon's march on Russia. The graphic, done by French engineer Charles Joseph Minard in 1869, is a thing of beauty, stunning in that it is both simple and comprehensive at the same time. There are bold lines demonstrating the departure of the French soldiers from Paris which then narrow as they approach Russia and then narrow more as they return from Russia, as attrition takes hold. I don't think I have ever seen a more stunning demonstration of Napoleon's futile march than this.

The resurrection of Minard's graph was driven by a Yale professor named Edward Tufte. Tufte has mounted a campaign to improve graphic representations of information. If you go to his website here, you can see some of the graphic gems he has discovered and read something of his philosophy about everything from data collection to Microsoft PowerPoint which he considers a travesty and the single greatest contributor to fuzzy thinking. You can also buy a poster of Minard's Napoleon graph as well as a few other impressive graphic treatments of information and even engage in a dialogue with Tufte and the band of Tufteans that have come to form a min-cult of followers. (Back in the 1970s, designer Richard Saul Wurman invented the term "information architect" to describe those who fashion data into visual constructs to reveal relationships between various pieces of information).

Tufte's crusade is anything but a lonely one. The search for a new, graphic language in our increasingly non-literary world is a rarely noticed aspect of the larger revolution in communications that has been underway since at least the 1980s. The New York Times Op-ed page, for instance, now regularly features an "Op-Chart." Here you can see this past Sunday's Op-ed on the Allied forces deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan arranged by country of origin, manner of death, and geographical location. While I love words, as a purveyor of information the graph here trumps any simpler word description I have seen of the carnage in these modern wars. There may be more poetry elsewhere, but the brash, all-at-once nature of this experience can't be matched by words alone (On a more lighter topic, you can see the New York City area Netflix rental patterns organized by movie and by zip code here where the Curious Case of Benjamin Button won the honors as most rented movie in 2009).

All of this comes back to the Constitution when you consider a few other graphic representations that have recently cropped up on the Internet. For instance, the recent ideological history of the Supreme Court can be found represented here in a graph assembled by Target Point, a consulting company that specializes in advising Republican candidates. It uses shades of red and blue to show the trends in SCOTUS decisions from 1937 to the present.

Looking at it, you can learn a lot. For instance, while the Court now has a fairly even balance between "liberals" and "conservatives" (with conservatives holding a 5-4 edge), the balance between Democratic appointees (three), versus Republican appointees (six) is more stark. The most liberal member of the current Court is John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by Republican president Gerald Ford, while the most conservative, Clarence Thomas, was appointed by George H. W. Bush. Still, today's Court remains shy of the extremes, which were represented by Justice William Rehnquist in the 1970s before he became chief justice, who is the Court's most conservative justice during this period and William O. Douglas, the FDR-appointee who is the most liberal justice represented.

Some myths are dispelled: Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, often referred to as marching in lock step, do not appear to be such clones here, with Scalia the more likely to shift from conservative orthodoxy. Other often-cited observations are reinforced: for instance, since leadership requires politics, chiefs have been said to shun the extremes and that is borne out here. Once Rehnquist becomes chief justice, his own conservative tendencies soften and despite his reputation as a revolutionary liberal leader Chief Justice Earl Warren is portrayed here as a moderate. On the Target Point graph you can click on video to watch executive Alex Lundry analyze Justice David Souter's leftward drift. Appointed by the first President Bush as a moderate conservative, he finishes as a moderate liberal.

Of course, all of these judgments are subjective. Target Point relied on something called the Martin-Quinn scores developed by law professors Andrew Martin (Washington University in St. Louis) and Kevin M. Quinn, of Berkeley. Martin and Quinn's methodology and Martin's Center for Empirical Research in the Law are worth their own post (and will get one when I get around to it), but in the meantime, you can go browse their website here.

Another, even more stunning, SCOTUS graphic treatment has been created by, which portrays the entire history of the Supreme Court as if it were a soft undulating stream. The time plots graph gets more interesting the longer you look at it. Important cases are placed within the timeline; votes on those cases are also revealed; each justice is portrayed with a color scheme that identifies which party the president who appointed him or her belonged to, which gets more interesting the farther back you g, since the American political party landscape is more varied in the nation's early years. You can buy a 48" by 32" poster of the graph for $45, or a frame version of the same for $370.26, but if you do that leave space on your walls for more: time plots is just beginning and their SCOTUS history is the first project of what will no doubt be many. (You can even pursue "Time plots on Demand," where the company will create a graph for you on a subject of your choice).

The website is yet another venue in which to find this trend towards graphic representations and, at least in terms of the number of products offered, they are ahead of time plots. At historyshots, you can see, and purchase, a large size graphic rendering of the history of America's political parties broken down into two posters, each 32 x 17, and each of them looking like mole patterns under a suburban lawn. There is also a history of the Confederate Army, one of the history of Major League baseball, and many, many more.

Yet while each of these sites gets close with their Supreme Court work, none has done a graphic representation of the Constitution itself. I asked Alex Lundry of Target Point if he knew of one and he indicated that he did not; then offered that he and his design partner would try to come up with one. Good luck, Alex. I look forward to seeing it. In the meantime, what do any of you think the Constitution looks like?


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