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Peter Sagal: U.S. Constitution saved us from ‘Game of Thrones’ world

Peter Sagal is taking a look at how the U.S. Constitution works in present-day America on his cross-country motorcycle road trip in "Constitution USA" beginning Tuesday on PBS. (Image courtesy PBS)

The United States Constitution as the subject of a TV show might not sound so flashy, but what if you mix a little “Game of Thrones” in there?

NPR personality Peter Sagal’s new PBS show “Constitution USA” is playing this May. While on his patriotically-decorated motorcycle ride across the U.S, Sagal says he realized the ratifying of the constitution was a super impressive moment, one he tries to translate by citing the HBO series.

“I bring “Game of Thrones” into it,” Sagal tells KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank, “because I say if you want to know what most of the history of the world was prior to the ratification of the US constitution, and want to see how like the world governed itself, look at “Game of Thrones,” that’s how it worked. It was warfare, family dynasties, terror as a weapon. That’s what it was.”

Humans had been ruled by whoever had the biggest army or whoever was more ruthless in their pursuit of power, he says, adding that power was often handed down to sons, and if you weren’t in the ruling family, you were out of luck.

“Then along comes the U.S. Constitution and says, ‘no everybody here is going to be a citizen. Everybody here is going to vote in this constitution. Any citizen can become a member of the ruling class,'” says Sagal. “This was amazing. This was a universal democracy or as close to it as humankind had ever come […] and it changed the world.”

But even after the constitution was drafted and ratified, there was no guarantee it would be followed. How it did so is one of the issues Sagal pondered on his U.S. tour.

“There’s nothing about human nature that would indicate that we’d actually live up to this promise,” says Sagal. “If you had been looking at human beings from afar […] and you had watched them, you would have put money on the first U.S. president refusing to give up power as soon as he was thrown out of office.”

But of course George Washington did give up the reins. Sagal can only explain the transfer of power by what he calls a kind of “civic American religion.”

“We all have this faith, it really is a thing that binds everybody together […] We’re not going to do the unconstitutional, undemocratic thing. That includes everybody from President Nixon agreeing to hand over the Watergate tapes, to the cops who have a precinct right near my building in New York not beating the hell out of a suspect to get a confession, to you and me paying a parking ticket or obeying the law on a daily basis,” says Sagal. “We all just agree that we’re going to participate fully in this civic democracy and it stumbles forward.”

Even in an era where it seems politicians can’t agree on anything, Sagal says the U.S. Constitution seems to keep us from devolving back to warring like we see among the Targaryens and Baratheons. He says the constitution doesn’t require everyone to agree and it provides a way to have arguments without killing each other.

“This is a way to get your way, but you have to fight these people in this way: You have to get enough people elected. You have to convince Congress, the House, the Senate, the President. If you can do all that, you can get your way,” says Sagal. “It’s an alternative to getting all your friends and giving them muskets and marching over the hill.”

In the four-part PBS series, Sagal steered clear of the two arguably hottest constitutional topics: guns and abortion. The only thing he can say about those issues is that if people are unhappy, there can always be change.

“If they’re unhappy with the current regime of gun regulations, either thinking it’s too strict or too liberal, whatever you prefer, go change it. You have that right, the constitution gives you that right.”

And as long as everyone maintains faith in the constitution and system, things seem to just keep rolling along, says Sagal.

“As soon as we all give up, then it’s “Game of Thrones” again, except not as sexy,” says Sagal.

“Constitution USA” airs on PBS Tuesdays at 9 p.m. and is meant to be a study of how the constitution is operating in modern-day America. Interviewees on Sagal’s red, white and blue motorcycle tour include retired Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, and the Arizona Leatherneck Motorcycle Club.

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