Skip to comments.The perils of constitution-worship
Posted on 09/25/2010 1:04:09 PM PDT by Palter
One of the guiding principles of the tea-party movement is based on a myth
Wouldn't it be splendid if the solutions to Americas problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics. Listen to Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota and tea-party heroine, as she addressed the conservative Value Voters Summit in Washington, DC, last week:
The Declaration of Independence and the constitution have been venerated for two centuries. But thanks to the tea-party movement they are enjoying a dramatic revival. The day after this Septembers constitution-day anniversary, people all over the country congregated to read every word together aloud, a profoundly moving exercise that will take less than one hour, according to the gatherings organisers. At almost any tea-party meeting you can expect to see some patriot brandishing a copy of the hallowed texts and calling, with trembling voice, for a prodigal America to redeem itself by returning to its founding principles. The Washington Post reports that Colonial Williamsburg has been crowded with tea-partiers, asking the actors who play George Washington and his fellow founders for advice on how to cast off a tyrannical government.
Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a first principles project to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity. A Heritage book and video (We Still Hold These Truths) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obamas chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankinds greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.
Accept for arguments sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it constitutional idolatry.
The constitution is a thing of wonder, all the more miraculous for having been written when the rest of the worlds peoples were still under the boot of kings and emperors (with the magnificent exception of Britains constitutional monarchy, of course). But many of the tea-partiers have invented a strangely ahistorical version of it. For example, they say that the framers aim was to check the central government and protect the rights of the states. In fact the constitution of 1787 set out to do the opposite: to bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republics Articles of Confederation of 1777.
The words of men, not of gods
When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromisesexactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which todays Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.
More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there. Mr Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognise Americas modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. As to what they would have made of the modern welfare state, who can tell? To ask that question after the passage of two centuries, says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, is to pose an impossible thought experiment.
None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is assuredly a case to be made for reducing its size and ambitions and giving greater responsibilities to individuals. But this is a case that needs to be made and remade from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age. Pace Ms Bachmann, the constitution is for all Americans and does not belong to her party alone. Nor did Jefferson write a mission statement for the tea- partiers. They are going to have to write one for themselves.
I think we should repeal all of the amendments since the 12th Amendment.
Wow. This anonymous author truly doesn’t “get it”.
He or she is wrong about so many things and on so many levels, its hard to even pick where to start.
At least the article serves as a reminder to me why I stopped reading the Economist years ago.
Obviously, not my view, just posting for more fuel.
Screw you, limeys. We know the Constitution are the word of men...men brilliant enough to rescue millions from tyranny and forge a country that is now the most powerful, successful democracy in the history of the world. We now have traitors among us who would “transform” this great nation forever. The Constitution is the guiding principle we need to get us back on the right track.
Oh, he gets it.
It’s the editorial view.
This guy totally misses the point. “Should gays marry?” He is correct that the Constitution doesn’t address gay marriage, and that is why it falls back to the State authorities.
The most revealing part of the article are the comments.
I will never understand the thought process of a liberal/socialist.
Couldn't get past the first paragraph without finding idiocy. No, the list is problems is MUCH longer than the Constitution...but the solution is the constitution. Faulty premise, false claims...faulty conclusions are almost always guaranteed.
“Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to Americas problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? “
BS! The fundamental principle of the TEA Parties is that Government aint the solution. Only a leftwing schnitzensocket would assume otherwise.
Same with that cartoon. Mocking the reverence of freedom. F’ing pathetic.
Very clever. The founding fathers are deified by tea partiers, therefore the ACLU now has authority to remove the founders and the constitution from government.
Its a good idea to post a (Barf Alert) when you post the thread.
Some questions may be beyond answers, the "progressive" solution to these seems to be application of government coercion, no wonder they hate the Constitution.
Oh, I guess you missed it. The 9th and 10th Amendments were repealed, I believe during either the Roosevelt or Johnson administrations. My memory is a little foggy on just when. /s
ESAD, ya limey poofter.
Constitution worship...that would be rule of law and natural rights, wouldn’t it?
It seems those things ought to be respected and, yes, that respect would fix most of our problems.