Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Deconstructing the Constitution Myth (Revised)

Note: this essay has been revised since its original posting to more accurately reflect my opinions and clarify some of the terminology.

Who inside the Washington Beltway despises the U.S. Constitution? How many politicians have we elected who've refused to swear an oath to protect the core document of our government?

If you had to judge by some of the rhetoric of far-right-wing pundits, quite a lot.

We've heard considerable angst in the past several years about electing people who will adhere to the Constitution. As if the people in office now don't. Consider how Red State, a far-right-wing political organization believed to be funded by industrialist heir David Koch, gushed today in an article about Texan Ted Cruz for US Senate:

"It is great news for those of us who recognize the need... to elect actual, proven, limited government, Constitution-respecting conservatives..."

You mean we have conservative politicians who don't respect the Constitution?

"But what makes Ted a truly remarkable candidate are... his extraordinary substantive record exhibited throughout his life, highlighted by his repeated fight for the Constitution and conservative principles..."

I know our conservative hawks like using militaristic imagery, but are they really the only ones wanting to preserve our Constitution?

"That simplicity is rooted in his own life experiences - from his family’s immigrant roots to his own hard work and dedication to the law and the Constitution."

Um, is it really hard work being dedicated to the Constitution? I'm dedicated to it, too, but I've never felt compelled to break sweat over it.

"He is in this race to win it - and he brings to the race a deep knowledge of and commitment to the Constitution and our founding principles..."

Oy, what rhetoric! In case Red State has forgotten, one of the founding principles included slavery, which hopefully even Red Staters would find abominable today.

Our Constitution is Not the Bible

Now, I do know where they're going with this. The neo-conservatives of America have peddled an anti-liberal snake oil to easily-agitated right-wingers which hypothesizes that one reason America is in bad shape is because liberals don't follow the Constitution. They don't respect it, they don't abide by it, they twist words and meanings, and they don't view it as sacred.

Granted, that's an easy way to understand why some politicians in this country, most of whom are Democrats, don't vote the way conservative Republicans want them to vote. It's also an easy way to expose one's intolerant prejudices.

After all, it's one thing for religious conservatives to adhere to a strict interpretation of our holy Bible, another famous literary work to which the Constitution is sometimes compared. But, contrary to what some of us religious conservatives believe, the Constitution of the United States of America is a man-made, man-inspired, and therefore flawed and fallible governmental document. Our Bible is everything our Constitution isn't.

True, the Constitution set remarkably historic precedents and crafted an ingenious balance of powers. But it is not perfect. The original signers professed no claims to its infallibility. They weren't even all in agreement on its final wording. But they knew their unity on this document would be critical for its grander purpose to succeed: the establishment of an innovative system of government for a brave new republic.

One Interpretation or Many?

Surely conservatives understand that one of the differentiations between our political parties and ideological perspectives involves the way people interpret the Constitution. To a certain degree, the worldview through which we all consider the wording of the Constitution varies from individual to individual. Isn't that partly because we supposedly value individualism so much?

But do differing viewpoints denote disrespect? Are conservatives correct in accusing liberals of not being dedicated to the Constitution? Does Nancy Pelosi dance a jig on her personal copy of it every morning? Does Harry Reid secretly harbor evil impulses to burn the original manuscript? Surely President Obama doesn't wish it was never written.

Leave it to petty politics to take such a watershed document crafted in sometimes bitter unity and use it to divide the electorate.

Hyperactive Hyperbole

Hopefully, both liberals and conservatives know language denigrating a perceived lack of respect for the Constitution represents simple hyper-conservative hyperbole.

For example, many Americans don't like rising taxation. But are politicians who keep voting for tax increases defying the Constitution?

Many Americans didn't like it when Dick Cheney made power grabs to increase the authority of the Executive Branch, but conservatives didn't howl that he was violating the Constitution.

Many Americans don't like the increasing amount of Federal regulation over states and businesses, but the Constitution gives Congress vague language to do so.

And for the neo-con military hawks, consider the sloppy wording from Article 1, Section 8:
"To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years." Only two years, huh? Does that mean the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unconstitutional?

Of course not, you'd retort, disgusted with my impudence. These are issues that have become flashpoints because of the oftentimes vague terminology in the Constitution, you'd reason. Sometimes we don't know exactly what the framers of the Constitution meant in their 18th Century idioms. Sometimes we've had to rework some elements and introduce revised concepts as our country has matured.

And you know what? You'd be exactly correct.

Between the Pale?

Our venerable Constitution has been called a living document by liberals who believe literal, intransigent interpretations of it suffocate its relevance. Conservatives like to bash judges they perceive as liberal by saying they "legislate from the bench" by deconstructing Constitutional phrases and concepts to fit left-wing political agendas.

While I don't doubt that some judges do indeed "legislate from the bench," I suspect conservative judges may do the same thing for right-wing political agendas. Only we might not hear about those as much because liberals can appreciate the organic reinterpretation of the Constitution. Nevertheless, although I think parts of the Constitution can be open to interpretation, I don't believe a wholesale abdication of the original Constitutional Convention's small-government, states-rights mindset befits the overall spirit of the document. Neither, however, can I comfortably camp in the right-wing philosophy that the Constitution has been etched in stone, forever immutable, and eternally complete.

One reason for this lies in the Constitution's own provision for amendments which can be made to supersede the manuscript's original language. Isn't that pretty big proof that our Founding Fathers knew it was going to be changed? Maybe I'm simply betraying a woeful ignorance of American history, but why would you need to change something that is perfect?

Do these changes mean that sometimes, mistakes in governance and legislation are made? Of course it does. About 150 laws have been ruled unconstitutional during the life of our country, although the principle of judicial review, the process by which our Supreme Court determines the constitutional integrity of legislation, isn't, um, actually in the Constitution. However, since judicial review can benefit both the right and the left, nobody really complains about it. Convenient, huh?

Consider this fascinating extract from CQPress:

"While Congress has passed thousands of statutes over more than two centuries, the Court had exercised its power to rule laws or portions of laws unconstitutional only about 150 times by the early 2000s. The congressional statutes invalidated have included many relatively minor laws, but also such major enactments as the Missouri Compromise, a federal income tax, child labor laws, New Deal economic recovery acts, the post-Watergate campaign finance law, statutes to curb pornography on the Internet, efforts to allow victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in federal court for compensatory damages, amendments to a landmark age discrimination law, and the line-item veto."

Remember, Guys: United We Stand

As you can see, from this list, both conservatives and liberals have been winners and losers in the judicial review game, but has the actual integrity of our Constitution been called into question by these Supreme Court decisions?

We may not like certain pieces of legislation. We may think opposing viewpoints are way off-base. We may struggle to discern any logic in someone elses's assumptions.

But to imperiously dismiss somebody or something we oppose as being unconstitutional betrays a farcical view of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.* Being part of this government means making compromises while striving for the common good.

Remember, our Constitution's goal is to "form a more perfect union" (my emphasis added). What unites us should be more important than what divides us, even though we won't get a perfect country out of it.

I'm not blasting neo-cons because I don't like them or disagree with their standards. I don't agree with everything they stand for, but their goals of smaller government, less government meddling in the economy, and personal accountability are laudable. In other words, I tend to interpret our Constitution the same way they do. To the extent that I'd like to see groups like Red State gain political prominence to advocate for these goals, I'd like to see that their arguments are logical, reliable, and worthy of consideration.

Problem is, right-wingers won't win over very many people with inflammatory rhetoric like accusing liberals of being Constitution haters.

Playing politics with the Constitution doesn't make America stronger.

*By the way, does this famous phrase come from the Constitution? Nope - it comes from a speech by Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in 1830. Abraham Lincoln paraphrased it during his Gettysburg Address.

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