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Constitution's limits

Tea-partiers are calling for the country’s return to founding principles based in the Constitution.

Associated Press

Tea-partiers are calling for the country’s return to founding principles based in the Constitution.

Wouldn't it be splendid if the solutions to America's 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 grass roots 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, D.C., recently:

To those who would spread lies, and to those who would spread falsehoods and rumors about the tea party movement, let me be very clear to them. If you are scared of the tea party movement, you are afraid of Thomas Jefferson who penned our mission statement, and, by the way, you may have heard of it, it's called the Declaration of Independence. (Cheers, applause.) So what are these revolutionary ideas that make up and undergird the tea party movement? Well, it's this: All men and all women are created equal. We are endowed by our creator — that's God, not government (applause) — with certain inalienable rights…

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 September's 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' organizers.

At almost any tea party meeting you can see some patriot brandishing a copy of the hallowed texts and calling 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 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, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Obama continued the bad work. Mankind's great experiment in self-government has been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.

Accept for argument's sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The Constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. 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 Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts: "constitutional idolatry."

The Constitution is a thing of wonder, all the more miraculous for having been written when the rest of the world's peoples were still under the boot of kings and emperors. But many of the tea-partiers have invented a strangely ahistorical version of it. They say 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 center and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic's Articles of Confederation of 1777.

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. 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 compromises — exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today's Congress excels and which is now so much out of favor with the tea-partiers.

The Constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognize America's modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is 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 from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age. Pace 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 will have to write one for themselves.

Constitution's limits 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 4:31am]
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