Thursday, September 30, 2010

Economist v. Tea Party

The Economist (in the person of its America-desk essayist, Lexington) casts a baleful glance at the Tea Party's reverence for 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 grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics.

There is something to this, of course. But Lexington gets a few things wrong, too:

...[T]here 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.

This is simply a straw man, nothing more. Of course the Constitution doesn't contain the answers to all our problems. The point the Tea Partiers are making is twofold: first, that the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land, a meta-law, so to speak, that forms the skeleton from which all our other laws and governmental institutions draw their authority, and that that framework has been increasingly ignored over the past century; second, that returning to Constitutional principles would help restrain or even roll back encroaching government, in particular federal, control over our lives.

Lexington points out that the solution to the question of whether gays should marry is not contained in the Constitution, as if this is some indictment of it, or reason we should ignore the document. The Constitution is not meant to answer such questions, of course. It is meant to give us a framework within which we answer them. So when the judicial branch arrogates legislative power to itself, as it has in this and many other modern controversies, Constitutionalists are likely to object. It isn't that the answer is necessarily objectionable (although that is often also the case), but that the way in which it was determined was illegal and weakens the framework in the future.

But it isn't only Lexington's legal/philosophical analysis that is awry. The historical analysis also comes up short.

[The Tea Partiers] 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 republic’s Articles of Confederation of 1777.

The Constitution of 1787 certainly had the effect of bolstering the executive, but it is also designed to balance the powers: state against federal, legislative against judicial against executive. It's certainly true that Madison and his compatriots had states' rights firmly in mind when crafting the document, and the Tea Partiers are absolutely accurate to argue that a primary reason states have lost so much power is because of unConstitutional abuses.

Finally, Lexington argues that, since we can't know what the founders would have thought of the modern welfare state, or recognized its institutions, we have no choice but to ignore their document. This is disingenuous at best. One reason we have the country we have, one reason it became so unrecognizable to the founders in the first place, is because of Progressive steamrollering of the founding documents. It's perfectly fair to see a restoration of respect for the Constitution as one way to roll back some of those changes.

The modern progeny of the Progressive movement have zero respect for the Constitution. They see it as no impediment at all to the furtherance of government control of our lives, and there are any number of videos showing Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and other Democratic bigwigs baldly asserting as much. Conservatives are not revolutionaries at heart; turning back the clock on a century of Progressive changes (some of which, especially in the field of civil rights, we should keep) is too massive a movement to undertake overnight, and is politically impossible anyway. But to roll back a few things (Obamacare being target number one), to restore a sense that there is resistance to the growth of government: these are practical goals that the Tea Party can achieve. Raising the stature of the Constitution in the minds of the public can only help them do it.

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