It is a difficult exercise to try and identify a specific turning point in history while you are living it. But this past year may be an aberration. Perhaps not since the ratification debates of the 18th century has the Constitution of the United States been at the forefront of political debates as it was in 2010. What makes this fact even more remarkable is that the debates are spurred by questions being asked by citizens – hardly a constitutional scholar or legal expert among them. Commonsense, rather than legal expertise, is driving a debate that is already changing the culture on Capitol Hill. 2010 may prove to be a turning point in the protracted battle against the forces of government expansion.
It was Tea Party members who initiated this debate that has now moved far beyond the grassroots and is firmly entrenched in the mainstream of political thought. Politicians, pundits, academics, and journalists are weighing in on the meaning and relevancy of this symbol of American sovereignty in the wake of the current administration’s expansive views on the role of government in people’s lives.
But even beyond President Obama and the Democrat’s stretching, bending, twisting, and mutilating their constitutional justifications for “remaking” America, there is the overriding notion that our American government has lost its way, that its connection to the people has been severed and that only by embracing the Constitution’s bedrock First Principles can we find our way back to an America for which liberty and justice can prevail.
This reawakening of interest in our founding document by ordinary Americans has forced a re-examination of the relevance of the Constitution as it pertains to the duties and responsibilities of government in modern, 21st century America. It has reached the point where the avalanche of questions has invited a backlash from proponents of government expansion who seek to belittle and smear those who are earnestly and with great seriousness trying to place into context the actions of government.
“What do they know?” goes the criticism. How dare they question 221 years of constitutional law that has been carefully constructed to reflect the thinking of the greatest legal minds in American history? Besides, these rubes have it all wrong. They worship the Constitution like it’s the Bible, and approach questions about that document with a religious fervor that smacks of saintly veneration.
As Newsweek’s Andrew Romano sneered recently, these “constitutional fundamentalists” are “seek[ing] refuge from the complexity and confusion of modern life in the comforting embrace of an authoritarian scripture and the imagined past it supposedly represents.” Lexington of the Economist blog echoes these sentiments, writing about the Tea Party’s promotion of the Constitution: “When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim.”
It’s a typical left-wing smear, lumping millions of activists in with a fringe element that is unrepresentative of both the people and the debate about the Constitution that is underway. One can easily ask government to adhere to First Principles without demanding the eradication of all social programs or laws that have been carefully constructed to protect citizens from rapacious criminals. Nor do most activists demonstrate a fervid commitment to the Constitution, treating it as some kind of quasi-religious talisman. Saying so is an attempt to belittle activists by making them appear to be simple minded and beholden to a superstitious worldview that imbues the document with magical properties.
There are debates about how far one should roll-back government overreach, or how much power should be transferred to the states. What’s truly significant is that these debates are happening at all, and in the context of a political culture that has not been forced to think about such matters since the ratification debates.
The Constitution is not written in legalese, but in plain English so that ordinary people can find its ideas accessible. It was meant to be debated by citizens who were expected to understand its tenets and the reasons for such simple notions as the separation of powers, the role of the executive, and the negative rights enshrined throughout its body. It was to be clearly understood what government could not do and what it was allowed. This understanding, plus what the Founders referred to as “public virtue” seemed enough to protect the people from a government that might grow beyond its mandate.
Indeed, we have had debates about the First Amendment and other specifics in the Constitution in the past. What has been missing for the longest time is an examination of how the Constitution really works. Is it really simple minded to ask a congressman where in the Constitution he justifies demanding that Americans purchase health insurance? Or is it more simple minded for a congressman to respond “I don’t know?”
In what is seen as either an attempt to begin reforming the culture on Capitol Hill or an exercise in sophistry, Republicans have initiated a new rule that all legislation must have attached to the bill a specific constitutional reference giving Congress its authority to enact the measure. Liberals don’t like it, of course. Seeing the Constitution as a “living document” means never having to justify anything before it ends up in the Supreme Court. More often than not, the court is reluctant to tamper with what Congress has wrought, so whatever way liberals wish to stretch the Constitution to make it fit their expansive view of government power ends up the law of the land.
This won’t change unless a solid majority of justices who believe in some form of “original intent” are sitting on the Supreme Court. But the new rule is not designed to make a court case if legislation is legally challenged. It is to remind Congress from where its authority is derived. What kind of effect this will have on legislation is hard to gauge, but it is hoped that keeping a legitimate constitutional justification in mind when crafting legislation will have a salutary influence on its outcome. At this point, a baby step of this nature is a huge victory and should be seen as the beginning of something much larger; a fundamental re-examination of government’s role in the lives of citizens.
Can such a debate actually occur, and will anything positive come of it? The forces of expansion are sometimes unwittingly aided by the American people’s own confusion about what they want from government and where they want government to leave them alone. Where should the line be drawn? Taking the first step by getting people thinking about the Constitution as is happening today is a good start in resolving these questions.
In the end, the answers won’t be handed down by the political elites or the establishment legal eagles who hold sway over our courts and legislatures. Rather, it will be a metamorphosis that unfolds gradually over time as the American people themselves reinvent their political culture and reestablish the principles that have made us the most successful society in history.
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