David Potts: Enforcing the Constitution Is Our Responsibility
One of the largest, if not the largest, fault lines dividing American politics today is that between progressives and liberals — and by liberals, I mean conservatives. Since the theme of this post is the need to restore some honesty to philosophical debate, I am starting by attempting to reclaim the word “liberal” from the radicals who hijacked it early in the twentieth century.
How can someone be a conservative and a liberal at the same time? Because the definition of “conservative” varies from society to society, since in each society, those who call themselves conservative are seeking to conserve institutions and traditions that are unique to that society. In the United States, the values that conservatives seek to preserve are classically liberal — individual liberty, limited government, and the rule of law. By contrast, the modern left in America identifies itself with collectivism, pragmatism, and an activist government. These values make up what used to be called “progressivism,” a term that many people on the left, including Hillary Clinton are trying to reclaim.
The distinctions between liberals, conservatives, and progressives are interesting, but not nearly as important as developing an honest appraisal of the Constitution and the irrelevance of this document to modern American government. For while there is legitimate debate to be had about the proper role of government, no objective, fair-minded observer can come to any conclusion other than that the federal government long ago exceeded the lawful bounds placed upon it by the Constitution, and almost no public officials give any thought whatsoever to whether or not federal programs being debated come within the Constitutional purview of the federal government. In fact, virtually all persons elected to public office today perjure themselves as their first official act, when they take an oath to uphold the Constitution while having absolutely no intention of actually doing so.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman famously approached Benjamin Franklin and asked what form of government the convention had provided for the nation, a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied “a republic — if you can keep it.” I’ve always been fascinated by that quote, because Franklin was clearly placing the responsibility of preserving constitutional government on the citizenry, not on the judiciary or any other branch of the government. The idea of leaving the interpretation of the Constitution solely to any branch of the federal government is ludicrous on its face. The Constitution is the law that regulates the federal government, and giving the federal government the final say on its application is as ridiculous as allowing British Petroleum to interpret the laws and regulations governing offshore drilling. But this is what we citizens have done. We take the latest pronouncements from the Supreme Court as gospel because we are, in the main, constitutionally illiterate. Even in law schools, future lawyers don’t study the Constitution; they study “Constitutional Law,” the collection of court decisions that purport to interpret and flesh out the Constitution but instead bury it under a huge pile of judicial manure. In one particularly egregious case, Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court ruled that a farmer who grew wheat without federal permission to feed his own family and livestock could be prosecuted for a federal crime based on Congress’ authority over interstate commerce. Note that there was no commerce involved, and the wheat not only did not cross state lines, it never left the farmer’s property. When the Supreme Court calls that interstate commerce, it becomes very hard to take the body seriously.
The position of the Constitution today is very similar to that of the Bible in the Middle Ages. The medieval church considered lay people incompetent to read the Bible for themselves. The Bible had been translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin and, as far as the Church was concerned, that was the way it would stay. Some of the earliest Protestant martyrs, centuries before Martin Luther, were convicted of heresy for the crime of translating scripture into English, German, or some other language that people actually used. People were not supposed to read the Bible; they were supposed to listen to whatever the clergy told them about the Bible and accept that as holy writ.
Among many people in the United States, today, the Constitution is seen as equally dangerous in the hands of the hoi polloi. Last year, the Rhode Island Tea Party was threatened with expulsion from the Bristol Fourth of July Parade for the crime of passing out booklets that contained the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. One publisher is currently selling a copy of the Constitution with the philosophical equivalent of the surgeon general’s warning on the first page. The disclaimer states, “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.”
Benjamin Franklin said “a republic — if you can keep it.” As with many things, the ultimate responsibility for the performance of government rests with us, the electorate. It is up to us to educate ourselves about our Constitution and to measure the performance of our elected officials against it. I suspect many Americans would just as soon junk the Constitution and continue on our present path, but they should at least consider the consequences and make that decision deliberately. If we pretend that we are currently governing ourselves according to the Constitution, then we are just lying to ourselves. Finally, there is very little point in repeatedly criticizing elected officials if the voters are unwilling to do anything about their actions. Politicians may be a collection of crooks and poltroons, but we hired them.