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Today's Constitution Essay

1019 words - 5 pages

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. Listen to Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota and tea-party heroine, as she addressed the conservative Value Voters’ Summit in Washington, DC, last week:
To those who would spread lies, and to those who would spread falsehoods and rumours about the tea-party movement, let me be very clear to them. If ...view middle of the document...

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 (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government 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. Indeed, 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 the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “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 (with the magnificent exception of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, of course). But many of the tea-partiers have invented a strangely ahistorical version of it. For example, they 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...

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