Tea & The Constitution
While waiting for my truck to go through its 20,000 mile service, I read an article in Newsweek about the Tea Party and the Constitution. Being also under the influence of cold medication, I decided to take the easy blogging approach and ramble a bit about what that article discussed.
While the Tea Party is not a monolithic movement, it does have some common themes. One theme is that America has strayed away from the original Constitution and that we need to return to the original document and the original interpretation. Not surprisingly, folks in the Tea Party seem to take this view. These include, of course, Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and her lesser copy, O’Donnell. For example, O’Donnell has asserted that we are in “a season of Constitutional repentance.”
There is, of course, a well-established intellectual movement devoted to originalism. It, originally enough, goes by that name. There are some rather interesting arguments put forth by the legal scholars in this movement and the top people certainly know their material. As such, while I am not an originalist, I do acknowledge that this position is a credible one and worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, the Tea Party folks who cry out for a return to the original document and original interpretation seem to lack an understanding of the document that they profess to adore.
One example of Constitutional ignorance comes from Sarah Palin. She has asserted that the Constitution “aknowledge[es] that our unalienable rights…come from God.” However, she is wrong about this. God is not mentioned at all in the Constitution. The creator is, of course, mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but that is a different document. Palin is, however, right that there is a connection between God and the foundation of American political philosophy. After all, the philosophy of John Locke clearly influenced the development of American political philosophy and Locke does, of course, base his theory of rights on God. However, Palin’s claim about the Constitution is in error.
One of the more extreme examples involved O’Donnell. When she was asked to name a recent Supreme Court case that she disliked, she was stumped. She did assert that “there are a lot” and promised to put them up on her web site. While I do not expect a candidate to be a Constitutional scholar, it seems reasonable that O’Donnell should be able to at least describe in vague terms a recent ruling that she disagrees with. After all, she has made the Constitution a focal point of her campaign. As such, she should probably know at least a little bit about some recent rulings regarding that document.
Other Tea Party candidates also seem to be rather ignorant of the document they profess to revere. For example, Paul claimed that children born in America to illegal immigrants should not be granted citizenship. Unfortunately for Paul, this suggestion would violate the 14th Amendment of his sacred Constitution.
This ignorance is a rather serious problem. After all, if a significant part of the Tea Party movement is ignorant about the Constitution, then this sort of ignorance seems to entail that they lack an understanding of their own professed principles. As such, they are angrily and urgently trying to push politics in a direction they literally do not get (to use their own phrase). To use an analogy, the Tea Party would seem to be like a ship sailing rapidly on a course that has been laid in based on vague and incorrect ideas about the charts. They should consider taking some time out to sit down and read through the document carefully. Perhaps to also read some of the founder’s writings, a little history of the relevant times periods, and maybe some political philosophy (John Locke is a good place to start). Once they actually “get” a better grasp of the Constitution, then they can speak with greater credibility about the document.
In my own case, I freely admit that I am not a Constitutional scholar. I have only had a few classes relating to the Constitution and the political philosophy relating to the founders. However, before I say what is or is not in it, I take the trouble to actually look. Or maybe I just make things up. I mean, who would know the difference these days?
Of course, the Tea Party folks can (and do) argue that the Constitution should be “rolled back” to an earlier time. If so, they need not understand the newer amendments, just the original document. This is, of course, the classic “Golden Age” ploy so beloved of conservative movements. However, it is a claim worth considering. After all, rolling back the Constitution to the original would mean that Palin and O’Donnell (and all other women) could no longer vote (and presumably also be denied the chance to run for office).
Interestingly, the same Tea Party folks who want to roll back the Constitution also seem to have no reluctance to propose amendments that they like. The most famous of these is, of course, the proposal for a Constitutional amendment to “defend” traditional marriage.
While this approach might seem to be hypocritical or even cynical, I suspect that many of these folks are sincere in their inconsistency. They, for example, probably truly believe that the Constitution should be rolled back and not amended, at least when they say that. When they cry out for an amendment to defend marriage, they are no doubt equally sincere…at least at that time. Never mind that they are being inconsistent. They feel strongly and hence feel that they are right and thus the Constitution (or, rather, what they think it is) is on their side. This, of course, leads to passion in politics. But, by definition, leads to an unprincipled and irrational approach to politics.