A Philosopher's Blog

Tea & The Constitution

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2010
First page of Constitution of the United States
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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.

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22 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2010 at 6:13 am

    The Tea Party is just a bunch or ordinary people who want the government to live within its means, and are fed up that neither party will listen to them.

    That’s all it is.

    • erik said, on October 29, 2010 at 8:21 am

      and all whatever it is claims to be, , ,?

  2. T. J. Babson said, on October 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

    “Unfortunately for Paul, this suggestion would violate the 14th Amendment of his sacred Constitution.”

    Not exactly. Here is the text: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

    Children of diplomats are considered “not subject to the jurisdiction thereof” and are not automatically US citizens. It is not obvious that the child of an illegal alien is “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”

    • erik said, on October 29, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      jurisdiction [ˌdʒʊərɪsˈdɪkʃən]
      1. (Law) the right or power to administer justice and to apply laws
      2. (Law) the exercise or extent of such right or power
      3. (Law) power or authority in general

      If an illegal alien is caught can’t we apply laws to him? Illegal immigration is a crime doesn’t that more or less imply the right or power to administer justice and apply laws?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 30, 2010 at 10:32 am

      I might argue that the child of an illegal alien is subject to the jurisdiction (as Erik did). After all, to say that the parent is here illegally is to say that s/he falls under the law. But, I do think that an argument can be made that people who “sneak in” and have children do not fall under that clause. One way to do this might be to argue that they are intentionally trying to avoid being subject to “the jurisdiction” of the US by being here illegally and trying to avoid getting caught.

  3. Greg Camp said, on October 29, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    In this respect, many in the Tea Party movement remind me of my fundamentalist students. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, but they have little idea what’s in it. I don’t mean the obscure passages; I mean major ideas.

    I am curious to know how beliefs like this form. The seem to come from vague notions about what the foundational document is and are tangential to it. We must have a Great Text as our source because we’re incapable of creating ideas for ourselves, but we take from it only the simplest of understandings because we cannot apply any interpretive depth.

    • erik said, on October 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      Possible common source: The need to generalize to make things simpler, faster, less challenging. Works with nationalism, racism, politics, and religion. All South American black fundamentalist muslims are (fill in the blank) Fill it in once or better yet have your parent minister talk show host fill it in for you and life is vastly simplified. 😦

    • DaPoet said, on October 29, 2010 at 7:07 pm

      Unfortunately Greg it is easier to believe a lie than the truth said person doesn’t want to hear and is too lazy to research for themselves…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

      It reminds me a bit of the Omega Glory episode of Star Trek. A “duplicate” earth was devastated by a war between the West and the East. The descendants of the Yanks hold the Constitution sacred, but cannot even understand it.

      Getting back to reality, it might be because people like to believe that the sacred text confirms what they believe (or assume that it does). Actually reading it would involve effort and might reveal that what they believe is not actually backed up by the text.

      I see similar things happen with academic views: people will espouse evolution or existentialism and have no real idea of the content of the actual theories.

  4. WTP said, on October 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Pondering the thoughts of Sarah Palin when considering the facets of constitutional originalism is a bit like forming one’s perception on the strike zone based on the thoughts of Eddie Gaedel. Perhaps a look at what Scalia and Alito think?

    You’re playing fast and loose (OK, blame the cold medicine) with the Amendments. I don’t think originalists are arguing that we throw out all of the Amendments WITHOUT DOING SO VIA THE PROCESSES DEFINED IN THE CONSTITUTION. The argument is to adhere to the original intent instead of bring new ideas into the Constitution WITHOUT USING THE PROCESSES DEFINED IN THE CONSTITUTION.

    Not that I’m a big fan of all originalist thinking. I don’t see where a right to privacy is outside what is already in there, but from what little I’ve read of the fight, it’s quite the semantics war. I do share a common fear of silver-tongued lawyers getting a crowbar into such a little crack and working their way into some of the nonsense we see now.

    • erik said, on October 29, 2010 at 6:08 pm

      One man’s nonsense is another man’s wisdom. I find the discoveries of Jpseph Smith ludicrous. Many or most Mormons find pro-choice arguments ludicrous. The Catholic Church is pro-life and simultaneously at odds with many aspects of Mormonism. As a liberal Lutheran I find many aspects of the pro-life movement objectionable and ludicrous. SCOTUS as it’snow constituted is incapable of reaching wise compelling decisions based on ‘originalist thinking’. And our population and the constitutional process are not fit to fiddle with the 14th/ Wisdom/nonsense

  5. chamblee54 said, on October 29, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Do you have a link to the comment by Sarah Palin? Also, I presume you mean Rand Paul, and not someone with the first name Paul.
    Friends don’t let friends blog on cold medication.
    Maybe the concept of the Bible as the “word of G-d” is at the root of Constitution worship.
    Speaking of the Bible, there is a bit of Facebook wisdom (oxymoron alert). It goes that the Bible is like a software agreement. You don’t read the thing, you just go to the bottom and click “I agree”.

  6. kernunos said, on October 30, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    So let me get this straight…we are trying to figure out what the Tea Party, through a blogger that read from a Liberal Magazine that heard people that may or may not have represented the enture movement, feels as a whole on the constitution? I’m with T.J. here. I’ll file this away as ‘nothing to see here!’ .

    • erik said, on October 31, 2010 at 8:55 am

      Aside. . .does anyone represent any entire movement?
      And bassicaly TJ summed up his view of the “enture movement” in his first comment. You’re with him on that?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 31, 2010 at 10:37 am

        In general, no. The exceptions being movements that are tightly controlled and have a clear leader who sets official doctrines. Otherwise folks who belong to a movement (or faith or party or whatever) generally differ in many ways in their views on the matters of concern. Even when there is an official line.

      • kernunos said, on November 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

        Sure. Was your post to ask me to confirm this or act petty and point out a spelling mistake I couldn’t edit after the fact?

        • erik said, on November 1, 2010 at 3:50 pm

          No. Just wanted a yes or no answer. I didn’t want to take the time to repeat entire movement as whole group or complete crusade etc. so I quoted you. If anything, I should have put quotation marks around entire movement in my first line I guess but I didn’t. My apologies. BTW I disagree with you and agree with MB The tea party is too loosely “organized” to be characterized as ‘just a bunch or ordinary people who want the government to live within its means, and are fed up that neither party will listen to them.”

          • kernunos said, on November 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm

            Well, it has to filled with ordinary people. Isn’t every party…..well except the Dems who have corpses, cons and non citizens voting.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 31, 2010 at 10:35 am

      Well, the Tea party is supposed to have some basic common themes. However, one of these themes seems to be that it is not a political party with a fixed dogma.

      • kernunos said, on November 4, 2010 at 3:15 pm

        The party came from a movement of the people not the other way around. that is why there is no fixed party leadership or dogma. Look at how quickly this all happened. You could have someone just say, “Hey I have this party and it has some great ideas! Come join us.” and have what happened happen. Heck, if you could the Libertarian party would be huge by now. There really isn’t that much of a difference. This wasn’t some wild scheme. The Tea Party is just what many people wanted. I’m not a part of the party and have not been to a rally but I bet I probably voted the same way or similar.

  7. kernunos said, on November 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Government employment under Obama has grown by 25% in a period when the private sector is losing great numbers of jobs. People notice this. Sometimes if people get upset then movements form. Especially since it would only take a second grade education to realise you cannot keep spending more than you take in and especially at this rate. As far as economic growth and recover goes this government growth is not unlike bleeding to death. The heart beats faster to keep up blood pressure while an open wound is dumping all of it’s blood out of the body at a faster and faster rate. The government growing at this rate while private sector tax money keeps dwindling and dwindling will send this country into an economic death spiral from which it cannot recover in its current form.

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