The Progressive Fix

Let’s Not Just Read the Constitution, Let’s Actually Discuss It

Sign calling for people to get the "Constitution Flu"So the House Republicans are planning to get their “People’s House” show started today by reading the U.S. Constitution, that beloved document that our constitutional law scholar of a President has apparently never bothered to read.

It’s clearly symbolic politics, but I’m not as offended as, say the New York Times editorial board (who thinks it is a “a presumptuous and self-righteous act”). Rather, I think that Akhil Reed Amar, author of “America’s Constitution: A Biography” and a constitutional scholar at Yale Law School, has it right. Here’s what he told the Washington Post:

I like the Constitution. Heck, I’ll do them one better. Why only once in January? Why not once every week?… My disagreement is when we actually read the Constitution as a whole, it doesn’t say what the tea party folks think it says.

For the political right and especially the Tea Party, the Constitution has taken on the quality of a holy relic, a symbol of a lost America. Running through the Tea Party mythology is a familiar decline-of-civilization narrative: America was once an Edenic land of limited government and personal liberty. If only we return to the lost and mythic Constitution, we can somehow Restore America. (Apparently, in this story, Congress has been recklessly passing un-Constitutional laws without anybody even noticing – not even the most conservative Supreme Court in 80 years!)

Tea Partiers certainly have great fun making oh-so-clever signs about America’s lost constitution, but I’d happily wager that very few of them could actually pass a basic test about what’s in the hallowed document. (Surveys show that Americans actually know depressingly little about what’s in their beloved Constitution: a remarkable 49 percent think the President has the power to suspend the Constitution; 60 percent think the President can appoint judges without Senate approval; three-quarters of Americans think the Constitution guarantees a high school education; 45 percent of Americans’ think the Communist manifesto slogan  “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is found in the U.S. Constitution. Could you name all Ten Amendments?)


In this respect, a public conversation about what’s actually in the Constitution would probably be a very good thing. We might actually have a more informed discussion, and, as E.J. Dionne and Greg Sargent have both noted, there’s plenty of reason for progressives to welcome it. Rather than ceding it as a symbol of the political right, maybe we should discuss the broad federal powers to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States” (Article I, Section 8).

Unfortunately, the great likelihood is that the Constitution will be read once, and then promptly tossed aside. The words, in all their 18th Century legalese, will go in one ear and out the other (assuming anybody is actually listening). And life will pretty much be the same as it was before, with the majority of Tea Partiers still desperately clinging to their particular fantasy of what they believe the Constitution represents without any better understanding of what is actually says.

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