Imagine, if you will, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachman, and Sharron Angle — with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on speakerphone — sitting down together with a copy of the constitution, and a red pen. For edits, of course.
Now, open your eyes. And, if you’re a progressive, stop screaming. That was just an exercise in imagination. Nothing to be alarmed about. Except for conservatism’s current schzoid "reverence" for and simultaneous hostility toward the constitution.
Of course, it’s nothing new. It’s just crept from the fringes of American conservative to pretty near the mainstream.
I knew, back in 2006, for example, that the far right was mulling over a constitutional convention, after efforts to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples failed.
As a refresher from your 8th grade civics lessons, a constitutional convention is define as follows in the constitution.
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate
While a constitutional convention came up as recently as this past April, it’s not something we hear advocated outright in by what counts as mainstream conservatism these days. Instead we hear vague but vehement protests that the constitution is being trashed that both expose and defend an ignorance of the constitution itself. As one tea bagger put it, "I do not study the Constitution, no, but I’m well aware of my history…I’m well aware of how this country was founded, and I’m well aware of what has happened to it in current years."
Tea Party members are often vague about exactly how their constitutional rights are being denied. But they all believe the federal government has expanded far beyond what the Constitution intended.
Others focus on the 10th Amendment and claim that states’ rights are being trampled, which leads others to call for repeal of the 17th Amendment — the one that took power away from state legislatures to choose U.S. senators. And Tea Party candidates like Nevada Republican Senate hopeful Sharron Angle pay particular attention to the Second Amendment.
"I feel that the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry. This is not … for someone who’s in the military, this is not for law enforcement, this is for us," she told a talk radio host. "And when you read the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, they intended this to stop tyranny. This is for us when our government becomes too radical."
Even if you’re not calling for armed insurrection, invoking the sacred text of the Constitution gives a political argument more authority, says Columbia University law professor Nate Persily. "When you start phrasing your objections in constitutional terms, you are lodging sort of the biggest weapon that we have in American political discourse," he says.
It’s not just the rank and file, either Michelle Bachman, leader of the new congressional tea part caucus, was apparently in need of constitutional tutoring from Treasury Sec. Tim Geithner. It’s the first clip in the video below.
Of course, the lesson didn’t take, though Sec. Geithner can at least be praised for his immeasurable patience with a member of Congress who apparently needed it explained to her that Article I of the constitution establishes the very body she of which she is a member and that Section 7 of that article sets up the process by which legislation passes through both the House and the Senate lands on the president’s desk and then become law. That is unless….
Oh heck, this explanation is a lot more entertaining.
Basically, the constitution established the House and Senate as the legislative branch of government, and empowered to make laws. That’s what it did when the House passed TARP legislation that President George W. Bush signed into law on October 3, 2008.
Now, perhaps Rep. Bachman believes that in acting to empower the administration to bailout the financial sector, some other part of the constitution was violated. But she doesn’t make that argument.
Instead she seems to be literally looking for the words, "The government may bail out Wall Street." It’s a literalism that demands "adherence to the text" of the constitution, while ignoring the open-ended terms in the text itself, in order to discern the "original intent" of the founders.
…According to Justice Antonin Scalia, conservative jurists merely carry out the “original meaning” of the framers. These are appealing but wholly disingenuous descriptions of what judges — liberal or conservative — actually do.
To see why this is so, we need only look to the text of the Constitution. It defines our most fundamental rights and protections in open-ended terms: “freedom of speech,” for example, and “equal protection of the laws,” “due process of law,” “unreasonable searches and seizures,” “free exercise” of religion and “cruel and unusual punishment.” These terms are not self-defining; they did not have clear meanings even to the people who drafted them. The framers fully understood that they were leaving it to future generations to use their intelligence, judgment and experience to give concrete meaning to the expressed aspirations.
Josh Marshall succinctly sums up conservatism’s attack on constitutional amendments concerning citizenship, equal protection, due process, and clauses in Section 8, like the commerce clause, in search for the founders "original intent."
We’re going to amend the constitution until we get it back to being the real constitution.
Of course, there’s a whole lot that the founders didn’t intend for a great many of us.
Back in April, I imagined where we’d be if conservatives could turn back time as they want to do.
You hear it all the time, these days. Tea baggers, militia members and various other conservatives all that to "take their country back." My usual response was to ask just how far back they want to go. I used to think I knew. It turns out, I had my time machine set all wrong.
After so long "standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’," at what point in our history would conservatives like to have stopped the clock? If they could "turn back time," how far back would conservatives take us? Assuming, of course, that we’d let them.
Years ago, long before I stumbled into blogging, I got into a discussion/argument with a conservative about their penchant for returning to the "good old days," and pointed out that (borrowing a line from Billy Joel) "the good old days weren’t always good" for everybody. My opponent argued that we could return to those days and "make them good for everybody." It seemed impossible then, and it seems even more so now.
I guessed that period was probably the 1950s – when (the great, white) father knew best, and everybody else knew their place; women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, blacks in the back of the bus, etc. In my defense, I got that idea from some conservatives.
It turns out I was way off. I didn’t go back far enough. Not nearly.
More recently, Margaret Kimberley spells it our far more explicitly than I did.
After all is said and done, what much of the so-called Tea Party wants is a return to America as a White Man’s Country. There are a few obstacles in their way, including the U.S. Constitution, but that’s not insurmountable. “On a daily basis pundits and politicians rear their ugly heads to say that the children born of undocumented persons should no longer be given American citizenship.”
The founding fathers made one think perfectly clear when they ratified the constitution in 1787. Full citizenship rights were meant only for white men of property. Over a period of nearly 200 years, people’s movements guaranteed that those rights were extended to everyone regardless of race or gender, but the fact that the struggle literally took centuries should not be forgotten. It is tempting to snicker at the sight of today’s Tea Party members, grown men wearing knee breeches and three-cornered hats. Yet their costumes tell an important tale. They evoke an era still seen as the high water mark of American society, the days of the enslavement of one race and the extermination of another. This movement has captured the Republican Party outright and leaves even some Democratic politicians and pundits in a state of fear and/or awe.
The pull of that early history is ever present for many white Americans. No matter the degree of progress made, the adherence to the evils of America’s early days are never far from the surface. Simply put, there are too many brown faces for the liking of a majority of white people. Even the president has a brown face. His very presence has been a shock to the country’s system and to the mythology which says that only white people are truly American.
Still, it was put even more succinctly by none other than Bill O’Reilly in the first of the videos below.
The current conflagration over whether the founders "originally intended" the first amendment to apply to Muslim Americans is just the most recent version of conservative opposition to extending the full rights and protections of citizenship to all Americans.
Angle, Paul, Bachmann and other conservatives are missing the point, as usual.
The founders’ greatest genius was creating a system of government not limited by their own individual imaginations. They may not have been able to imagine the complexities of financial instruments like derivatives or a financial sector that wreaked all manner of economic havoc with them, but they didn’t prohibit us from dealing with them. They may not have been able to imagine an energy industry capable of spilling millions of barrels of oil, but they did not bar us from regulating those industries to protect "the general welfare."
The founders probably couldn’t have imagined a lot about our present, but they provided for it. Understanding that the document they crafted was not a terminal document, they provided a process — however imperfect — that made all kinds of changes possible. From Barack Obama’s presidency to Bachmann’s seat in Congress.
That’s what conservatives would like to undo. If they could turn back time.