The Southern Republican Leadership Conference wrapped up on Saturday afternoon after three days of speeches dripping with red-meat criticisms of Democrats and President Obama. This is par for the course for any party gathering, especially one where the party holding the shindig is on the outs.
But there was also something most unusual about the conference: an uncommon amount of talk and discussion of the United States Constitution. Ordinary people from all walks of life, not a constitutional scholar or lawyer among them, are actually trying to come to grips with the fundamental meaning and purpose of our founding document.
Has such a thing happened since the debates over ratification? If the numbers of tea partiers can be believed — and they were omnipresent at this gathering — perhaps millions of citizens are reading the Constitution and trying to place the actions taken by our government within the confines of our founding document’s strictures. And judging by the numerous conversations I had with delegates, bloggers, and just ordinary folk, there is a profound feeling of unease about not just what Obama and the Democrats have done to expand the power of the federal government, but Republicans as well. Contrary to what the left would like to establish as conventional wisdom — that the tea party movement is a wholly partisan operation — the anger people are demonstrating about spending is directed at both parties, almost equally.
But becoming emotional about spending is only a symptom of what bothers most people. If you start to talk to them about spending, inevitably the conversation will turn to the Constitution and their understanding of how that document should be interpreted.
How dare they, you might say. What do they know about 221 years of constitutional law? What do they know about the great and important decisions of the Supreme Court that have defined, redefined, and reinterpreted our founding document through the decades? How can they possibly intelligently address the minutiae, the subtlety, the beautiful strands of logic that have painstakingly been built up, layer upon layer, as our civilization has groped with ways to live together in justice and peace?
It may seem to some a quaint exercise in good citizenship for these millions to wrestle with the such convoluted and complex questions as the meaning and reach of the commerce clause or the constitutionality of the individual mandate to buy health insurance. The condescension is misplaced — and totally unwarranted.
The Constitution was not written in legalese despite the presence of so many lawyers at the Constitutional Convention. It was written in plain, accessible English so that the document could be read and understood by ordinary Americans. It was printed in newspapers, slapped on the walls near the village commons, and mailed far and wide. It was discussed in churches, in public houses, at family dinners, and between neighbors from New England to Georgia.
Never before in history had a country thought and debated itself into existence. When that generation of Americans looked at our founding document, could they have imagined that one day a congressman would say that the Constitution doesn’t matter? Or that congressmen could not answer the question of where in the Constitution did it authorize the federal government to force citizens to buy health insurance?
What does it matter today that ordinary people are reading and interpreting the Constitution in their own way, without reference to precedent or knowledge of specific court cases that have laid out the grid work upon which the powers and responsibilities of government have been constructed? After all, they can interpret the Constitution from here to doomsday and it won’t matter a fig to the Supreme Court. Those nine robed magistrates will work their will regardless of popular sentiment and, sometimes, common sense.
But in one of the more remarkable aspects of this revival of interest among the citizenry of the meaning and purpose of the Constitution, it doesn’t matter what the Supremes think, or the elites, or the sickeningly condescending left who sneer at talk of the Tenth Amendment or strict constructionism. What matters is the effort itself — that people are becoming more engaged in what their government is up to than they have been in a very long time. For 60 years, we have largely accepted the justifications of our elites for expanding the size and reach of government. It’s been done in the name of “fairness,” or “social justice,” or “to help those less fortunate,” or “to level the playing field” in economic matters. All of these things are worthy goals. And to some degree or another, they may be necessary in a 21st-century industrialized democracy.
The forces of limited government have been on the run, because in this kind of battle there is no compromise solution. When it comes to the Supreme Court, there are winners and losers and that’s it. Federalism has been in retreat for the same reason. Such questions do not lend themselves to political solutions where each side gives a little and an agreement is reached. We’ve been involved in a war against the forces of expansion, and regardless of the reason or the cause, and no matter if the issue is “social justice” or some other noble undertaking, the result is the same: the Constitution being used not to define limits on power but to justify control over citizens.
This would certainly puzzle our ancestors, who were most concerned that the government they were creating would be constrained from imposing its will upon them. The whole point of the Bill of Rights was to codify the individual freedoms Americans thought important, preventing government from stepping over the line.
Today, such thinking is considered “selfish.” Well, the tea partiers and delegates here in New Orleans may not know Marbury v. Madison but they have some pretty strong ideas about personal liberty. They can also read. If their understanding of the nuances of constitutional law is deficient, there is nothing wrong with their ability to read and absorb a simple, straightforward document like the Constitution of the United States. They ask commonsense questions like where in our founding document is the government granted this power or that, and the reaction by the forces of unlimited expansion of government power is to pat them on the head and declare them unfit to think upon such matters.
Yet they are thinking about it and they are deadly serious. If there is one thing to take away from this conference, it is that there is a large segment of the populace who have been aroused — angered by what they perceive to be a government grown too big, too fast, and consequently spending us into oblivion.
A tipping point has been reached. Perhaps it should have been reached earlier. Maybe it’s unfair to the Democrats to single them out when both parties have done their best to grow government beyond the worst nightmares of the Founders and the Americans of the generation that birthed this nation. But regardless of fault, the interest in our founding document and people’s struggles to come to grips with its meaning in modern America is what is going to be one of the primary issues that candidates will have to address in November if they want to win.