1.09.2011

John Nichols misreads a "misreading" of the Constitution

John Nichols, in lambasting "tea partisans" for reading the U.S. Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives, joined a strangely shrill chorus that has emerged in recent days.  Somehow, merely reading the nation's foundational charter is enough to get people's blood boiling.

I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why the obviously non-binding move left so many people so annoyed, so offended, so cynical, so angry.  I was continually puzzled as the snide, dismissive comments popped up last week on my Facebook home feed.

The griping reminded me of certain hardcore subset of atheists - you know, the type who care so much about noisily taking down anyone who mentions or invokes God that you can't help but be convinced after a while that there must be some real possibility of a deity...or why would they be fussing about it so much?

On Thursday, it seemed that a certain subset on the political Left was genuinely afraid that the Tea Party element of the new Republican majority in the House might actually "capture" the Constitution and claim it as its own.  Nichols, too, went to painstaking lengths to undercut the readers - going so far as to criticize them for reading innacurately, which shows he wasn't at all able to fight this fight on a playing field other than the one that the Tea Party folks had set up, even if unintentionally.  They chose the ground for the contest.

The more I thought about it, the concern and derision occasioned by the reading of the U.S. Constitution seemed to expose a deeper, unspoken truth, which was very much apparent in Dahlia Lithwick's unimpressive piece at Slate: a subset of the American political left has no regard for the concept of limited government.  And that's been the case for some time.  On the right, the GOP, too, went much too far in that direction during the Bush years.  A new emphasis on constitutionalism suddenly threatens the status quo paradigm.

Only at the very end of his column did Nichols touch upon something that might have been the germ of a legitimate column critiquing the Tea Party movement and the readers:

They are not merely unfamiliar with its contents. They are unfamiliar with the intentions of the founders and those who have struggled, since 1787, to use the Constitution as an outline for the formation of a more perfect union.

It may have been tying up the small strands he mentioned earlier, but the piece concluded, snipped off.  And even then, Nichols did nothing to demonstrate what he meant by his vague preference.  Was he hinting at giving non-state territories a greater stake - or a desire for or the propriety of a stronger national government?

While the Constitution was certainly enacted in part to address the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, as evidenced by events like Shay's Rebellion, it was also most certainly designed to limit government's ability to exercise power over individuals by diluting power and setting nodes of power against themselves. 

As James Madison stated regarding two of the most resorted-to clauses in the document, 1. "With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators." and 2. "It is very certain that [the commerce clause] grew out of the abuse of the power by the importing States in taxing the non-importing, and was intended as a negative and preventive provision against injustice among the States themselves, rather than as a power to be used for the positive purposes of the General Government."

In that sense, I had absolutely no problem with the reading of the U.S. Constitution (gasp, a link to the Constitution!?) on the floor of the House.  It stood as a potent contrast to the passage of the ream-deep, utterly impenetrable Obamacare bill.  The Constitution should be the touchstone of government action, not part of a nod and wink exercise when legislation is proposed.  Any reminder to the federal government that its power must be canalized is a good thing.