The Constitution as a Coward's Shield and a Barbarian's Rock

Pete Spiliakos at First Things brings up something I've noticed as well over the last decade.

The Constitution is important. ...

But the Constitution (like the Federalist Papers, and Declaration- and Founder-worship in general) has played a larger role in conservative rhetoric than a mere defense of the clear provisions of the document could do. Defense of the Constitution has become a rhetorical crutch. It has become a substitute for an agenda that is relevant to the issues of the day.

This is understandable. ...

Talking about health care policy (any health care policy) will also involve tradeoffs. It is much easier to talk about how, as president, you will protect the beloved Constitution, than to talk about how you will seek to change health coverage in the direction of catastrophic coverage (which will make some health insurance recipients nervous) and how you will seek to make it easier for new market entrants to disrupt existing providers (which will make existing heath care providers very cross). Better to mumble some things about tort reform and then go back to talking about the Founding.


If you make people choose between constitutionalism and their everyday concerns, the Constitution will lose.

I've met a number of conservatives over the last decade or so who were much more interested in discussing the issues of 1773, or 1803, or 1860, than they were the problems of the current day.

I'm absolutely not one of those people who think the Constitution is obsolete. It wasn't written for the times but for humanity, and humanity hasn't changed all that much. But the world does change, and if conservatives hope to influence the nation they'll have to address today's issues in ways consistent with the Constitution. And not just propose solutions, but convince a majority of Americans that those solutions will produce a better future for them than the alternatives.

But I think I'm preaching to the choir, here. Still, something to watch for.


Grim said...

I'm a bit suspicious of this line of argument, actually. If the Constitution doesn't give the power to the Federal government, and you really want the government involved in it, you should be pursuing solutions at the State level. It may sometimes be the case that economies of scale, or similar forces, make Federal solutions to things like "providing X" more effective than State-level solutions. Nevertheless, for reasons of human liberty, that should be left to the States (or left undone).

Tom said...

Sure, you and I agree on that. But we alone don't get to decide the matter. Many, many Americans are more invested in FDR's Bill of Rights than the Constitutional Bill of Rights. Many of them think the Constitution is, in whole or part, outdated and irrelevant to today's world.

Our rhetoric needs to convince them that the Constitution has it right and that we need to make significant changes in the status quo to bring our nation in line with the Constitution. In making that argument to people who don't think the Constitution is relevant anymore, we can't just insist "Because the Constitution says so!"

They don't care. If you and I are discussing this, "Because the Constitution says so!" is good because that is common ground for us. But when we are arguing with people who don't believe that, then "Because the Constitution says so!" is merely circular reasoning.

I'm afraid that many constitutional conservatives are just preaching to the choir; the conversation makes sense among other constitutional conservatives, but it is a circular argument outside of that group. They can't seem to understand that many Americans, maybe even a majority, no longer respect the Constitution. They need to really consider their audience and find evidence and arguments that will appeal to people who don't respect the Constitution and who see the Founders as a just a bunch of dead, white, racist, sexist males who had a revolution merely because they didn't want to pay taxes (their fair share!).

Grim said...

What do you think rhetoric is, and does? You're ascribing to it a function that is a better fit for mythos, or poetics.

The thing is that those who want the government to provide for them will soon be disappointed. What they want doesn't really matter: the end of the trough is close approaching. The old gods -- the gods of the copybook headings -- will do the work you are ascribing to rhetoric, and sooner than they would like.

What rhetoric can do is deliberative, and based on agreed-to principles. Those come from myth, or poetry -- or history, especially recent history, and very especially hard history. The project will be renewed not through clever rhetoric, but through hard lessons. That is my sense.

Tom said...

What do you think rhetoric is, and does?

It is the art of persuasion. If effective, it motivates action.

You're ascribing to it a function that is a better fit for mythos, or poetics.

Maybe so. Maybe we need a new mythos and a new poetics. (Or a re-imagining of the old, which is what most "new" stuff is.)

It is about time for the gods of the copybook headings to make their appearance. But we can still mitigate the suffering. And if it is too late, then we want to shape what comes next.

Tom said...

Really, though, while I do think we need a general renewal of small 'r' republicanism, that wasn't what I was driving at. It's simpler than I'm making it, I think.

Basically, if someone doesn't respect the Founders, then we shouldn't use the authority of the Founders when we try to persuade them. Sure, if we could spark some respect for the Founders and Constitution, that would be good. But the point is that we need to find arguments the person we're talking with can accept.

For example, on the right to bear arms, it's true that it is a natural right and the 2nd A guarantees it. But if someone doesn't believe in natural rights or that the Constitution is relevant today, then we should focus our arguments on the right to self-defense, and then maybe extend it with the idea of every citizen being responsible for the security of their community. The police can't be everywhere.

It is simple, but at the same time, I think it's often ignored. (Though not by folks here, which makes me feel odd going on and on about it like this.)

Grim said...

It's actually quite difficult to prove first principles from other grounds. It's not just formal systems that have this problem. Informal systems, like political systems, are even less capable of proving their axioms.

Religious liberty, for example, is a natural right and the 1st Amendment guarantees it. So what if you reject natural rights, and adopt a reading of the Constitution that allows it to be molded to say whatever a good progressive wants it to say? Well, you can make arguments all day about why it's a nice principle; they can make arguments all day about why it justifies a discrimination that they hate more than they hate government suppression of religion.

The real argument for it, though -- the real proof of it -- was the Thirty Years War. And the French Wars that proceeded the Thirty Years War. And the religious wars in Britain, and the semi-religious wars around the Jacobite kings and William and Mary.

That's the real ground of proof, I'm afraid. The idea of a natural right grew out of the observation that traducing that right led to rivers of blood.

Tom said...

You are right, of course, but that assumes an interlocutor with whom we have nothing in common. First, we look for common ground. If we can find things we agree on, we don't have to prove them. We have a foundation to build from.

If there is no common ground, well, what can we do? Just move on.

And, we don't need to convert people. We need to move the culture towards our ideals. That's an aggregate thing. We get the other side to willingly compromise here, then there. We build an admirable culture. We show people we have ideals worth living by.

Just as we are not perfect, our "enemies" aren't, either. As it turns out, they are our long-estranged brothers. They just don't know it.

douglas said...

"But the point is that we need to find arguments the person we're talking with can accept."

Indeed- I've always put it as 'you have to go win on their home field if you intend to change their mind'.

Surely we need to do something to alter the common mythos/poetics. We've been almost completely out of that side of the fight for decades now.

We could discuss this in general terms, but each person is unique, and has a unique position re: the constitution and it's relevance today, and what issues motivate or concern them. Each argument has to be tailored. Just as I don't believe one-size-fits-all works from D.C., I don't believe one argument is all you need. It's multi-front and multi-valent, and there are 300 million odd battlefields to fight on.

Anonymous said...

Here is your choice and its crystal clear: "The Constitution" or "Cant we just DRONE this guy"

Under Intense Pressure to Silence Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Proposed Drone Strike on Julian Assange


Assange's internet link intentionally severed by state party - WikiLeaks

When The Hill & Bill Mafia hit squads are done with Julian Assange, who will her next target be?

- Mississippi

Ymar Sakar said...

What people here are talking about sounds more like Jesus Christ preaching to his flock (choir), missionary work, and religious conversion than political argument or logic.

A fundamental change of belief and faith, isn't quite the same thing as an argument won of reason.