Props to Jim Geraghty for bringing to our attention a couple weeks ago that wonderfully revealing statement by Rep. “Baghdad” Jim McDermott about being “tired of reading the Constitution and all the silly things we’ve done for the last thirteen weeks.” This, along with Nancy Pelosi’s now infamous dismissal of the impertinent question about the constitutionality of Obamacare (“Are you serious?”), suggests that the real divide in American politics is less about spending, but about whether we take seriously the principles — and the institutional restraints on government power those principles embody — of the Constitution. At best liberals are ambivalent; witness how they alternately ridiculed and then participated in the reading of the Constitution that the new Republican House majority decided to hold in January.
I don’t know if I am the first to have observed that the Tea Party is something James Madison might have regarded at first glance to be an oxymoron — it is a populist constitutional movement. The ubiquity of constitutional themes in Tea Party protests is one of the things that marks out its difference from the tax revolt of the late 1970s that was a harbinger of Reagan’s election in 1980. The Tea Party emphasis on the Constitution suggests we are in the midst of what political scientists, borrowing a concept from evolutionary biology, might call a moment of “punctuated equilibrium,” where significant changes in our political life may occur. Such “constitutional moments” have occurred before, such as in the Progressive Era, the New Deal Era, and the Civil Rights Era. Such moments are characterized as much by the informal changes to our constitutionalism (such as the Progressive and New Deal emphasis on the “living Constitution”) as by the formal amendments that were adopted. The reinvigoration of the Commerce Clause occurring right now under the spur of Obamacare’s extraordinary overreach is a good example of reviving public debate over the interpretation of our Constitution’s broadly stated principles.
This is prologue to bring to the attention of Cornerites two worthy initiatives to reflect more deeply on constitutional issues: Janine Turner’s “Constituting America” website, which contains up-to-date essays about specific clauses of the Constitution and each of the Federalist Papers. This is a fully interactive website, with nifty videos to go along with erudite essays. With Janine Turner on our side, how can we lose?
The second initiative is more recent: “Letters from an Ohio Farmer.” This is a series of new essays, ostensibly addressed to members of Congress but really directed to all engaged citizens, that are intended to promote “a constitutional conversation in the broadest sense.” So why Ohio, and who is the Farmer? It is a project of the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio (full disclosure: I’m a board member, visiting faculty member next fall, and a future contributor to the Farmer’s letters), and the Farmer is not one person but, like Publius, several contributing authors writing anonymously. The grand object of this “conversation” is nothing less than the “reconstitutionalizing of America.”
Eight “Ohio Farmer” letters have been posted so far, covering ideas such as the relation of “civility” and the separation of powers, and extending even to the suggestion that our Libya intervention needs to be discussed in terms of whether and how it enhances the prospects of the American experiment. Have a look.