Bench Memos

Hating the Tea Party Because It Loves the Constitution

In a messy sprawl of a Newsweek essay, Andrew Romano aims a scattergun at Tea Partiers for not knowing their Constitution, or for worshiping it too much, or for cynically using it to advance positions that have little to do with it.  Or all of the above.  Or something.  Oh yes, and for treating “the election of a black, urban, liberal Democrat with a Muslim name” to the presidency as “a provocation.”  Just in case you thought Romano mislaid his “always insinuate conservatives are racists” flashcard.

Look.  In every political movement in American history, the Constitution is sooner or later the touchstone of argument.  Sometimes, as with Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives, a note of unhappiness with the Constitution itself creeps into the discourse–but smart politics dictates that such notes be subtle undertones, not the dominant themes.  (In the academy, by contrast, where no one has to get elected to anything, one sometimes encounters actual loathing of the Constitution.)  In the main, unalloyed “Constitution worship” runs clear across the political spectrum.  It is one of the distinctive features of American politics that sometimes makes our foreign friends scratch their heads in wonder.

It is no good pretending, as Romano does, that “constitutional fundamentalism” is a feature only on the right or among Tea Partiers.  How many times have we heard, in the last decade, the confident pronouncement by liberals that “Bush shredded the Constitution”–usually without the confident pronouncer feeling a need to support the statement with an actual argument?  If the Tea Partiers, individually and collectively, were all over the place with undisciplined and occasionally incoherent arguments appealing to the Constitution, they wouldn’t be the first political movement to display this pattern.  The Tea Party, after all, is not really a political party–it will only remain a force to be reckoned with if it does not become one–and its fundamentally disorganized character means that no one individual truly speaks for it, and it’s easy to engage in highly selective criticism of statements made here or there.  But the main themes of the Tea Party as a loose congeries of people are quite plain: its members are united in their desire to restrain and reduce the intrusion of the federal government in their lives, to reduce its costs and their taxes, and to restore freedoms of action they believe they have lost or are at risk of losing to a pack of arrogant busybodies in the nation’s capital.  Their appeal to the Constitution in advancing these views is not only natural, it is to be celebrated. 

Romano knows perfectly well that reverence for the Constitution is the common coin of our political discourse.  He cites people he admires from Madison to Washington to Lincoln to Hugo Black to Barbara Jordan, all preaching such reverence.  Ah, but the Tea Partiers are different, you see.  All the admirable people just mentioned treated the Constitution as “an integrative force–the cornerstone of our civil religion.”  But “[t]he Tea Partiers belong to a different tradition–a divisive fundamentalism.”  They’re like the American Liberty League of the 1930s or the John Birchers of the 1960s, he avers.

Yeah, sure.  But no one who thinks James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Hugo Black, or Barbara Jordan appealed to the Constitution without engaging in any “divisiveness” has really paid any attention to American political history.  Romano’s essay is nothing but another slapdash effort to read the Tea Party out of the respectable mainstream of that history.  In the end he’s not really interested in the Constitution, or in what Tea Partiers say or think about it.  He’s interested in banishing his adversaries from the precincts of decent company.  What makes it such a laugh is that the Tea Partiers are actually just about the nicest protest movement ever seen in America.  This, I suspect, is what truly drives Andrew Romano around the bend.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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