The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump’s Opponents Can Attack Constitutional Norms, Too

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D., Texas), former candidate for Senate, speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Austin, Texas, November 4, 2018. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)

To add to Kyle Smith’s points about the recent Washington Post profile of Beto O’Rourke, I think it’s worth looking at the specific language O’Rourke uses in musing about the potential exhaustion of the U.S. Constitution:

“I think that’s the question of the moment: Does this still work?” O’Rourke said. “Can an empire like ours with military presence in over 170 countries around the globe, with trading relationships . . . and security agreements in every continent, can it still be managed by the same principles that were set down 230-plus years ago?”

While O’Rourke did not explicitly call for junking the Constitution, he did suggest that a range of trading relationships and security agreements could render obsolete the founding constitutional principles of the United States. Securing America’s place in the 21st-century world, according to O’Rourke, may require evolving past the arrangements of 1787.

Commentary across America burns with denunciations of President Trump as threatening public norms, but many of the president’s staunchest critics have themselves attacked some of the prevailing norms of American life. On the left, calls to abolish the Senate or pack the Supreme Court have gained new currency. Advocates of such a transformative strategy often assume the elimination of the legislative filibuster through the nuclear option as a precondition for a more sweeping agenda. These efforts would almost certainly drastically worsen political polarization and undermine the norms of public consensus, and attempts to craft a wholesale revision of the Constitution would likely open Pandora’s box.

Some observers have focused on President Trump as the primary cause of political disruption, but it seems equally (if not even more) persuasive to say that his disruptive administration occurs within a deeper crisis of public norms and political responsibility. Many in the Beltway have fomented a sense of ceaseless political urgency that encourages a politics of emergency, in which the crisis is so severe that immediate action needs to be taken, no matter the cost. Of course, history shows that emergency measures purportedly taken to save a republic often end up digging its grave.

O’Rourke calls the United States an “empire,” but — for Rome and France — the crucial distinction between republic and empire was the loss of deliberative self-governance. While Washington is increasingly dysfunctional and while partisan polarization has chipped away at moderating norms, the United States has not lost the legacy of checks and balances bequeathed to it by the Founders. But sustaining that legacy might require reinforcing some conventionally republican virtues, such as modesty, sobriety, personal virtue, and an orientation toward the common good. It might also demand that politicians think about how to work within a system that encourages compromise (that is, the Constitution) rather than crave a winner-take-all utopia.

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