Americans generally recognize that our fiscal affairs are in grave disarray and that we are near bankruptcy. They are aware that the world has grown increasingly dangerous. Yet the gravest problem we face — perhaps the greatest challenge we have ever faced — is the decline of constitutional government in the United States.
“Are you serious? Are you serious?” was then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous answer when asked what provision of the Constitution authorizes Congress to require Americans to buy health insurance. Her press spokesman confirmed: “You can put this on the record: That is not a serious question.”
A new Congress, under new management, launched an effort to make it serious: “For too long, Congress has ignored the proper limits imposed by the Constitution,” proclaimed House Republicans in their campaign platform, “A Pledge to America.” The Republican how-to manual for new members of Congress advised them to “read and re-read the Constitution” and to “be prepared for two eventual questions every time you cast your vote on the House floor: Did you read the bill, and is it constitutional?”
It turns out that following the Constitution is easier said than done. The federal government is vastly out of its proper relationship with the Constitution. The liberal welfare state is deeply entrenched, and unraveling today’s regulatory regime will be extremely difficult. The administrative web of government policies and procedures that covers America amounts to a new form of rule by bureaucratic experts.
This underlying problem of our politics is not about to change anytime soon, the result of one congressional session or presidential election. It is the work of many generations. Yet the restoration of the principles and practice of constitutional government must be at the heart of any effort to renew America. How are we to proceed?
In this wonderful little treatise, Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn explains that the key to understanding the problem of the modern state and revealing the solution of the Founders’ design has been there all along, bound up in the midst of the country’s title and deed, so to speak. The American story has unfolded in the way it has because of the interweaving influence of two brief but powerful documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Writes Arnn: “The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing — all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents.”
Modern liberalism has managed to sever the documents from each other and mutate them, turning the Declaration’s self-evident truths into constantly evolving rights claims and the Constitution’s clear commands into meaningless generalities. This intellectual sham is well advanced, especially among our elites, and increasingly in the citizen body.
Arnn calls on us to rediscover and re-embrace both documents, and sets out to explain their deeper meaning and their integral unity: The universal and timeless claims of the one are intimately connected to the forms and institutions of government established by the other. “The Declaration,” he writes, “acquires a practical form and operation that do not seem to come from it alone. The Constitution soars to the elevation of the natural law, and its arrangements are reinforced with that strength.” The combination of those principles and that form is central to the project of creating a just system of government — something understood by the Founders and still available for those who wish to ignite an American restoration.