Missing: Constitutional Content
Ken McIntyre /
The tens of thousands of Americans who traveled to Washington over the weekend to protest profligate government spending didn’t just exercise their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and ask that wrongs be set right.
Taxpayers and voters also demonstrated a healthy understanding that the Constitution is on their side. “We want our freedom back,” Gary Brown, 53, of Greer, S.C., told The Washington Times. “The Constitution is the law of the land. We don’t need lawyers to interpret it. Get out of our lives.”
Terri Hall, 45, of Starke, Fla., told USA Today that hundreds of billions in new spending by President Barack Obama and Congress compelled her to get politically active. “Our government has lost sight of the powers they were granted,” she said.
Such reminders over the weekend from everyday people, taking a stand for liberty outside the U.S. Capitol, were particularly apt. They came just before too-little-celebrated Constitution Day, marked Thursday by events at Heritage and elsewhere.
Renewed public attention to the Constitution’s provisions for a central government of limited powers should be heartening. Not just to Heritage’s constitutional scholars, but to anyone who believes debates over the federal government’s role in our lives ought to begin with the document that specified the reach of that government.
“Americans want certain problems in the health care system solved, but it is doubtful they want those problems ‘solved’ in a way that does violence to key foundational principles of American political life,” student of government Andrew E. Busch wrote last summer, well before the current hubbub.
One thread clearly connects the Washington rally with April’s “tea party” demonstrations against runaway spending and taxes and the summer’s “town hall” protests of a huge government intrusion into health care: Americans increasingly are insisting that elected leaders reacquaint themselves with the Constitution.
“Is the Constitution a vibrant reality shaping policy debates,” as Busch asks, “or is it a dead letter to our public officials?”
Busch, associate professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, argues that the declining role of the Constitution in public discourse — from the president and Congress down to those who mix it up at community meetings — has not been good for America:
Ultimately, constitutional government requires a constitutional conversation that includes the people and their representatives. Failure to sustain such a conversation … will contribute to the constitutional illiteracy of the nation.”
Busch’s research showed only three presidents since 1934 averaged more than 10 references to the Constitution in each State of the Union speech: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan (the runaway leader with an average of 16). George W. Bush averaged a mere three references — and his rate per 1,000 words tied with Bill Clinton for lowest of any modern president. (See expanded chart here.)
The discouraging trend — not just in presidential communication but in congressional debates — follows “the ascent of Progressive and New Deal philosophies that systematically downplayed the importance of strict adherence to the Constitution,” Busch argues.
The growing blogosphere, he predicts, offers “some hope for a return of written argument” about the need to protect and defend the Constitution.
In February, President Barack Obama didn’t make a single reference to the Constitution in his first address to a joint session of Congress, notes Matthew Spalding, director of Heritage’s Simon Center for American Studies.
Shortly after that speech, Spalding wrote:
The federal government has lost many of its moorings and today acts with little concern for the limits in the Constitution. As a result, growing numbers are dependent on government benefits and entitlements. Many of our political leaders are rudderless, speaking in vague generalities and mired in small-minded politics and petty debates. As a nation, we are left divided about our own meaning, unable — perhaps unwilling — to defend our ideas, our institutions and ourselves.”
Spalding, author of the forthcoming book “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future” (ISI Books), adds:
The change we need, the change consis¬tent with the American idea, is not movement away from but toward our principles … . And so as we look ahead, we must also look back, not as a matter of historical curiosity, but as a guide for our nation. What we seek is renewal.”