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(This is the first in a series of four posts which discuss Tea Party “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry.)

Every now and then, you encounter an argument you’ve been making for years, made far better than you’ve ever made it. And such was my pleasure a few moments ago, when I read this week’s “Lexington” column in The Economist (Lexington is the weekly column about America), titled “The Perils of Constitution Worship: One of the Guiding Principles of the Tea-Party Movement is Based on a Myth”  (

Among the many sage observations made by the author, was one I’ve repeated in at least a dozen “debates” with tea-partiers: The Constitution was not drafted to check central government and preserve state or individual rights, but rather to do the exact opposite, to create a central government with teeth. And, of course, the Constitution doesn’t actually contain all the answers to all of the challenges we face as a society, nor all of the information necessary to define the scope and range of our federal government. The notion, as the author notes, is simply infantile.

George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, notes that while both conservatives and progressives rely on a metaphorical narrative of “family” to understand government, what distinguishes them is that conservatives rely on a metaphor of the authoritarian, patriarchal family, while progressives rely on the metaphor of an empathetic and nurturing family (thus “the nanny state”). Ironically, the claim to be rooted in a commitment to individual liberty is belied by the deference to some ultimate authority that deprives us of responsibility to meet the challenges of our own day as free individuals. Like the fundamentalist religious zealots that so many of them are, thumping the Constitution with the same blindly dogmatic fanaticism that they thump the Bible, they are relieved of their responsibility to know or understand anything by the presence of an infinitely wise and infallible final authority, one in print, one that answers all questions and resolves all disputes, the final word from on-high.

Of course, the Constitution is a brilliant document, made more brilliant by what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t address the minutia of how we must govern ourselves, but rather sets out the general principles. And, as is so often the case, those principles are rarely more egregiously violated than by those who most zealously claim to be the defenders of the faith.

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  • sblecher:

    Your little essay is right on target. When ultra-conservatives talk about constitutional government, they always mean only THEIR interpretation, which claims that so many features of modern government are unconstitutional, and they can always read the minds of the Framers. I know some people with a dogmatic mentality and others with a liberal slant. The first type believes that anything not specifically permitted is forbidden, and the second type believes anything not specifically forbidden is permissible. If the Framers were men of reason and good will, I think they believed that future generations would be able to interpret the Constitution as it applies to their time, or amend it if necessary. Justice Stephen Breyer says a strict Originalist interpretation doesn’t make sense, but what does he know?

  • Again, the irony is that these self-proclaimed “defenders of the Constitution” are in reality the greatest and most malignant enemies of the Constitution imaginable, because the Constitution is the foundation of our Rule of Law, and Rule of Law is fundamentally procedural. As a part of that procedure, we have an insitutiton called “judicial review,” in which the courts make the final determination in Constitutional interpretation, always well-informed and well-reasoned, if not always what any one of us or any faction among us would have preferred or would have arrived at. By opposing that process, and insisting instead that their own ideologically-saturated and, more often than not, legally and Constitutionally illiterate preferred “interpretations” are the only right ones, and the process by which we mobilize and discipline our collective genius in service to the task of Constitutional interpretation is superfluous and unnecessary, they are the opponents of the Rule of Law, and thus the enemies of the Constitution.

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