‘Hopelessly selective’ admiration for the Constitution

‘HOPELESSLY SELECTIVE’ ADMIRATION FOR THE CONSTITUTION…. In a couple of hours, the new House Republican majority will start its first full day by reading the Constitution out loud. It should take a couple of hours, and if I had to guess, will generate a fair amount of media attention.

I’ve mocked this a bit as a shallow p.r. stunt — because it is — but as pointless gestures go, this is obviously inoffensive. If members want to read the Constitution, that’s probably a good thing. Maybe we’ll all get lucky and the exercise will lead to a larger discussion about why constitutional text is open to interpretation — and why right-wing activists aren’t the final arbiters of its meaning.

On that point, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece this week, noting, “The problem with the Tea Party’s new Constitution fetish is that it’s hopelessly selective.”

As Robert Parry notes, the folks who will be reading the Constitution aloud this week can’t read the parts permitting slavery or prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment using only their inside voices, while shouting their support for the 10th Amendment. They don’t get to support Madison and renounce Jefferson, then claim to be restoring the vision of “the Framers.” Either the Founders got it right the first time they calibrated the balance of power between the federal government and the states, or they got it so wrong that we need to pass a “Repeal Amendment” to fix it.

And unless Tea Party Republicans are willing to stand proud and announce that they adore and revere the whole Constitution as written, except for the First, 14, 16th, and 17th amendments, which totally blow, they should admit right now that they are in the same conundrum as everyone else: This document no more commands the specific policies they espouse than it commands the specific policies their opponents support.

This should all have been good news. The fact that the Constitution is sufficiently open-ended to infuriate all Americans almost equally is part of its enduring genius. The Framers were no more interested in binding future Americans to a set of divinely inspired commandments than any of us would wish to be bound by them. As Justice Stephen Breyer explains in his recent book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View, Americans cannot be controlled by the “dead hands” of one moment frozen in time. The Constitution created a framework, not a Ouija board, precisely because the Framers understood that prospect of a nation ruled for centuries by dead prophets would be the very opposite of freedom.

The wonderful Garrett Epps writes today that if Tea Party Republicans really listen to the Constitution, they will quickly realize that “the document they are hearing is nationalistic, not state-oriented; concerned with giving Congress power, not taking it away; forward-looking, not nostalgic for the past; aimed [at] creating a new government that can solve new problems, not freezing in place an old one that must fold its hands while the nation declines.” So long as there are fair-minded judges on the bench, the Constitution will be read for what it actually says, and not what any one results-oriented group or faction wants it to be.

Well said. In fact, one of the elements of today’s public reading that should be most interesting is how Republicans work their way through the parts of the document they find inconvenient. We were reminded this week, for example, that the right doesn’t care for the “general welfare” or the “necessary and proper” clauses.

But why end there? I’ll look forward to conservatives gritting their teeth just a little as they read the establishment clause, the language creating a federal income tax, the prohibition on religious tests for public office, the language that establishes birthright citizenship, and the “due process” clause that applied the Bill of Rights to the states.