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A surprising take on the Constitution in NYT's opinion newsletter

I peruse an email every day from the New York Times, linking to the offerings of their op-ed page and usually with a smart, chatty, liberal intro by columnist David Leonhardt, who is also associate editor of the Times Opinion operation.

But Leonhardt is on vacation and the Times is allowing various outsiders to write that daily note. Today, the first day of this experiment, they handed the task over to Meagan Day and Bhaskar Sunkara of the socialist magazine Jacobin. They took their opportunity to blame the U.S. Constitution for Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate.

This was both surprising and interesting, perhaps especially to Constitution nerds like me. Here are their first two paragraphs:

Consider a few facts: Donald Trump is in the White House, despite winning almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The Senate, the country’s most powerful legislative chamber, grants the same representation to Wyoming’s 579,315 residents as it does to 39,536,653 Californians. Key voting rights are denied to citizens in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other United States territories. The American government is structured by an 18th-century text that is almost impossible to change.

These ills didn’t come about by accident; the subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the Constitution’s framers. For James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” incompatible with the rights of property owners. The byzantine Constitution he helped create serves as the foundation for a system of government that rules over people, rather than an evolving tool for popular self-government.

I write often about the shortcomings of the American system of politics and government, and many of them definitely derive from the Constitution, which is, as Day and Sunkara say, almost impossible to change. That’s partly because the bar for amendments is so high, and partly because most Americans are raised to treat the Constitution as a sacred document, handed down from God to Washington to us.

I was, nonetheless, taken aback to see the Jacobin analysis in the voice, however temporarily, of the old gray lady we call the New York Times.

So I pass it along here, and invite you to read their full argument. And in case you don’t care to read the whole thing, here’s their closing:

As long as we think of our Constitution as a sacred document, instead of an outdated relic, we’ll have to deal with its anti-democratic consequences.

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Comments (22)

Weird

Because Jacobin and its writers did everything in their power to help put Trump in the White House.

This left wing take

This left wing take is the least of our worries according to Robert Reich who’s worried about a possible Article 5 convention of conservative states who want a balanced budget amendment:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QhC6kIA0EM8

Not enough state legislatures to do it yet, but they could remake the country in odious fashion whatever they say they want now.

An interesting document

(both the Constitution and the commentary) --
what one would expect from declared Socialists (NOT Social Democrats).
As I learned in high school, we are a Republic, not a Democracy. We are the United States (read it literally).
Ultimately, the Constitution is (to use their words) neither a sacred document nor an outdated relic.
It's (in engineering terms) an inspired kludge -- not always elegant but functional. It's builtin brakes on change are conservative in the best sense.

In the last few years--and

In the last few years--and only in the last few years--I have seen the statement that we are a republic (which is true) but not a democracy. In all the cases I know of, this statement has come from Republicans, as if they fear that the word "democracy" is too close to "Democratic."

Whatever the facts are, simply being a republic is nothing to brag about.

A republic is a country without a monarchy, and both republics and monarchies can be democratic or undemocratic.

The UK is not a republic but Ireland is. Japan is not a republic, but South Korea is. Canada is not a republic, because Queen Elizabeth is considered the head of state; it's "the Dominion of Canada." In Australia ("the Commonwealth of Australia") a Republican is one who wants to cut ties with the British monarchy.

Yet all these countries I mentioned have elected legislative bodies and are counted as Western democracies.

When the Eastern European countries overthrew their Communist governments and instituted elected representative governments, we didn't say "Now they're republics." They already were republics, even as dictatorships, because they had no monarchs. We said, "Now they have democracy."

By the way, China, Afghanistan, and Vietnam are republics, as Iran has been, ever since it overthrew the Shah.

At the time the Constitution was written, democracy barely existed in Europe. Britain had a parliament, but only adult males who owned property could vote, and the same was true in the U.S. and in Britain well into the 19th century. Most other countries were absolute monarchies.

When I was in high school in Minnesota, we learned that there were two kinds of democracy: direct democracy, in which everyone votes on everything, and indirect, or representative democracy, in which people elect representatives to make decisions for them.

Direct democracy barely exists in the modern world except in very small groups, because it becomes impractical if you have more than a few hundred people involved.

We vote for people to represent us in the city, county, state, and local government. The Founding Fathers, despite their professed distaste for democracy, which to them meant only direct democracy, i.e. mob rule, set up the Constitution so that it prescribed an indirect democracy.

Idolatry

While I am no theologian, I've often thought that a lot of Americans are guilty of idolatry when it comes to both the "free market" (which has never existed) as well as both the Constitution and the Founders.

I worship at none of those altars.

And?

I read the full article. I assume the remarkable part of it all is that they are saying out loud in a mainstream legacy media outlet what should be a commonplace understanding: the Constitution is designed for only limited self-rule. Whether that limitation was to protect entrenched political and economic interests, or whether it was a way of protecting the inherent sovereignty of the states is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, self-rule and popular democracy are not venerated the way we like to think.

Perhaps the remarkable thing about the article is that it should be regarded as "remarkable" to say this in the first place.

Actually ...

it's from God to us to Washington. We grant power to the government not vice versa. This is the basis of American Exceptionalism because the European model was defined as power from God to the King (government) to the people (us).

Read the First Amendment

about the establishment of religion.

As Mr. Jefferson Said . . .

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . ."

The idea of self-government in America goes back to the Mayflower Compact, which talked more about expedience than rights. Nevertheless, it just assumed that government was up to the people who signed the Compact. It did not derive from divine command.

As an aside, I find it interesting how long the divine right of kings as a basis for government hung on. Kaiser Wilhelm was flummoxed at the notion that his cousin George couldn't just order his army to stop fighting Germany.

"That to secure these rights,"

The role of government then is to protect our rights that have been "endowed by our creator." The Constitution exists to define government's role and set the limits in protecting our rights against those who would violate those rights.

People who believe these things are who we call "conservatives." People who dismiss the entire arrangement typically do so because they don't believe in or agree with the fundamental truths found to be self-evident by the Founders.

Apparently

Those fundamental truths include the right to own other human beings, and that those same humans, who were created said Creator, are worth 3/5 of the Founders at census time and worth zero at the voting booth.

Perhaps the hallowed Founders put their pants on one leg at a time, just like us. But then those who call themselves conservative have never been in the vanguard of expanding the rights of the Creator's creatures. Never. Not for women voting. For blacks voting. Not for workers to freely associate. Not for Jews or blacks to buy homes wherever they want. For women or minorities to hold jobs they are qualified for.

No Mr. Tester, conservatives have not always believed that women, blacks, Jews, and others have all those rights endowed by the Creator. They've been late to the dance, every time. And they've never copped to it.

'The Creator'

was a compromise worked out by Jefferson.
He (and Madison) wanted a purely secular document; some members of the convention were of a more religious bent, so they adopted a vague phrase that implied something like a deity, but might be no more religious than 'Spinosa's God) as referred to by Einstein -- some form of first cause, but not necessarily the anthropomorphic god of popular religions such as Christianity.

Four references in the Declaration of Independence

"... to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them ..."

"... that they are endowed by their Creator ..."

"We, therefore ... appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions ..."

"... with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence ..."

All of these references would be acceptable to any Western religion to mean their God.

The Declaration

is not the Constitution.
It does not form part of our legal system.

It is the rationale

and founding principles. So there's that.

No

It was a statement that the thirteen original (and independent) colonies would not be governed by the British monarch. They remained that way under the original Articles of Confederation.
Some relevant dates:
The Declaration of Independence 1776
Articles of Confederation 1777
Constitution of the United States ratified 1788
Bill of Rights ratified: 1791
Compare the (failed) Articles of Confederation with the Constitution and you'll see how the 'founding principles' evolved over the 15 years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Also note

that the Revolution was as much about economics as it was about political self rule.
Remember the 'Boston Tea Party' and "Taxation without representation is tyranny."
For many of the colonists, the issue was about control of their economic fate. Because of the time separation from London, the colonists were unable to participate in parliamentary processes even if, as British citizens, they had the right to do so.
Less dramatic and ennobling than talk about rights granted by a Creator, but ultimately more relevant to people's everyday lives. The British were not running a police state in the Colonies, simply collecting the same sort of taxes that they did in the rest of their domain.

Without fail we see the same ignorance time and time again

Every time the issue comes up we see that those who claim the true patriots, the "real" Americans, the "Constitutionalists" or "Originalists" lack basic and elementary knowledge regarding our Nation's Constitution and it's rationale's. When they're not making facile claims about the nation being founded on "Christian" values they're confused about the difference between one document and another. Whatever.

We never should've tolerated this nonsense in the first place, but it's certainly long long long past it's expiration date at this point. Part of preserving our liberal democracy is shinning light into the shadows where ignorance dwells, nothing good ever comes from normalizing ignorance or magical thinking. Let's try to remember that as move forward.

Thank you Mr. Brandon for taking the time to explain actual nature of the Constitution and the difference between it and Declaration of Independence.

Holding These Truths

First, I wouldn't read too much into the references to a deity or "Creator" in the Declaration. Hortatory invocations of God were common at the time, and given the divergence of mainstream religious opinion in America at the time, they were next to meaningless. Mr. Jefferson's own ambiguous relationship with organized religion was not atypical (and before citing David Barton in rebuttal, recall that he is so full of baloney he should have "Oscar Meyer" tattooed on his forehead). Religion was not a prominent factor informing political action until later in the Second Great Awakening (1840s-1850s).

Second, the concept of "rights" is a fluid one. The Founders were, for the most part, concerned mostly with the rights of white male property owners, and the states they set up. Individual rights did not become a national priority until the Civil War (the "Second Founding" of the United States).

Third, the term "conservative" has lost all meaning. One of the bases of the "fundamental truths" invoked by the Founders was the dignity of all humanity. I'm not seeing much of that from the right-hand side of the aisle.

It IS interesting...

This perspective has been bouncing around progressive circles for decades, it's a staple feature of writers like Noam Chomsky and even Howard Zinn. I think the reaction to it here illustrates how narrowly defined and controlled the political landscape became after neoliberal captured the Democratic party.

One of the reasons Bernie Sanders surprised so many progressives with his bid for the Democratic ballot slot was that so many of us had resigned ourselves to this more or less defeatist perspective. This perspective pretty much rules out any kind of real substantial reform emerging from electoral politics. The success of "Democratic Socialists" is generating a lot of hope and enthusiasm many progressives had abandoned long ago.

There's an interesting article from the Washington Post written by Sheri Berman, a political scientist that could a nice companion piece to this one.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/democratic-socialists-are-conquer...

The problem is that Berman's analysis ends up being garbage in the end because 19th century political debates among leftists of that era have very little if anything to do with those who call themselves Democratic Socialists in the US today. The piece also seems to assume that our status quo is necessarily more democratic than whatever Democratic Socialist are talking about.

Jacobin article makes sense

"Conservatism" today means more or less that whatever is-is right, even if means that "there oughta be a law" against other things that are but "just ain't right." Abortion, birth control, deficit spending, mass transit and gay marriage are a few things in that category which come to mind. But these are exceptions that prove the rule that if they "ain't right, then just "amend the Constitution" as the answer to all debate.

It helps to believe that the Constitution was divinely ordained even if it wasn't George Washington who wrote the Constitution but a committee of individuals whose names are mostly forgotten today. I'm not sure how they reconcile the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, enacted over the bloodiest war in the history of this country and efforts to amend the Constitution by packing the Court with biased judges to overrule decisions that have allowed things that "just ain't right." But consistency doesn't seem to be a particular virtue of modern "conservatism."

I think

One of the key points is equal representation. The original point was quite clear California gets 1 voice for ~ 19.75 Mil, Wyoming 1 voice for ~ 280K that is a disparity where it takes over 68 California votes to equal 1 Wyoming vote. So how long do we think we can have that size of a minority tell the majority how to live before things start getting a little Topsy turvy? I guess I would have a hard time calling it a democracy or a republic by definition (a group with a certain equality between its members). We can all surmise what we thought the founders were after, but I don't think that requiring one set of folks needing 68 votes to equal one 1 vote of another set of people because they live on the other side of a river, was what they had in mind.