The Constitution Under Siege

On my recent summer vacation, I read three fascinating books: Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives, by Grover Norquist, Who Killed the Constitution, by Thomas Woods, Jr & Kevin Gutzman, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization by Anthony Esolen. Although they differ markedly in style and content, there is a theme that is common to all of them. Namely, each both asserts and attempts to demonstrate that the UnitedStates of America has slipped the moorings established over two hundred years ago by our founders—especially in the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, the slippage is broad, deep and seemingly permanent. The liberties we have lost, the limited government that we aspired to, the culture that we have shed, the morals taught by our religiously-inspired forefathers, these are bid good riddance by nearly half our population; and the vast majority of the rest—who might rue these changes if they thought seriously about them—do not even realize what has happened.

Over the last century, the captains of the ship that have plotted this voyage have steered the USA away from the open waterways of: limited government, a strong allegiance to Western Civilization, the preservation of the traditional family, and a clear vision of the USA as Winthrop’s and Reagan’s shining city on a hill; instead, they’ve steered the ship straight down the narrow isthmus of: the nanny state, multiculturalism, multilateralism, a socialist economy and an enfeebled national defense. The final port of call is the besotted, morally degenerate, week-kneed, aging, nearly defenseless, ill-fated continent that Europe has become.

Woods’ and Gutzman’s book examines twelve case studies of US government actions—in every case detailing precisely how and why the action constituted a gross violation of the US Constitution. Naturally, many of them are Supreme Court decisions, but not all. Others involve actions of the executive and legislative branches of the government. Several of them are very well known, like the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision or its 1962 Engel vs. Vitale ruling. The former mandated racial integration of the public schools, the latter banned public prayer in the schools. Woods and Gutzman argue that, whatever one thinks about the merits of these aims, the Constitution provided no authority for the judiciary to issue either ruling. Both matters should have been handled by the people’s local legislative representatives or at worst by the US Congress. Another well known government activity the authors consider is congressional earmarks—which they discuss in the context of federal spending on US roads and highways. They give a long constitutional analysis in which they demonstrate that our founders clearly did not intend to give the federal government such authority. Yet another constitutionally troubling  move—this time by the executive—was President Truman’s seizure of the steel mills in1952. In a similar vein, they castigate Franklin Roosevelt for confiscating all the gold held legally by private citizens in 1933. In every one of the 12 cases, the authors document how a branch of the federal government embraced, then invoked a power far beyond any intended by the drafters of the US Constitution.

Esolen’s book in the popular PIG (politically incorrect guide) series deals with a much broader issue than American constitutional politics. Basically, he examines in depth the modern assault on the fundamental tenets of Western Civilization. Clearly he has little sympathy for the attackers and in a series of clever arguments he turns virtually the entire American school system’s presentation of Western Civilization on its head. He resurrects much that is worthy in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome; argues that the onset of ethical monotheism—under Judaism andChristianity—changed the world immeasurably for the better; points out that the traditions and stability of the Middle Ages (or as they are usually known, the Dark Ages) contributed as many positives to Western Civilization as did either the Renaissance or the Enlightenment; and he argues that the horrors of the twentieth century are the culmination of the latter rather than the former. In short, he believes that the secularism of modern society is the death knell, not the savior of Western Civilization. His discussion of the Constitution is surprising, especially when he asserts that the founders looked more to Athens and Rome than they did to European enlightenment thinkers. He emphasizes the Constitution’s elaborate system of checks and balances and highlights the oft-overlooked fact that the founders were striving to create a robust federalism rather than a pure democracy. He does not dwell on it, but it is clear from the rest of the book that he agrees with Woods and Gutzman on what has happened to the Constitution, and he sees that as a sign of the deterioration of Western Civilization.

Norquist’s book divides the people of the USA into what he calls the “Leave Us Alone Coalition” and the “Takings Coalition.” These might be thought of roughly as conservatives and liberals, but Norquist gives a more precise description of the constituents of these coalitions. The former consists of: “businessmen and –women, entrepreneurs and investors who wish to run their own affairs without being regulated and taxed out of existence; property owners who do not wish to be taxed out of their houses or property; gun owners protective of their Second Amendment rights; home schoolers who are willing to spend the time and energy to educate their own children, asking only that the government leave them alone; all members of the various communities of faith who wish to be left alone to practice their faithand pass it on to their children.” The members of the latter  coalition are primarily: “trial lawyers; labor union leaders; government employees (except for those in the military and police); government employee unions; recipients of government grants; Americans working in the non-profit sector; professors; those on welfare; and those managing the vast welfare system.”

Norquist then examines many trends in American life and assays which will enlarge which coalition. He examines the growth of the investor class, the decline of labor unions, geography, demographics, the influence of the media and the internet and many other facets of American life. Perhaps surprisingly, he concludes that more trends favor the leave us alone crowd than favor the takers; from which he predicts that—despite what recent events might suggest—the former will prevail. Norquist doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is clear that he views the leave us alone coalition as adhering to the basic principles set down in the Constitution whereas the takers are inclined to rip it apart when it suits their needs.

The three books are thoroughly researched and very well written, but two of them are exceedingly depressing. Woods’ and Gutzman’s case studies lay painfully bare how deeply we have violated both the spirit and letter of the Constitution. Our political system has evolved to the point wherein we routinely and cavalierly disregard clear precepts that our founders set for us in the Constitution. These violations are perpetrated by all three branches of government and virtually no one—not journalists, constitutional scholars, nor state government officials—calls them on it. Presidents make war with no constitutional authority; Congress interprets the commerce clause so as to bring under the purvey of the federal government an unchecked bevy of powers that are expressly reserved to the States by the Constitution; the Courts invent “penumbras” and “emanations” in the Constitution and then use those phantoms to give the people “rights” not even hinted at in the document, rights which of course are enforced on us by the federal government. The most depressing feature of the book is that the authors offer no prescription for righting the ship. They only suggest that perhaps their book will open a few eyes so that we’ll at least be less ignorant of our increasing enslavement to the soft tyranny the federal government is imposing upon us. There is barely a ray of hope offered for reversing the trends that they identify and which they clearly believe have effectively destroyed the Constitution.

Esolen’s book is not much more hopeful. As I said, the fundamental treasure whose violation he depicts is Western Civilization, not the Constitution. Thus the sweep of the book is grander and the stage on which developments are investigated is much bigger. But in fact that only highlights the magnitude of our loss. Actually, it occurred to me that the Constitution is more intact than Western Civilization. Those who break its rules at least pay it homage. They pass laws and institute regulations that disrespect the Constitution but they purport to do so in furtherance of the Constitution itself. On the other hand, the destroyers of Western Civilization have identified it as evil and the source of much of the world’s ills. They make no pretension of trying to preserve it; they want it overthrown.

Only Norquist’s book holds out any hope that our constitutional slide might be reversed. Not that he lays out any grand program for achieving that. Rather he believes that the favorable trends that he has uncovered and the inherent wisdom of the American people will turn the trick. Moreover, his presentation and arguments are so upbeat and optimistic, and his logic is so compelling that it is very tempting to have faith in his analysis. Well, in light of my last comment comparing the status of the Constitution to that of Western Civilization, perhaps he is right. But I am not sure. After finishing his book, which ends with a consideration of the possible outcomes of the struggle between the two coalitions—namely, either the leave us alone viewpoint prevails, or the takings folks run the table, or the current stalemate continues, I sent him an email with the following words: “…thesituation resembles one that calls forth the classic football coach’s lament–namely, when you pass the ball one of three things can happen and two of them are bad. Unfortunately, that is also true of the scenarios you laid out at the end. Either we win, or they win, or the current stalemate continues. But as you point out, the current stalemate essentially is a win for the statists because, if the coming built-in economic/entitlement train wreck is not addressed, then its fulfillment will effectively mean that they win. Thus two of your three possible scenarios are bad.” His simple response: “We will win.” God, I hope he is right.