The Constitution turned 225 yesterday, and this week will be full of celebrations both solemn and stylish. As a civics nerd of the first order, I delight in every minute of Constitution Week. I wonder, though: what are we doing when we celebrate it?
We of course commemorate a daring experiment, what author and Yale law scholar Akhil Amar calls “the hinge point of history.” We restate the purposes of the Preamble. We cheer the simple fact that the Constitution is still around. But it’s easy to forget, amidst the fanfare and rhetoric, that celebration isn’t whgat the Constitution actually asks of us.
A few days before the anniversary, I attended an extraordinary public conversation between Justice Clarence Thomas and Professor Amar. I almost never agree with Thomas’ court opinions. Yet I found myself that night in full agreement when he declared that “the Constitution isn’t a document; it’s an argument.” It’s not a trophy to gaze at reverently. It’s a football, to grasp tightly and wrap your arms around as others smash into you and try to pry it loose.
From the Framing to the present day, there has been a fight in America — America has been a fight — between those who believe a strong national state ensures liberty and those who fear it stifles it. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists defined the original terms. The Civil War generation had the contest in blood. Much of rest of the time, from central banking to Social Security, it has been bitter but nonviolent.
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What’s troubling today is that both sides have gotten lazy in their case-making. Republicans like to rail against big government but are generally content to bark not bite. Mitt Romney’s recent gaffe notwithstanding, few politicians are willing to call Americans a nation of moochers; even fewer will spell out workable plans to dismantle (let alone replace) the modern state.
Democrats, too, are acutely aware that “We the People” like both government programs and anti-government rhetoric. So they’ve become risk-averse defenders of the New Deal and Great Society edifice, offering little of the nation-building vigor and vision of the first Federalists or their heirs like Lincoln and the Roosevelts.
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We’re told this election offers a stark choice between competing visions of government’s role. But let’s be honest. This campaign’s ads and sound bites are a far cry from the Federalist Papers. We need a smarter, sharper argument. It’s not enough for conservatives to inveigh against Obamacare: spell out an affordable path to universal health care that doesn’t require an active state. It’s not enough for liberals to decry the concentration of wealth: spell out an agenda to revive the middle class that’s not just doubling down on current programs. And it’s not enough to stay on a “big vs. small” axis: both sides must reimagine government for a networked age.
What we celebrate this week is the day the Convention approved the Constitution. But remember, ratification didn’t come until after many months of debate, in state after state, among citizens who’d read and thought about every clause of the document. What’s government for? Two and a quarter centuries later, that question still demands a citizenry literate in civics. If we want to honor the Constitution truly, we should fight over it like Framers.
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