Congress doesn’t do much these days and because of this lack of action many people have turned to ideologies that openly shun the activities and scope of the federal government. These people often identify as libertarians and, despite my personal annoyance at this label, will often conflate the importance of small government and the free market with some vague reference to the US Constitution in the mix.
I vehemently disagree with the idea of reducing the size of the federal government in the way that libertarians talk about, and with the notion of capitalism being a desired economic system, but the Constitution has to take some of the credit for the current inability of Congress to pass anything. It isn’t that the Founding Fathers didn’t know how polarised the debate in the US would become, it’s that the philosophical debate about the nature of government has widened to involve approaches that many of the framers of the Constitution would not be aware of.
The approach to the American government is dependent upon a number of philosophical principles. Although these are closely related ideology, I wanted to write a separate piece on these aspects as it deals specifically with the nature of American government. A key reason for the Congressional gridlock is disagreement over political terminology and using therefore ideological questions are difficult to answer. Answering questions like ‘what is the purpose of government?’ and ‘should the Constitution be applied as was intended by the Founding Fathers?’ is the only way that differences can be reconciled.
Take the example of the concept of ‘freedom’. Over the centuries the concept of freedom meant different things to different people. Presidents like Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and Reagan have all conceived of freedom in different ways; supporters of Reagan saw freedom to be independence from the government based on the importance of the individual but supporters of FDR argue that an American cannot truly be if he or she is living in poverty. As a result of these divergent views of freedom, even if the ideological factions within the two parties are set aside momentarily, compromise becomes almost impossible.
The Declaration of Independence states “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”. However the nature of these concepts has not been defined and the derived concept of ‘freedom’ is left ambiguous. For example, when taken in a historical context these rights didn’t apply to black people or Native Americans, and therefore a constitutional constructionist may argue that these rights should be the preserve of white people. Obviously this is unthinkable but it raises an important philosophical question: should we interpret the Constitution as the Founding Fathers intended or apply it to our modern world? Most people, including myself, argue in favour of the latter as without this reading of the constitution groups that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have given a second thought about, like the LGBT community, would remain without many civil rights.
The reason that the strict constructionist approach to the Constitution is flawed is evidenced by what has happened on the Right’s approach to the founding documents. This approach to the Constitution is the fundamental reason behind the GOP’s support of small government, especially on the federal level. However the rise of evangelical fundamentalism has intertwined this philosophical belief, which can be rationally argued about in a forum of ideas, with a belief that these documents were divinely inspired and almost handed to the framers by Christ himself.
Even if we ignore the fact that many of the framers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were hostile toward religion, and Christianity in particular, many of the philosophers that influenced the Founding Fathers like Thomas Paine and John Locke advocated for the separation of religion and government. This is important because what the Christian Right has done is created an alternate narrative and therefore when this narrative is challenged by Democrats in Congress, especially in regards to social issues, the default position of the GOP is that the Democrats are going against the will of God that was articulated in the Constitution. It is therefore depressingly unsurprising that gridlock becomes inevitable.
I haven’t got time to go through all the reasons why this deification of the Constitution is stupid but I’d like to mention a few. Firstly, if the Constitution was designed to be read the same way irrespective of societal advances not only would there not be amendments to the Constitution, of which there have been twenty seven, the framers wouldn’t have put mechanisms in the Constitution to amend it. If the Founding Fathers never wanted the Constitution to change they wouldn’t have put in the ability of Congress or the states though Article V to amend it.
Secondly, much of what the US government does currently is not mentioned in the Constitution and therefore would have to be totally abolished. Admittedly this would be a desired goal for those who inaccurately call themselves libertarians, however if the government is only going to do what the Constitution says and what the Founding Fathers intended, these same people would have to abolish almost the entire armed forces. Although the Constitution specifies “ the Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence ” , are these ‘conservatives’ going to tell me that the framers could foresee the existence of nuclear and chemical weaponry? Of course they couldn’t, Benjamin Franklin was trying to explain electricity, let alone the idea of a bomb so powerful it could destroy a city in seconds.
And thirdly, if we are only concerned with the ‘divinely inspired’ words of the Founding Fathers, all amendments to Constitution not written by the founders should be repealed immediately. This would keep the entirety of the Bill of Rights, and probably the Eleventh and Twelfth Amendments, in tact but it would also get rid of some important things, such as the prohibition of slavery, the direct election of senators, the enfranchisement of women, presidential term limits, and the ability of Congress to institute an income tax. Irrespective of one’s personal ideological approach to the Founding Fathers, it cannot be argued that only the first ten or twelve amendments are the only ones that should be adhered to.
If we put all of these ideas in the context of the Congressional constipation, we can quite easily work out why, irrespective of the ideological realignment of the parties, that nothing gets done. One of the political parties, the GOP, have asserted that the Constitution is the infallible words of the Judeo-Christian God and therefore should be literally adhered to. Furthermore, any political concepts that have changed in meaning based on contemporary experiences, such as Wilson or FDR’s understandings of freedom, is akin to going against the wishes of a morally just deity. I have to admit that if you put yourself into this mindset, the claims from people on the Right of the Republican Party about how the Democrats aren’t the opposition but the enemy, makes a twisted amount of sense.
However, there is a fundamental problem with this pseudo-theocratic approach to government, other than the fact that such an approach is expressly prohibited by the First Amendment: how can this approach be reconciled with the philosophical basis of the US government, popular sovereignty? I’m not going to pretend that Jefferson and Washington were bastions of democracy in a time where the term ‘Enlightened Absolutism’ was common, but one of the key concepts that underlined the US government was the focus on rule by citizens not an aristocracy.
Indeed this idea is referenced in: the Articles of Confederation, “ delegates shall be annually appointed in such manner as the legislature of each state shall direct, to meet in Congress on the first Monday in November, in every year, with a power reserved to each to state to recall its delegates ”; the Constitution, “ we the people of the united States…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America ” ; and the Declaration of Independence, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it” . It is also worth pointing out that Federalist 10 also speaks about popular sovereignty, in the context of supporting a centralised representative democracy, and that the anti-Federalist counter-argument is actually based in a different definition of popular sovereignty. In short, everyone at the time supported popular sovereignty.
To conclude, Congress is gridlock for an array of reasons but the philosophical disconnect, and the fetishization of the founding documents of the country by the GOP, have a lot to do with this inaction. Resolving the doublethink of the Republican Party is the only way in which an era of compromise can once again be brought back into existence. Having said that, I would question whether anybody would want compromise when the GOP is arguing for the policies that it does, and the other solution, as I advocated in a previous piece, is for Democrats is campaign on a populist message. By winning Congressional and local elections, the Democrats won’t have to compromise and would be able to enact legislation irrespective of what the GOP complains about.