Welcome

UntitledThe purpose of this blog is to provide objective running commentary on the U.S. Constitution and its relationship to political events.  By “objective,” I mean analysis predicated on the assumption that, as the product of flawed and imperfect individuals, the Constitution is itself flawed and imperfect itself.  This may not sound terribly earth shaking.  But pundits who assume that the Constitution is perfect or indestructible invariably wind up being incurious as to its real workings.  They figure that there’s no point challenging a document that is more durable than the Rock of Gibraltar.  There is no point criticizing it or even attempting to explore its internal contradictions because the ship of state will continuing steaming forward regardless, serenely indifferent to the mutterings of mere mortals.

But if one assumes the opposite, then all bets are off.  If the Constitution is essentially flawed and limited, then it is limited in duration.  The system it  engendered has a beginning, middle, and end, i.e. it is born, it flourishes, and then it enters into a period of prolonged senescence and decay.  Criticism not only becomes permissible but downright mandatory since it is only by analyzing the document’s many quirks and contradictions than we can begin to understand how it has grown and developed and where it is heading.

This is something that very few people in this country bother to do.  Yet it has never seemed more relevant due to the mounting stresses on the system as a whole.  After some two and a quarter centuries, the constitutional structure could not be more sclerotic.  Congress is incompetent and corrupt, its collective IQ sinking by the minute.  Due process is being narrowed and entire categories are now exempt from habeas corpus, most notably “illegal combatants” arrested as part of the Global War on Terror.  Provisions that were supposed to safeguard liberty do the opposite.  Debate is still permissible except when it touches on terrorism.  Americans can speak as freely as they wish except that they now “need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it shortly after 9/11.  If the Constitution for the moment precludes state censorship, it mandates self-censorship instead, which is far more effective.

The point, therefore, is to show how the economic and political crisis is leading to a deepening constitutional crisis as well.  Americans don’t want authoritarianism — to the contrary, they want democracy and progress on the many problems that afflict their society.  But because democracy is receding, authoritarianism is what they are going to get.  After Afghanistan and Iraq, they are in no mood for another war in the Middle East.  But as the Syrian conflagration widens, war is what they are likely to get.  Pundits will point their fingers at Muslims, Russia, or the liberals when the real culprit is the mounting incompetence in Washington.  If the conflict continues to expand, and I don’t see who it can do otherwise, then the domestic ramifications are not likely to be very pleasant.

Government of, by, and for the people has thus turned into a mammoth enterprise that is running increasingly amuck.

About Dan Lazare…

He is a journalist and author of three books:

9780151000852_p0_v1_s114x166The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996).

Reviews: The New York Times (Feb. 4, 1996), Washington Post, Boston University Law Review (December 1996), Washington Monthly (April 1996), The Nation, Transatlantica (January 2003).

Articles about: Harper’s (March 1996), American Prospect (June 18, 2002).

Comments pro and con:

  • …his almost Jacobin picture … is scarcely the only, and certainly not the most attractive, alternative to what I readily concede is a frozen republic where ‘the Constitution is paralyzing democracy.’”   Sanford Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford, 2006).
  • “Pathbreaking.”  Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, July 29, 2002.

Velvet CoupThe Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy (Verso, 2001).

Reviews: Political Science Quarterly (June 2002).

9780151005529_p0_v1_s114x166America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It (Harcourt 2001).

Reviews: Business Week (May 6, 2001), American Prospect (June 18, 2001), The New Yorker (June 4, 2001), East Bay Express (Nov. 21, 2001), Sierran (September 2001).

19 thoughts on “Welcome

  1. I just discovered your blog through a piece on the Boston Review reviewing David Cay Johnston’s new book Divided. I have read your excellent books and am so glad to learn of your blog as you have so much to teach. Thanks very much for all you do for us.

  2. I read several of your books around the time that they came out, and, having seen your latest feature on Aeon.co, was glad to see you are now authoring a public blog. I will look forward to catching up and reading any future articles.

  3. Pingback: Politicians Say The Darndest Things | Skeptical Analysis

  4. Daniel, I just read you piece in ConsortiumNews.com, “The Scheme to Take Down Trump” which is easily the most strait forward assessment printed anywhere regarding the bizarre events of last week. I would add the adjective “insightful” as a further accolade (often deserving for the content of your writing), except in this case the utter transparency of the intelligence cabal’s bungling scarcely requires much “insight” (which of course begs the question how the NYT, Guardian, et al are able to sustain their blindness). I think we can reasonably attribute the bungling to arrogance, rather than lack of forethought, however cobbled together and hasty the pre-Inaugural scheme was. I wrote a satirical piece (“Obituary: Donald Trump”) back in April suggesting that Plan A would be to take out Trump before the Republican Convention. Presumably the military industrial/intelligence cabal’s confidence in cold-war-building continuity was restored with the prior DNC installation of Clinton…arrogance restored! Possibly these seasoned regime changing geniuses spent the lead up to Nov 11th relaxing in front of the tube watching Saturday Night Live. Ooops! Back to Plan A. I wonder what the rationale for the hit will be…perhaps “Putin terminates blown Siberian Candidate asset.” They are probably already setting the type at the NYT and Guardian, and Wolf Blitzer is practicing the line with a straight face.
    If anyone is interested in Plan A have a look at http://cclum.net/blog.

  5. Hi:

    I am actually a retired epidemiologist; but throughout my life have devoted a lot of free time to reading on other subjects, e.g. American history, Comparative Religions, etc.

    I just read your article on the 2nd Amendment in Jacobin, “We the People” and the
    Lone Gunman.” Interesting; but several points:

    1. A quote attributed to both Presidents and Justices: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
    2. “The right to bear arms”. “Bear arms” is used exclusively in military terms. If one took it literally, individuals would have the right to own surface-to-air missiles, bazookas, flame throwers, chemical, biological, and tactical nukes, all part of the “arms” race.
    3. U.S. Constitution Article 1 Section 8:
    To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
    So, those who believe they can “bear” arms in order to resist the government, how should one interpret that the government can call up the militia to suppress insurrections?
    I believe it was assumed in the writing and can be found in diaries of the Founders that given the new government was to be a “democracy” that disagreements would be decided by the vote. Remember that Washington as President led the troops against the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt.
    4. Even during Colonial times there were laws/regulations that one could NOT store gunpowder in certain places, etc. I could probably find references if necessary.
    5. And, though amending the Constitution is almost impossible, relying on something written over 200 years ago by a few White men, living in a mainly rural society, with single shot inaccurate weapons that often wouldn’t even work if powder got wet, insane. What would they have thought if one weapon, e.g. AK 47, could kill dozens of people before they could even react? I remind you that in your book “The Frozen Constitution” it took only 650,000 lives and equal crippled for just one amendment, ending the 3/5th clause.
    6. Though not relevant directly to your article, Australia passed gun control laws under a Conservative Prime Minister and gun violence has diminished significantly, despite lies by gun rights groups. And Canada, a nation with a higher percentage of foreign born than the US, has 1/3 the murder rate, mainly attributed to NOT having a 2nd Amendment. Besides the right to bear arms, what about the rights of those innocent people to life who were killed in Las Vegas. What about Trayvon Martin? What about the Japanese exchange student trick-or-treating in Louisiana? There is an old saying the “your rights end at my nose.”

    I also found part of your review of Shlomo Sand’s book: The Invention of the Jewish People. I would love to read it and the following commentary; but don’t wish to subscribe to the London Review of Books just for one article. I checked and neither local university library nor public library subscribe to it.

    • Joel: Thanks for your comments. I agree with everything you say, but the point is that the Second Amendment, and the Constitution in general, impose a stranglehold that is virtually unbreakable short of revolution. The Constitution shouldn’t be a suicide pact. Yet that’s precisely what it’s turning out to be as society collapses under the strain. The bus is hurtling over a cliff, yet “we the people” remain frozen at the wheel. You’re also right that the Founders never anticipated bazookas, AK-47s, and the like. But while it’s possible that the courts could find a way to regulate such weapons on public safety grounds, the amendment creates a very strong presumption against any such move. After all, liberals opposing free speech on public-safety grounds — e.g. when an incendiary newspaper triggers a major public disturbance — so why should conservatives be any less reluctant to limit gun rights on the same basis? The point is that this is an unholy mess that the current constitutional apparatus is incapable of fixing.

      • Hi:

        I agree with you 100%. Many of the Founding Fathers were highly intelligent;
        but so were doctors in the Middle Ages and Colonial America who believed in
        the four humors approach to medicine. They were bound by their time and culture and the Constitution was not even then some ideal document; but a Compromise. As you know, the 3/5th clause and slavery were considered by some to be a “deal with the Devil.” And we are headed over the cliff. However, my major fear is given the level of ignorance of the average American, how easily manipulated they are, how polarized we are, a new Constitutional Convention could end up even worse. It isn’t just “the current constitutional apparatus” as Ben Franklin said (paraphrasing), “regardless of the form of government, men of good will will create a good government and others won’t.” Many of our politicians are mainly bought and paid for, others pander to whatever they think will get them elected, and many are locked in ideologies devoid of a real understanding of where they come from and what holding to them has for consequences. Antivaccinationists voted for Trump. One of their unscientific beliefs are that thimerosal (ethylmercury used as preservative in vaccines) causes autism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So, Trump appears anti vaccine; but he is reducing regulations of emissions of methyl mercury from coal burning plants. Methyl mercury much more toxic than ethyl mercury and instead of minute amounts currently only in flu vaccines, given once a year, pregnant women and children will be exposed to the more toxic mercury every single day.

        And even the parts of the Constitution that are positive have been ignored by our Courts. Check out Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”, how our Courts have basically thrown out most of the Bill of Rights and the 13th Amendment and have allowed abusing the “convicted” clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The book describes Dantes inferno on Earth, totally negating any concept of justice or human decency found in the American narrative myth. I also suggest you read the following on the 2nd Amendment:

        Keith A. Herman & Dennis A. Henigan (1989 Fall). The Second Amendment in the Twentieth Century: Have You Seen Your Militia Lately? University of Dayton Law Review; 15(1).

        Carl T. Bogus (1998 Winter). The Hidden History of the Second Amendment. U.C. David Law Review; 31(2).

        Garry Wills (1995 Sep 21). To Keep and Bear Arms. The New York Review of Books.

        And a recent book documents how the firearms industry, who funds the NRA, was responsible for current obsession with 2nd Amendment:

        Pamela Haag (2016). The Gunning of American: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture. Basic Books.

        As I wrote in my previous comment, though a trained epidemiologist, I have always loved reading and history, politics, law, economics, etc. have been areas of interest. I have lots more articles on 2nd Amendment if you are interested.

        I’ve written a a number of Reader’s Editorials for a local online magazine, East County Magazine, many dealing with “Constitutional issue” that you might find of interest:

        READER’S EDITORIAL: WHY AN EMPLOYER SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO EXCLUDE BIRTH CONTROL FROM HEALTH INSURANCE PLANS BASED ON RELIGIOUS BELIEFS at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/reader’s-editorial-why-employer-should-not-be-allowed-exclude-birth-control-health-insurance-plans

        READER’S EDITORIAL: THE INTERNET, OUR ESSENTIAL INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/reader’s-editorial-internet-our-essential-information-superhighway

        READER’S EDITORIAL: SHOULD WE KEEP THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE? NO! at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/reader’s-editorial-should-we-keep-electoral-college-no

        READER’S EDITORIAL: THE TRAGIC DEATH OF KATHRYN STEINLE IN SAN FRANCISCO: WHAT IS MISSING FROM THE NARRATIVE? at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/readers-editorial-tragic-death-kathryn-steinle-san-francisco-what-missing-narrative

        READER’S EDITORIAL: MEDICAL MARIJUANA AND STATES RIGHTS at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/search/node/%22joel%20a.%20harrison%22?page=1

        You can find all of my 28 Reader’s Editorials at: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/search/node/%22joel%20a.%20harrison%22

      • Thanks. I’ll check the links out. But one quick comment: the idea that Americans are ignorant and easily manipulable is a common one. Indeed, a majority of Americans seem to think that the majority is beyond hope. But it’s obviously fallacious. Americans aren’t stupid; rather, they’re stupefied by a system that is increasingly rigid and confining. A movement to “re-constitute” the US would be a huge wakeup call. Americans would come alive, intellectually and politically.

  6. Hi:

    1. Studies have shown that 70+% of Americans lack the basics of science and logic.
    2. The very structure of our Constitution as you so well pointed out in “The Frozen Republic” makes it almost impossible to change things. The last election gave us a choice between Trump and Hillary, only compared to Trump, the lesser of the two evils.
    3. People psychologically resist change, admitting they were wrong. A great book about the underlying psychology is: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007). Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Harcourt. [there is a new edition]
    4. It takes a lot of time and effort to really delve into, understand, our “true” history and current political and economic situation and most people do not have the time, given working long hours just to make ends meet. And all this would have to go against the “patriotic” mythological narrative Americans have been taught and that has been reinforced over and over again. A very good friend of mine doesn’t like my finding fault with US. So, I asked her to give me examples where we excel. She said number of immigrants and amount of international aid. Not so. We rank lower than 20th compared to other countries in the per capita number of immigrants and refugees, and the same in per capita international aid. I supplied her with several articles. She accepted them; but then wanted to change the subject.
    5. The world is very complex and many people prefer a simple black and white solution to almost everything. I write articles for a non-profit, Every Child By Two, that promotes vaccinations. I go through point by point articles written by antivaccinationists and include numerous references. Not only do they not change their minds, they write articles on their blogs, often lying about what I wrote, knowing that the echo chamber represented by those who follow their blogs will not likely actually read my articles, just take their word. You can find my articles on vaccines at:

    http://www.ecbt.org/index.php/facts_and_issues/article/expert_commentary

    6, People tend to interact mostly with like-minded, echo chambers.
    7. I have actually gotten some people to change their minds; but only briefly. Once confronted with the comfortable lies, the revert.
    8. I have been a long time advocate for a non-profit single-payer health care system. In US, our system cost twice what other countries do, while many uninsured or underinsured and outcomes worse on life-expectancy, infant mortality, quality of life years with chronic conditions, etc.; yet, try talking to many Americans. Reaction is you are a socialist, though single-payer is mainly private non-profit hospitals and private practicing doctors, just Medicare on steroids; but they have heard word “socialist” so many times it is a reflex reaction. Well, I actually have experienced real socialism. I went to our socialized, oops I mean public, schools and universities. I drive by our socialist neighborhood fire department, oops I mean city fire department and one and on it goes. Most people I have met don’t really know what “liberal”, “conservative”, “socialist”, and many other words actually mean. These words are not meant to inform; but as red flags to arouse emotion and shut down critical thinking.

    So, though not impossible, I think highly unlikely. And as, Hedges article below points out, we may be too late. We are too late when it comes to global warming. If we stopped emitting greenhouses gases completely tomorrow, we are beyond the tipping point. All we can do by stopping greenhouse gases is shorten the time the Earth will take to heal, not for us; but for our great great grandkids. I have read extensively on global warming. We could have done something in 1980, listened to Jimmy Carter. Instead, we chose Ronald Reagan, who did everything wrong regarding global warming; but made people feel “good.”

    A few more suggested readings:

    Chris Hedges (2017 Oct). The End of Empire: The empire will collapse and the nation will consume itself within our lifetimes if we do not wrest power from those who rule the corporate state. Nation of Change.

    Alexandra Jacobo (2017 Oct 12). One-third of Americans can’t afford food, housing or health care: The wide range of scores reflect the growing wealth gap in America. Nation of Change.

  7. Just learned of you and your work via a post on FB. Looks like we’ve been on parallel tracks for some time. Will take a closer look at your Jacobin piece from earlier this year.

  8. Hi Daniel, I’ve been following your work on the Constitution for about fifteen years, most recently on Jacobin. I came to the same conclusion about the Constitution as a New Leftist back in the early seventies and believe the fight for a democracy should be the left’s primary ideological and political focus. In discussing this issue with people over the years my experience has been that liberals think trying to change the Constitution is crazy and Marxists and socialists think it’s a diversion from building the fight for socialism. You’re very involved in the current political scene. What has your experience been? How receptive have people been to your proposal that the fight for a democratic constitution is the number one priority of the left?

    • Hi, Gil. Basically, they’ve been unreceptive, unresponsive, and uncomprehending. Talking about the Constitution seems to strike leftists as wonkish and abstract. Either they don’t want to hear about Jefferson and Madison and can’t imagine what they have to do with today’s struggles, or they see the Constitution as part of the old order and hence something that can be ignored while calling for all power to the soviets. It’s amazingly shallow since it ignores the paralyzing grip the document has on the American mind. I have an article coming out in Platypus shortly that tackles this issue more directly. I’ll post it as soon as it appears. Cheers, D.

      • That’s what I expected. I look forward to reading your Platypus piece. I’ve been working on a history of the New Left for some time that seeks to make a connection between SDS’s idea of participatory democracy and European Marxism’s primary demand for a democratic republic as the necessary precursor to socialism (at least until the Bolshevik Revolution). Are you aware that Tom Hayden in writing the draft of the Port Huron Statement almost included a criticism of the Constitution as undemocratic? I think both New Left history and what Marxists actually advocated in Europe are still not fully understood. Historically, the demand for universal suffrage and equal representation has been a powerful political force. I think it can become so again. Thanks for your great work.

  9. Just read your article on the American Conservative on Wahhabism and American foreign policy. Fantastically insightful. It would be wonderful if you can convert this to a short book.

  10. Hi Daniel, I have one follow up question. Odd as it may sound, it was reading Lenin on the democratic revolution in Russia back in the early seventies that prompted me to look at the American Constitution from a democratic perspective. Was there anything in your reading of Marxism that prompted a similar reaction or was it simply your reaction to your wife’s course on the Constitution in law school? (I’m drawing on your 1996 youtube interview for the information about laws school.) I ask this because I’m writing about the ideological legacy of the New Left. Thanks

    • No, it wasn’t anything that Lenin wrote that specifically got me going, just a Marxist viewpoint in general. I started thinking about the topic during Watergate, when the rhetoric struck me as thoroughly odd. Take Barbara Jordan’s famous comment, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Everyone cheered and cheered. But how could Jordan, a black woman, have total faith in a Constitution that includes the three-fifths clause, a lopsided Electoral College, an even more racist Senate, etc.? How could she be so blind — and how could every last political commentator be blind as well? It occurred to me that a country that seems to be open and transparent is actually a very strange place.

      • Yes. My reaction to Watergate was similar. I would just say that Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and the pre-1917 Lenin all argued explicitly that the democratic republic had to be the principal political goal of the working class and that this is what political consciousness meant to them. It’s unfortunate that most current day Marxists and socialists don’t (yet) understand their theory of political consciousness.

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