The 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:
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.
Reviews: Political Science Quarterly (June 2002).
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).