Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A Canadian live-journaler asked why Americans get so excited about our Constitution. I thought my response was worth reprinting here, in lieu of coming up with original material:

The Constitution as itself is considered mildly inviolable because it is the national contract. By directly questioning its legitimacy, you express a revolutionary attitude - quite literally, un-American. It isn't a religion, but it is the heart of the national character. Note that questioning the legitimacy of the Constitution is not the same thing as agitating for its amendment. It has been amended 27 times (17 if you count the original Bill of Rights as part of the compromise that got the Constitution ratified), and can be amended again if need be.

The odd thing is that it hasn't been amended in my lifetime. Since that lifetime has coincided with a decided upswing in judicial activism and aggressive interpretism, that might not be a coincidence. Prior to the current period, constitutional amendment was irregularly but not infrequently used to change the contract to reflect current attitudes about one issue or another. The lowering of the voting age to 18, for instance. Women's suffrage. Prohibition, and the revocation of the same.

A change in judicial ideology in the late Sixties/early Seventies pulled us away from that. Under the previous paradigm, Roe vs. Wade (the famed abortion legalization decision by the Supreme Court, for those non-Americans who don't pay much attention to our politics) would most likely have been implemented as a constitutional amendment by the early Eighties. Instead, the activists went directly to the courts, and won there, by re-interpreting the contract, rather than going through the bother of re-negotiating the contract. This enraged the conservative and religious, and they've been on the warpath about it ever since. In the normal course of events, I doubt we'd have such a vigorous and organized "pro-life" political movement, since they would have boiled like a frog in a pot.

But the judicial activist approach to constitutional law is essentially a religious one - in that it attempts to interpret the existing text to find the desired message. The conservative response to this approach is equally pseudo-religious - a counter-argument is made along the lines of "original intent", and both sides end up tussling over the prophets' meanings, as if it were scripture and not human law.

The current conservative move to enshrine current attitudes about gay marriage is an attempt to return to amendment-minded consensus constitutionalism. Of course, they are trying to seal current attitudes into stone law, while those attitudes still reflect their own opinions. As such, it's a reactionary approach, and seems to disregard the possibility that their proposed amendment might be repealed in the same fashion as Prohibition in its day.

Amendments are supposed to reflect the solid and stable consensus of the polity. That's why it's so hard to pass an amendment. Lots of people give lip-service to crap amendments like the anti-flag-burning floater, the Equal Rights proposal, the anti-abortion proposal, and so on. But the difficulty of passage means that the proposal must both be something about which people really, truly care deeply - that's what deep-sixes piffle like the flag-burning thing - and something the vast majority of voters agree on - which kills divisive, minority-opinion proposals like Equal Rights and "Pro-Life".

Also note the distinction between official oaths and the American Pledge of Allegiance. Officials swear to protect and uphold the Constitution; kids are asked to pledge allegiance to a flag - an abstraction. In a very real sense, the Constitution is a creature of the people, and not vice-versa. This is the main reason I don't consider the Constitution to be sacred - it's a national possession, not the nation itself.

Via Into the Woods.

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