Mount Vernon junkies

>> Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gabriel Winant at Salon has brought this to my attention: a number of the nation's conservatives were scheduled to gather at Mount Vernon today to pontificate on what's wrong with America these days. Sort of. Not in any specific terms or with anything approaching a plan, but with a manifesto called "The Mount Vernon Statement," which you're free to go sign at that last link if you're into vague libertarian sentimentalism and online petitions.

The problem with this brand of conservatism, as always, is that it hearkens back to a world that hasn't existed for more than two centuries. Indeed, it hearkens back to a Constitution that hasn't existed for almost a century-and-a-half. Legal scholars and serious students of American History will tell you that the United States has gone through at least two substantial Constitutional crises since the Constitution was ratified between 1787 and 1790.

The first of these was the result of the unsustainable compromises of 1787. The fact, however unacceptable to certain American right-wingers and naïve purveyors of schoolhouse mythology, is that the Constitution of the United States was not a perfect or ideal document capable of creating anything even similar to what the Mount Vernon Statement fancifully calls "an enduring framework" for any purpose. Rather, what the Constitution did was cobble together a coalition of radically different demographic, ideological and economic geographic factions--most broadly and notably the slaveholders of the Southern states and the small, non-slaveholding farmers and nascent industrialists of the Northern states--by a mixture of strange compromises (e.g. the appending of a "Bill Of Rights" as an external-yet-inherent part of the document) and simply tabling other issues for at least twenty years (Article I, section 9), possibly and conveniently outside of the remaining lifetimes of some of the Founding Fathers (how brave). Even the bicameral structure of Congress represented compromises that no longer seem as relevant--between equal representation (Senate) and majority rule (House), between elitism and an acknowledgement of states as entities (Senate, again--remember direct election of Senators was invented in 1911, effective 1913) and acknowledgement of the hoi polloi (House, again).

But the most infamous and least-resolved of the compromises of 1787 was the slavery issue. It wasn't just a moral issue, either--consider the significance of the "three-fifths compromise" in light of what the addition or subtraction of the slave population would've done to apportionment of House seats, allowing slaveholding states to stack the House by dint of large populations with absolutely no say in the political process. The slave issue boiled and brought the United States to the verge of war with itself for nearly eight decades until it resulted in war outright--and settled the question of whether "States' rights" trumped the Union for what one would've thought was once-and-for-all-time at the points of bayonets and along lines and arcs traced by ball and shot.

What could have happened in 1868, when the XIIIth, XIVth and XVth Amendments were added to the Constitution, could have been a second Constitutional convention to ratify what was written in blood, 1861-1865. And perhaps that's what should have happened in retrospect. But it's not what happened, of course. Instead, what happened was the raising of a pretense--that what had happened and what had been settled was the ascendancy of the Constitution of 1787 over insurrection, the growing pains of a nation and not the outright transformation. That this didn't happen was the result of a perhaps instinctive need for a unity myth that restored the country and salved the wounds of a war in which, yes, the cliché of "brother against brother" was a mere fact. (I am told, incidentally, that I, like so many, had kin on both sides of the American Civil War.)

At that point, anyway, if not before, the Constitution of the Mount Vernon Statement crowd, of the Becks and Norquists and Meeses, was a dead letter, a document that had failed to deliver to posterity what the Founders sought to secure and outrageously and bloodily failed.

The second Constitutional transformation that's commonly recognized was far more subtle and resolved with no blood and much real compromise--and just as much intentional or accidental dishonesty. The Constitution of 1787--and even the "Constitution of 1868"--was (in each instance) the product of a largely agrarian and somewhat backwards society. The authors of those documents could not have possibly foreseen a world of interconnected international economies and global trade, of too-clever-for-their-own-good innovations in speculative investing, of instant communications and rapid transit making isolationism impractical if not impossible, of an economy in which intellectual activities--investment, invention, finance, law--could be more vital than the tangible fruits of physical labor.

As I write this, it sounds a little recent. The difference between the crisis of 2008 and the crisis of 1929 is that the kinds of things mentioned in the previous paragraph were already facts of life and subjects of conversation, whereas the financial, social and political transformations of '29 were something like an earthquake--pressures building between tectonic plates for years finally snapping with cataclysmic effect.

This is recent enough--within the adult lifetimes of a number of Americans who are still active in culture and politics--for conservatives to curse what they correctly see as a Constitutional transformation centralizing power in the Federal government at the expense of states. What the conservatives fail to see or admit, however, is that the Constitutional transformation was necessary, because the decentralized model of the 19th Century Constitutions was completely inadequate to deal with national problems in a global setting. (Got that?) Certain Republicans may frame the FDR years as a power grab by Democrats--and in one sense they're right, it was a power grab; only problem with that analysis is that it was necessary to save the Republic.

How necessary? It was so necessary that the United States faced a Constitutional crisis that culminated in FDR's infamous court-packing plan--a crisis that was averted when a Republican, Justice Owen Roberts, "flipped" on a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a minimum-wage law ("The Switch In Time That Saved Nine"). Indeed, this was not the only compromise that conservatives of the era acceded to as it became apparent that their politics had mostly failed to either avert national crisis or to fix it.

Like the crisis of the 1860s, the crisis of the 1930s deliberately--albeit perhaps unconsciously--tended to ignore the greater truth of what had happened, instead glossing it with the myth that the Constitution of 1787 was still present and working just fine, granting a few Amendments here and there that themselves radically altered the Founders' "enduring framework" (e.g. unified party tickets; direct election of Senators; extension of suffrage to freed slaves, women, and those eligible for military service due to age--regardless of land ownership, vested fiscal interests, literacy or descent). That the United States that emerged from the Depression and World War II was in many ways unrecognizable compared to the United States that emerged from Civil War--which in turn was a radical alteration from the nation created in 1787--was, for the sake of a unifying national mythology, swept under the proverbial carpet.

Again, in retrospect, maybe it would have been better to call a Constitutional convention and hack these things out openly and honestly. Except, of course, it's more than a little hard to do that with South Carolinians shooting at a Federal fort or hordes of displaced Okies wandering around looking for work that doesn't exist. And it's more than fair to say that there were sound reasons for people to tell themselves and each other they weren't doing anything that wasn't in the spirit of the document, letter be damned.

And here we have the crucial point, by the way: whether you're a liberal or conservative in America may depend more than anything on whether you see the Constitution of 1787 as a living document that's grown and evolved--the Constitutions of 1868 and 1937 being natural, organic growths in the spirit of the thing--or whether you see it as a dead hand guiding the tiller from beyond the grave.

The problem with the latter view, which conservatives are enamored of, isn't that it's constrictive; the problem is that it's divorced from reality. It's delusional. Not because what the Founders said might not be interesting or aspirational or even, on rare occasion, relevant, but because the document it hearkens back to hasn't existed since the beginning of the American Civil War. The Mount Vernon Statement might as well allude to the rules of The Round Table or the Jedi Code, or propose modeling our nation after the Kingdom Of Prester John--none of those things ever really existed, either.

It does not bode well for this country that a number of reasonably educated and relatively accomplished men and women like those whose names appear on the Mount Vernon Statement--not to mention a loud and energetic teabagging rabble--is in thrall to a fanciful history of America that has as much to do with reality as the ravings of a junkie.


Nathan Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 12:17:00 AM EST  

I hope I'm not just being a moron here, but I've always thought that the genius of our Constitution is that it was meant to be a living document. I think the founders knew they had a lot of things wrong (or at least the world wasn't ready for their hopes), and they purposely allowed for future corrections.

Eric Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 1:36:00 PM EST  

You're not being a moron, you're being rational. Unfortunately, rationality is a controversial position, historically and politically speaking....

MAC Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:00:00 PM EST  

I think you could find another constitutional crisis, or at least a great upheaval, in the first two decades of the 19th Century, which is when our current form of government actually came into being with the establishment of political parties, patronage, and populism. Or so I'm told....

Eric Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:44:00 PM EST  

Hello, and thanks for reading, MAC. Not only do I think you're right, but the Vernonites gave me fodder for tomorrow's blog post, which sort of deals with one of those upheavals....

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