A Simple Explanation – Why Our Political Class Doesn’t Understand The Constitution…Or Us

One of the things that I really appreciate about the folks who blog here is their devotion to detail and the way that supporting information is always cited when an opinion or position is stated. I know that I always try to provide information to allow the reader to understand the context of my statements. As others here also do, I do quite a bit of reading to support my writing. I read everything that I can get my hands on because I want to understand both sides of the issue.

That’s because I want to understand and have a command over my points – and those of my opposition. This is a basic debate skill that I learned in high school…and yes, I was on the debate team (and the football and basketball teams). I want to be able to make a full-bodied and complete argument. To defeat your opponent, you not only need to understand your argument, you need to have command of his, too.

A few days ago, I noticed an article by Peter Berkowitz in the Wall Street Journal that may well explain why our government officials, politicians and pundits simply do not understand the Constitution or those of us who make traditionalist, originalist or federalist arguments in defense of it. The fact that so many in the Beltway/”progressive” intelligentsia were shocked!, shocked!, I tell you, that Obamacare could possibly be found unconstitutional seems to rest more on an absence of knowledge than salable points…maybe it also explains why Obama’s Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli,  had such a hard time defending the indefensible in front of the Supreme Court.

It turns out that they might have been shocked because they have never read, much less understood the basis upon which Obamacare could be axed. If they had, perhaps the legislation would have been crafted in a different manner, one more, you know – constitutional. There isn’t even a severability clause in it (although the lack of such a clause is a recognition by the bill’s authors that it only works as a total, albeit Marxist, package – cut off a finger, it all dies. So they went for it on fourth and inches, they went for the big win, the whole enchilada.)

Shocking as it may be, Berkowitz notes that many top tier political science schools do not teach the Federalist Papers – or if they do, they merely give lip service to them.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet despite the lip service they pay to liberal education, our leading universities can’t be bothered to require students to study The Federalist—or, worse, they oppose such requirements on moral, political or pedagogical grounds. Small wonder it took so long for progressives to realize that arguments about the constitutionality of ObamaCare are indeed serious.

At Harvard, at least, all undergraduate political-science majors will receive perfunctory exposure to a few Federalist essays in a mandatory course their sophomore year. But at Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley, political-science majors can receive their degrees without encountering the single surest analysis of the problems that the Constitution was intended to solve and the manner in which it was intended to operate.

Most astonishing and most revealing is the neglect of The Federalist by graduate schools and law schools. The political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley—which set the tone for higher education throughout the nation and train many of the next generation’s professors—do not require candidates for the Ph.D. to study The Federalist. And these universities’ law schools (Princeton has no law school), which produce many of the nation’s leading members of the bar and bench, do not require their students to read, let alone master, The Federalist’s major ideas and main lines of thought.

Why is this important? Berkowitz continues:

The Federalist deals with the reasons for preserving the union, the inefficacy of the existing federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and the conformity of the new constitution to the principles of liberty and consent. It covers war and peace, foreign affairs, commerce, taxation, federalism and the separation of powers. It provides a detailed examination of the chief features of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It advances its case by restatement and refutation of the leading criticisms of the new constitution. It displays a level of learning, political acumen and public-spiritedness to which contemporary scholars, journalists and politicians can but aspire. And to this day it stands as an unsurpassed source of insight into the Constitution’s text, structure and purposes.

Given that a majority of our elected officials are political science grads and/or lawyers, it does explain a lot. We have a ruling class that, like our friend Rezwan Haq in Panama City (friends from Panama City will know what I mean), only have a “google search” level understanding of these issues. Their knowledge is superficial at best, limited to sound bites of information, most often taken out of context. I think that it is because we now see a constant diet of these little appetizer sized morsels of knowledge being  offered up and the public at large has become conditioned to consume information in these bite size portions.  As a result, we are losing the ability to absorb and digest larger slices of information.

Think of it this way – you have a goldfish in a bowl and you go and buy food for it. Why is the food in tiny flake form? Probably because the mouth of the fish is so small and a goldfish can’t eat food that is larger than its mouth. It can’t take it in to be digested. Try putting a large, solid brick of food in the tank and the fish will starve to death. Brains are that way, too. Years of conditioning to accept small bits of that dapper dandy, good old Shep Smith on Fox, Kim Kardashian and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show prevents the brain from being able to consume the hard stuff, the large bricks of information that are represented by many of our issues.

Today, if you want to understand issues beyond a superficial level, you have to go get your knowledge on – you have to put in the intellectual sweat equity. You won’t get it from Fox, CNN, MSNBC, HLN or any of the “alphabet” broadcast networks because all of these “news” outlets are more concerned with entertainment and ratings than information. You also aren’t going to get it from our government schools or public colleges because these institutions have sadly become more about indoctrination in a specific leftist ideology than a free thinking education – as was indelibly illustrated this week when the academic publication, Chronicle of Higher Education, fired Naomi Schaefer Riley for her blog post identifying “black studies” programs as filled with useless “leftist claptrap” instead of true scholarship. I have to wonder how many people who subsequently vilified Riley as a racist even took the time to find out that she is married to a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Jason Riley – who is a black man. They are probably the knowledge equivalents of goldfish – a three second memory.

It is hard. it is an investment in time and effort because you have to THINK to understand the concepts – but my belief is that you simply cannot understand the Constitution without reading the Federalist papers and you can’t understand our founding principles without reading the works of people like Frédéric Bastiat, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Plato, Hobbes and Sir Thomas More. You can’t understand Marxism without reading Marx and Engels, you can’t understand American “progressivism” without reading about Woodrow Wilson and FDR (and a lot in their own words)…in short, you have to study. Chances are, if you are arguing with a Marxist, it is likely that he has never read Locke – if you are arguing with an Occupy protester, he may not even know how to read. The point is that the need for learning doesn’t stop when you get a diploma.

I would feel perfectly comfortable to state that I, as well as our co-bloggers and many of our readers, understand these issues far better than most in government…and we didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night (well, at least I didn’t).

22 thoughts on “A Simple Explanation – Why Our Political Class Doesn’t Understand The Constitution…Or Us

  1. Utah,

    The Federalist Papers are not enough. Yes, they are the explanation of the argument that won, and therefore, they represent the authority on how to understand the Constitution. However, one must read the anti-Federalists to fully understand both the Federalists Papers as well as where, how and why the Federalists were wrong. History has taught us that the anti-Federalists’ fears were well founded – many having come to pass.

    Just a thought. Otherwise, you know I march in lock-step with you on this post.

  2. Excellent post, Utah.
    Debate skills are indeed in short supply over with the closed-minded-yet-supposedly-super-smart Left. Case in point would be Sebelius’ chronic inablity to defend Obamacare to Congress, or Verilli’s worst week evah in court. Neither of them had a CLUE as to what the obvious counter-argument was, and it showed.

    They have no NEED to understand our side of the argumment, you see. Their beliefs are superior. The sooner we realize that, the sooner they will stop attacking us as being….closed-minded.

    Hope this helps.
    😉

  3. So on the one hand we’re supposed to strictly interpret the Constitution according to its original text, but on the other hand we’re supposed to read The Federalist Papers to understand the meaning behind the text. Further, the concept of using foreign laws to craft policy in America has Republicans furious, but yet we’re supposed to read works from non-American philosophers to better understand our Constitution. Hypocrisy at its finest!

    • No, we’re to address the Federalist papers when we have a doubt as to the original intent of the Constitution. But then, I must be wrong about this because I got it from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (yes, they said the Federalist papers were our best guide to the Constitution as they represent the winning side of the ratification argument), and we all know the men who created our system and wrote our constitution had less of an understanding of what they believed and intended than we do today because technology has enlightened us far beyond their old, dead, white slave-owning selves could possibly have ever been.

      Just like, you can’t possibly understand the thinking that influenced our founders by looking overseas. We ALL know the Bible was written by native Americans and that the Israelites lived in what is now Ohio. And John Locke and Blackstone were Native American philosophers. So, obviously, the founders didn’t use the works of foreign thinkers to create this nation, they only appealed to them after they had built their own government and then needed to borrow foreign laws to make their entirely indigenous grown system function.

      LOL, Really? That one was like hitting a ball off the “T.” How about at least taking the time and effort to at least pitch if you’re going to play ball?

      🙂

        • Dude,

          Dead to the world via alcohol or drug induced blackout, I’m still gonna swing at and crush something as easy as that one.

          I see you couldn’t help but swinging at it, either.

          Two homers off one error. HA! 🙂

    • Wow, stunning ignorance on display. I really enjoy it when people make my point for me.

      The Federalist Papers predate the ratification of the Constitution, written between 1787 and 1788 to explain the rationale of the Constitution to the citizens of the fledgling United States. Their sole purpose is to explain the Constitution, so yes, they are important to understanding the document as they were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, men who were part of the founding of this nation.

      As for the non-American philosophers, there is is significant difference in understanding the basis for the construction of our Constitution and looking to other foreign laws to justify SCOTUS decisions. The Supreme Court was established to clarify legal interpretations according to OUR Constitution and no other.

      Using foreign law to craft “policy” is one thing, to use it to interpret constitutionality is another, very different thing…

      You might want to read a few of those “foreign” philosophers – I would suggest starting with John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” written in 1690 – before there was an America. The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution all were based on much of Locke’s “foreign” philosophy.

  4. “No, we’re to address the Federalist papers when we have a doubt as to the original intent of the Constitution.”

    You’re missing the point. The debate over health care reform, specifically the individual mandate, is about whether the law violates the Commerce Clause, not whether doubt exists over the original intent of the Constitution. Considering neither Social Security nor Medicare were something ever intended by the Founding Fathers, does this mean that they are unconstitutional too? Trying to solve 21st century problems with the mindset of 18th century privileged, land owning, slave owning white men is a recipe for disaster!

    And while I’m no fan of OWS’s tactics, if you really look at their positions, they are just the opposite side of the same coin as the TEA Party: TEA Partiers feel the government has too much control and power over people’s lives; OWS feels that faceless corporations have too much control over the people’s lives. We can debate who is MORE right, but in the end it’s the people who lose.

    • You’re missing the point. The debate over health care reform, specifically the individual mandate, is about whether the law violates the Commerce Clause, not whether doubt exists over the original intent of the Constitution.

      Not missing the point at all. Madison pointedly said the commerce clause and the general welfare clause do NOT allow Congress to do anything it wants because that understanding of the constitution would destroy the intent of the document – to limit govt.

      Considering neither Social Security nor Medicare were something ever intended by the Founding Fathers, does this mean that they are unconstitutional too?

      Yes. In fact, several key founders again said very sharply that the govt. has NO – ZERO – authority to take from one citizen and give to another. Here again, there is no confusion, we just do not go back to read what the men who framed our govt. said and – if we do and we do not like it – we reject it. That is a violation of the constitution.

      Trying to solve 21st century problems with the mindset of 18th century privileged, land owning, slave owning white men is a recipe for disaster!

      There’s the ad hominem. I knew you’d get to it. BTW: your assertion is patently FALSE! That makes it an opinion – and an opinion that history has repeatedly proven does not work for any society – modern or not.

      And while I’m no fan of OWS’s tactics, if you really look at their positions, they are just the opposite side of the same coin as the TEA Party: TEA Partiers feel the government has too much control and power over people’s lives; OWS feels that faceless corporations have too much control over the people’s lives.

      You do not read much of what I post on the RNL, do you? 🙂

  5. Actually, Steve, you do seem to be the one “missing the point”. What exactly do you think “original intent” means”? It doesn’t mean that the Constitution should be interpreted, as you put it, “with the mindset of 18th century privileged, land owning, slave owning white men”. It doesn’t mean a return to slavery or women barefoot and pregnant. What it means is an interpretation of principle as originally intended in the plain language of the document. I find it interesting that in order to claim that the Constitution is just too old an inflexible, people have to ignore that it has been amended 27 times to adapt it to contemporary times, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and the 19th Amendment that secured the right to vote for women. The amendment process was intentionally made difficult to avoid the basic law of the land being torn apart by people who want to follow fads or the flavor of the month…that is exactly what you are proposing.

    The Constitution is a statement of principle based on the concepts of natural law and natural rights and as such, is transcendent through time. These universal principles are just as true and applicable today as they were in 1787. What is a problem is the fact that people with viewpoints like yours, thinking that they are smarter than the Founders and the “foreign” philosophers that inspired the document, have perverted and bent interpretations of the Constitution to fit what they want it to mean, rather than abiding by it…because to do so would prevent you from doing whatever you wanted to do, constitutional or not. FDR tried to wreck the SCOTUS because it was ruling against his “progressive” and unconstitutional agenda – he was not successful in “packing” the Court but was successful in intimidating them enough to get with his program. Many of today’s issues, including Obamacare, can be traced back to SCOTUS precedents developed during that period.

    That’s the real issue with Obamacare and the Commerce Clause, is whether the government has the power, not to regulate commercial activity between the states, but to use the absence of activity as a excuse to mandate the individual to purchase a product or service. Social Security was found to be constitutional in the 1937 SCOTUS case of Helvering v. Davis because the payments from individuals were deemed a tax. This made the Social Security Act constitutional under the Constitution’s provision for the federal government to lay and collect taxes – curiously, that is the provision that will sink Obamacare because the individual mandate was not constructed as a tax, but a fee, and is not allowed under the same provision as Social Security was. The fact that Social Security is a tax is what allows the federal government to use those funds just like income tax and also why there is no bank of money to fund it, just a box full of IOU’s.

    OWS and the Tea Party have no similarities. The Tea Party makes the argument that the government already takes too much in tax and is too large, OWS says that the government doesn’t tax enough and wants larger government an more handouts. They want wealth redistribution. The very reason that they are against corporations is not that they have too much power, it is that they believe that the don’t pay enough tax. The 1%/99% argument isn’t about power, it is about money.

    We can’t debate over who is “more right” because OWS isn’t “right” at all, nor are it’s principles consistent with any of the first principles of the founding of this country.

  6. “That’s the real issue with Obamacare and the Commerce Clause, is whether the government has the power, not to regulate commercial activity between the states, but to use the absence of activity as a excuse to mandate the individual to purchase a product or service”

    Utah, choosing not to purchase health insurance is a choice, not merely an absence of activity. Uninsured (primarily young) people who choose not to buy health insurance are depriving private insurers of the type of people who could be added to the risk pool to reduce the cost of insurance for everyone. Further, noone knows when they will need health care, so if those uninsured Americans get sick the cost is ultimately borne by the taxpayer anyways when they show up at the ER, unable to pay their bill. Congress recognized this problem and used their power, pursuant to Article 1, to pass this law which promotes the general welfare by requiring everyone to buy insurance.

    During the height of the Great Depression, when older workers were frequently replaced with cheaper, younger ones, Congress realized older workers lacked a social safety net, so they passed the Social Security Act of 1935. The act was constitutional because the Court found that Congress has the power to spend money for the “general welfare,” NOT because payments were deemed a “tax.” As the opinion states, unless the decision to spend money for the “general welfare” is clearly wrong, the courts will defer to Congress. Nor is the concept of the general welfare static. Needs that were narrow or parochial a century ago may be interwoven in our day with the well-being of the nation. What is critical or urgent changes with the times. Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 641 (1937);

    Following this logic, in 2010, Congress realized our current health care model was failing. Health care was getting too expensive, and too many Americans were uninsured. As a result, Congress passed sweeping changes to our health care institution, and among other things required everyone who was not otherwise covered to buy insurance or pay a small penalty. This was done to promote the general welfare, and reduce costs across the board while improving access to care. It wasn’t done to slap our Founding Fathers in the face. In fact, I’m quite confident our FF would be proud of Congress recognizing the urgent problem that is taking up more and more of our GDP.

    Lastly, at no point have I ever considered myself smarter than our Founding Fathers; however, I’m confident that a lot of them would recognize that society’s needs change over time, which is why they purposefully kept our Constitution vague, so that interpretations of what is best for the “general welfare” would be reflected with the changing values of our society.

    What bothers me are people who hate our President, or any Democrat, and blindly oppose any legislation they propose simply because of their political affiliation. Further, a lot of elderly TEA Partiers love to complain about excessive government spending and government involvement in their personal lives, but I don’t see them protesting about the high cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan; surrendering their Medicare cards; or refusing their monthly Social Security checks.

    • Utah,

      You have found yourself a post-modernist thinker. You will never win: he can go outside at high noon on a cloudless day and stare straight up for an hour only to tell you he has seen no evidence of the sun, but the moon was bright and the stars were dim.

      Lastly, at no point have I ever considered myself smarter than our Founding Fathers; however, I’m confident that a lot of them would recognize that society’s needs change over time, which is why they purposefully kept our Constitution vague, so that interpretations of what is best for the “general welfare” would be reflected with the changing values of our society.

      Steve,

      NO! There is no other way to put it, but then, you do not care that the founders addressed this directly:

      If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.

      James Madison, letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792

      With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.

      –James Madison

  7. Your argument certainly has merit, that allowing “general welfare” to mean whatever the politicians at the time want it to mean is dangerous; however, considering that the individual mandate was narrowly tailored to a specific group of people (i.e., healthy Americans who consciously choose NOT to purchase health insurance); and that the harm of not doing something would greatly outweigh the harm of acting, I’m confident our FF (who I’m sure had excellent employer-sponsored group health insurance), would not have felt reforming health care was a threat to our constitutional system of government, and that it would fall within Congress’s ability to pass laws to promote the “general welfare.”

    Just out of curiosity, what do Republicans/Conservatives/Libertarians propose to do about the ballooning costs of health care? All I hear from Boehner and McConnell is whining. If they have a resolution that would reduce the cost of health insurance; ensure that everyone has access to health care; and would fit within your views of Constitutional government, let’s hear it!

    • MY argument? Merit?

      NEWS FLASH! It was the FOUNDERS argument and it is D-E-F-I-N-I-T-V-E-! And that makes people like you a clear and present danger to the U.S. Constitution – PERIOD – END OF ARGUMENT!

      Your argument is non-sense – and that makes it irrational. One can no more expect anything good to come from reasoning with those who have renounced the use of reason than he can expect good to come from administering medicine to the dead.

      Therefore, let this exchange be a warning to the rest of those who read it: This is an example of intellect without discipline or wisdom. It leads to absurdity, and – when one convinces themselves that absurdity is reality – to MENTAL DEFECT! This is why that doctor wrote the book about his study in which he decided liberalism is a mental disorder. We just had the good doctor’s diagnosis confirmed for all of us to see.

      • I’m still waiting to hear what The Founders/Libertarians/Conservatives would do to reduce health care costs. Still waiting. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

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