E.J. Dionne: Our progressive Constitution

Published: Sunday, Jul. 6, 2014 - 5:00 pm

WASHINGTON – You cannot talk for very long to a conservative these days without hearing the words “constitutional” and “constitutionalist.”

Formulations such as “I am a constitutional conservative” or “I am a constitutionalist” are tea party habits, but they are not confined to its ranks. Many kinds of conservatives contend that everything they believe is thoroughly consistent with the views and intentions of our 18th-century Founders.

Wielding pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, they like to cite it to settle political disputes. Writing in the YG Network’s recently issued conservative manifesto, “Room to Grow,” Ramesh Ponnuru argues that there is a new and salutary “popular interest in constitutionalism.”

“Instead of treating the Constitution as the property of lawyers and judges,” he notes, “it proposes that legislators, and even citizen-activists, have an independent duty to evaluate the constitutionality of legislation.”

One plausible progressive response is to see Ponnuru’s exercise as doomed from the start. The framers could not possibly have foreseen what the world would look like in 2014. In any event, they got some important things wrong, most glaringly their document’s acceptance of slavery.

Moreover, because the Constitution was written primarily as a foundation for government, it can answer only so many questions. David Strauss of the University of Chicago Law School authored a book called “The Living Constitution” to make plain that there is a lot more to this concept than its detractors suggest. He notes that “a great part of the framers’ genius lay exactly in their ability to leave provisions general when they should be left general, so as not to undermine the document’s ability to serve as common ground.”

The problem with “originalists,” Strauss says, is that they “take general provisions and make them specific,” even when they’re not. One might add that the originalists’ versions of specificity often seem to overlap with their political preferences.

Nonetheless, progressives should take Ponnuru’s proposal seriously and think constitutionally themselves. In doing so, they would challenge conservative claims about what the Constitution really demands.

In the May issue of the Boston University Law Review, Joseph R. Fishkin and William E. Forbath of the University of Texas Law School show that at key turning points in our history (the Jacksonian era, the Populist and Progressive moments, and the New Deal), opponents of rising inequality made strong arguments “that we cannot keep our constitutional democracy – our republican form of government – without constitutional restraints against oligarchy and a political economy that maintains a broad middle class, accessible to everyone.”

Their article is called “The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution,” though Forbath told me that he and Fishkin may give the book they’re writing on the topic the more upbeat title “The Constitution of Opportunity.” Their view is that by empowering the wealthy in our political system, Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United directly contradict the Constitution’s central commitment to shared self-rule.

“Extreme concentrations of economic and political power undermine equal opportunity and equal citizenship,” they write. “In this way, oligarchy is incompatible with, and a threat to, the American constitutional scheme.”

While their overarching vision contrasts sharply with Ponnuru’s, they make a similar critique of what they call an excessively “court-centered” approach to constitutionalism. “Constitutional politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries” was very different and the subject of democratic deliberation. In earlier eras, they say, the Constitution was seen as not simply permitting but actually requiring “affirmative legislation … to ensure a wide distribution of opportunity” and to address “the problem of oligarchy in a modern capitalist society.”

The authors remind us of Franklin Roosevelt’s warning that “the inevitable consequence” of placing “economic and financial control in the hands of the few” would be “the destruction of the base of our form of government.” And writing during the Gilded Age, a time like ours in many ways, the journalist James F. Hudson argued that “imbedded” in the Constitution is “the principle” mandating “the widest distribution among the people, not only of political power, but of the advantages of wealth, education and social influence.”

The idea of a Constitution of Opportunity is both refreshing and relevant. For too long, progressives have allowed conservatives to monopolize claims of fealty to our unifying national document. In fact, those who would battle rising economic inequalities to create a robust middle class should insist that it’s they who are most loyal to the Constitution’s core purpose. Broadly shared well-being is essential to the framers’ promise that “We the people” will be the stewards of our government.


E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Follow him Twitter @EJDionne.

Read more articles by E.J. Dionne Jr.



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