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Lost and Founders: Reading the Constitution through rose-colored glasses

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What could be more frightening on Halloween than finding out we really need to blow up the Constitution? Well maybe that's only just a little disconcerting but that's exactly what Alex Seitz-Wald suggested, amidst a somewhat surprising nonexistent national uproar, considering the most recent cries for holding fast to our roots and in fact, getting back to them.

At a time when debating innovative ideas largely seem to be predicated by first weeding through the accusations and subsequent defenses of whether or not they are Constitutional, maybe that's just par for the course.

It’s no secret that the left is more inclined to believe in the Constitution as a “living, breathing document” than the right. In fact, some have shown outright disrespect for the Founders.

The poster child for the pompous progressive, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz has shown his disregard for the Founders on numerous occasions, famously remarking in December of 2012:

“The founding fathers aren't here anymore. We are the founding fathers of this country now... The idea that we need to be stuck in the mud of a different generation because some dead people think that's the way we oughta live 200 and some odd years later, I'm not there. “

In fact, the argument for revising or replacing the Constitution is nothing new for liberal thinkers. David Davenport wrote in Forbes:

“It’s not unusual when a progressive scholar publishes a book on how outmoded and anachronistic our Constitution is, and how it could be updated and improved. Professor Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution (2006) argues that the document is full of structural impediments to progress (the Founders called them checks and balances) that should be eliminated. Professor Larry Sabato’s A More Perfect Constitution (2007) goes further, arguing that the Constitution needs an extreme makeover and proposing 23 specific revisions from growing the size of the Senate and House, to a one-term presidency (with the possibility of a two-year performance bonus), term limits, new election cycles and the like. Professor Louis Michael Seidman, in On Constitutional Disobedience (2012), decries the “archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions” in our Constitution and encourages leaders to stretch and ignore our founding document in order to solve problems.”

While conservatives perceive that the Founders were inherently conservative, some liberals try to argue instead that the Founding Fathers were, in fact, liberals.

Perhaps in relation to the idea of a monarchy there is an element of truth to that. At that time, everything we did in regard to government was relatively new and adaptive, not to mention that we still had a number of things such as slavery and woman’s suffrage, that wouldn’t be resolved for many years.

While the right sees themselves as wanting to return to a more strict interpretation of the Constitution particularly in regard to more limited government, some Democrats like to portray such sentiment as Tea Party extremism. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has gone so far as to call them anarchists.

While the buzzword for many on the right these days IS the constitution, in large part do to the increasing presence of the federal government in our everyday lives, perception that the last two administrations, one Republican and one Democrat, have “shredded” the Constitution is perhaps at an all-time high—but liberals are not the only ones who see the need for changes in the way we do things.

From the Atlantic:

“ ‘A lot of people have conniptions’ when you start talking about changing the Constitution, acknowledges Nick Dranias, a constitutional lawyer at the conservative Goldwater Institute in Arizona. ‘But the idea that the Founders thought the Constitution would be a perfect and unchanging document is simply not true.’ The problem is that they didn't realize how difficult they'd made it to actually change things. The U.S. Constitution is the world's hardest to amend….

Surprisingly, considering their reverence of the Founders, conservatives have led the way in reimagining the Constitution… a full-on constitutional convention goes too far, says Dranias, and…instead, Dranias and a diverse band of compatriots—including acerbic radio host Mark Levin advocate a convention to propose amendments to the Constitution, as laid out in Article V, as opposed to starting from scratch.'

Regardless we seem to have yet another topic where ideology trumps common sense – leftists who have no regard for a document written by a bunch of dead guys when the document doesn’t suit their wishes and right-wingers who claim to revere the Constitution use it oppose anything they don’t want and/or ignore it when it doesn’t suit them.

Chances are the Founders were a little more pragmatic than that.

When attempting to determine what that intent may have been, we do have more to go on than the typical book of English literature. The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The authors advocated for ratification of the U.S. Constitution in broad political terms:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."

There was of course, a significant anti-Federalist movement at the time, which opposed the creation of a stronger federal government, much of which admittedly came from concerns that it could lead to another monarchy. The previous constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, had given state governments more authority. Anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, worried the fledgling presidency might evolve into a monarchy. This sentiment was strong in adding the original amendments which became known as the Bill of Rights and the ironic controversy surrounding it.

“The Federalist Papers (specifically Federalist No. 84) are notable for their opposition to what later became the United States Bill of Rights. The idea of adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution was originally controversial because the Constitution, as written, did not specifically enumerate or protect the rights of the people, rather it listed the powers of the government and left all that remained to the states and the people. Alexander Hamilton, the author of Federalist No. 84, feared that such an enumeration, once written down explicitly, would later be interpreted as a list of the only rights that people had.

However, Hamilton's opposition to a Bill of Rights was far from universal. Robert Yates, writing under the pseudonym Brutus, articulated this viewpoint in the so-called Anti-Federalist No. 84, asserting that a government unrestrained by such a bill could easily devolve into tyranny. Other supporters of the Bill, such as Thomas Jefferson, argued that a list of rights would not and should not be interpreted as exhaustive; i.e., that these rights were examples of important rights that people had, but that people had other rights as well. People in this school of thought were confident that the judiciary would interpret these rights in an expansive fashion the matter was further clarified by the Ninth Amendment.”

There was clearly plenty of room for disagreement how much power a centralized federal government should have and how best to protect individual rights back when our country was founded – a much simpler time. There is far more room for interpretation of what the Founders would have wanted as it applies to a modern society.

The reality is that we seem to have a peculiar propensity for a lack of common sense when it comes to the Founders. A modicum of objectivity and realistic interpretation of history would dictate we keep in mind the Founders were writing in perspective of what was possible, even conceivable in the 18th century.

It’s a given that when you’re attempting to determine the modern significance of a historical document hundreds of years old, some degree of extrapolation is going to happen. While many on the left misinterpret, distort or simply disregard the principles of the Constitution whenever they suggest yet something else they believe the got should be doing, some on the right appear to interpret it as literally as fundamentalist Christians do the Bible. Neither one of these paths is intellectually honest nor likely true to the Founders’ intent.

When you consider what we envision today as “science fiction,” most of it envisions significant advances in what we are already capable of doing – communication, transportation, medical care, robotics and more.

In the 18th century, medical care was not even in its infancy. If injured or sick you either recovered or died and a doctor could do little more than cut off a damaged limb.

In addition, at the time of our nation’s founding, a federal government would have been literally incapable of doing anything more than having a very limited role. It would be many years before people would be able to communicate with each other—even someone in close proximity but not in the same building—without being face-to-face. Travel to another locality could take days and farther than that, much longer. The only type of government that could have any control or influence for almost all practical matters was local, and that didn’t evolve much past the local sheriff until many years later.

To assert that the government is broadly overreaching is a reasonable statement made not just on ideology but also on any reasonable assessment of what we have gotten ourselves into both here and abroad. Our government is heavily involved in the economy in much more than a needed regulatory role and injects itself into business and commodities in ways that far exceed consumer protection and safety. Meanwhile, when it comes to such basic needs as clean air, water, safe food and medication as well as healthcare, our government seems to often indiscriminately or ineptly regulate and with mixed results.

However, to claim that the federal government has no business being involved in almost anything, particularly as important as health care, is a strict interpretation of something that we can’t fully know.

Indeed, the entire “job” of being a member of Congress had an entirely different flavor:

“For many years, Congress would meet in December and be done by May. At the time, travel was limited to carriages, horses and ships. Getting to the meeting was not an easy task. When the start of the session moved from December to January, sessions lasted into the summer months. When planes made the trip hours rather than days or weeks, Congress began meeting year-round, with members going home on weekends and holidays.“

By the same token, the Founders were trying to avoid the kind of tyranny that even an elected official might be guilty of when governing from afar. In terms of being “present” in regard to being in proximity and in touch with its constituents, it would be more realistic to have a local government headquartered on the other side of the globe today than a federal government based a few thousand miles away in the 1800’s. And in that sense, indeed there was indeed little purpose for a centralized federal government back then except in regards to the military. Unfortunately the document also has central tenets based upon equal rights and history has shown that hasn’t always been something best left to local interpretation.

The Founders are not here today to explain how their recommendations might have changed in a modern society such as ours. Coordination between federal, state and local governments and the citizens themselves is dramatically different than back in the day when it was essentially nonexistent and today, the rule of law can actually be enforced on a consistent basis.

What else might the Founders find objectionable today? An arguably obsolete electoral college, career politicians and life terms for Supreme Court, executive orders, the monopolized two party system and much more for starters. 900+ military bases overseas and the ongoing bombing and rebuilding of countries that are not a serious security risk would surely be a sticking point and the list goes on. In truth, we can only speculate.

Then again, some principals beyond the very basics seem apparent.

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered.”

This quote has been linked to Thomas Jefferson although is considered spurious because all of it can’t be found in the letters it is purported to be in; nevertheless the sentiment is hard to ignore.

Many liberals consistently argue that the Founders were men, not gods and that wholesale changes are needed. Many on the right base their measure of conservatism on how strictly we need to adhere to the Constitution. Without a broad and realistic assessment, both of these talking-point style philosophies are shortsighted.

The Founders were trying to create a republic that would be free of the dangers of becoming a monarchy or an oligarchy similar to the one they had fought a war to escape or that typified undemocratic rule characteristic of the times they lived in. The world simply doesn't look the same today as it did 250 years ago or for that matter, even 20 years ago. There is not likely to be uniform agreement on what exact role government should play at any level but due to the very nature of hour our society exists, deeming anything not in directly provided for in the Constitution is counterintuitive.

The great irony is that for all the insistence by some on the left that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, the internet alone has given any individual the ability to voice a grievance to thousands of others in a matter of seconds and upon going “viral,” millions shortly thereafter. So while we may not yet have learned how to affect change in a system that deliberately to make alterations difficult, we can at least be certain that while we may not agree on what changes need to be made or how to make the, that there is a growing sense of urgency that the status quo is unacceptable.

There are many ways that our political system is failing us; most notably the numerous things that liberals and conservatives both seem to agree on (such as simplification of the tax code) yet we spend all our time arguing about those we don’t. Leftists would do well to realize that we don’t need to interpret the Constitution literally to understand the principles on which this nation was founded laid the groundwork for the greatest country on earth and despite all our missteps, a land where the opportunity to be successful is available to anyone. The so-called “conservatives” who may often correctly argue that our government is involved far passed what the founders envisioned also need to realize that they could not have foreseen involvement that would have been logistically impossible during their lifetime. The spirit of the debate needs to take on a form of pragmatism, realistic critical thought and intellectually honest that is sadly lacking in our current debate. The reason for that?

A) It’s Bush’s fault

B) #ThanksObama

C) Lather, rinse, repeat

We can do better. Everyone get down off your high horse and for once, let's keep it real.



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