In Rekindling Constitutional Ambition, his recent post for Law and Liberty, Yuval Levin offered some particularly helpful insights for thinking through our constitutional problems. As Levin points out, friends of the Constitution are currently in a period of uncertainty about what goals they should be aiming for, even apart from the usual confusion over how to achieve their goals. Some friends of the Constitution argue that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency would allow for a revival (such as the writers at the Journal of American Greatness blog), while others (such as the signers of the Originalists against Trump statement) argue that it would undermine obedience to the Constitution as that document was originally intended.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, conservatives and other friends of American constitutionalism have our work cut out for us. The Republican candidate for president has not shown much familiarity with or interest in the workings of our constitutional system. And the Democratic candidate (as usual) has evinced a desire to continue, with judicial backing, a transformation of that system—one that further enhances executive and regulatory power while weakening the powers of Congress.
Beginning pre-Brexit and ending post-Turkey coup, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a series of articles under the heading, Zerfaellt Europa? (Is Europe Crumbling?). Interesting stuff. Naturally it’s all in German and that be difficult speak. I’ll supply links upon request but you’ll have to trust my summaries and translations. Or ignore this and the next post.
Jointly and severally, the articles—authored for the most part by past and present politicians—suggest several conclusions. First, the idea that there might be something wrong with the EU that can’t be fixed with the demand for “more Europe” and “ever closer union” has begun to occur to responsible politicians. Good.
I sure hope the Brits vote “Leave” on June 23. That would be the first thing to go right in global politics this year.
One of the late Forrest McDonald’s many contributions to our understanding of the American Founding was that he illustrated, often humorously, the human side of some extraordinary men. Though often taking classic Roman republicans as role models, the Founders were, like the rest of us, given to occasional pettiness. They lost their tempers. They often resorted to underhanded methods to get their way. Nor were they above scheming against each other. Yet McDonald’s books also showed that the generation that fought for independence and then established the United States were also an unusually talented and well-educated group. Even when not…
America is awash in programs, books, and seminars about leadership, and we have inflicted upon ourselves a perpetual presidential campaign so that democracy can find its leader. This fetish indicates a deep problem. America largely has turned itself into a democracy across three centuries, at the urging of intellectual elites as much as the people. One price of democracy is that government by the not-so-discerning many, absent tempering or refining mechanisms, gets pulled down into being led, needing a leader. An older wisdom deemed this model of a singular figure leading the people as demagoguery. The competing idea for a…
At The Huffington Post, Evan Bernick has offered a thoughtful reply to my suggestion that judicial deference to Congress differs categorically from judicial deference to the administrative state, arguing instead that the real problem is deference simply: “Judicial deference of any kind sees judges elevating will over the reasoned judgment that judges who draw their power from Article III must exercise.”
This usefully identifies the core of the issue. If federal judges actually possessed all the power Bernick says Article III assigns them, there would be less constitutional basis for constraining their authority. If they do not, the issue is whether they can commandeer it.
The Rosenkranz Debate concerned the truth of John Adams’ quotation: The Constitution is designed for a moral and religious people and it’s wholly unfitted for the government any other. My friend, Professor Robert George, relied primarily on George Washington’s Farewell Address for historical evidence. There Washington, like Adams, claimed religion was important, if not essential, to sustaining the Republic. For instance, Washington famously said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
But Washington’s Farewell Address provides an uncertain guide as to whether the Framers of the Constitution thought widespread religious belief necessary to sustain it. As I noted in my opening remarks at the debate, the text of the Constitution does not support this view. It does not establish any particular religion or even require belief in a religion of one’s choice. It instead expressly prohibits all religious tests for offices under the United State Constitution.
Moreover, it is dangerous to rely too much on the words of politicians in political strife to establish much about the Constitution. And as great as George Washington was he was still a politician, and as powerfully stated is his Farewell address, it is in large measure a document reflecting the principles of the Federalist party. His remarks on religion parallel one of key attacks of the Federalists on the Democratic Republicans–that they were deists, like the dreaded French Revolutionaries, or at least no friends of traditional religion.