In a blog dedicated to formulating and promoting classical liberalism, it is useful at year’s end to evaluate the state of these ideas in the politics and culture of our nation. And sad to report, classical liberalism is now weaker than it has been for decades.
Hillary Clinton is the odds on favorite to be the next President of the United States. From a reporter this weekend, I learned that her possible victory has offered an occasion for Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to argue that the original meaning of the Constitution would prevent her from being President. His primary contention is that women are excluded form the highest office because the original Constitution refers in many places to the President as “he.” Of course, Dean Chemerinsky does not believe that the Constitution correctly interpreted actually prevents Clinton from becoming President nor is he predicting that any court will so hold. He just wants to score points against originalism.
But his argument shows that he understands little about originalism and seemingly less about the plain text of the Constitution. First, the language of the Constitution has to be interpreted against the linguistic convention that existed at that time (and indeed despite its political incorrectness may exist even now) that the masculine reference can include females. Lest there be any doubt that this was a convention at the Framing, one just has to consult the King James Bible, surely the book best known in the United States in 1789.
The story of this term has been a united block of the left on the Court, where Justices on the right were fractured. I have suggested that one important reason is that justices on the right take jurisprudence seriously, whereas the left are ideologically motivated. More evidence for this proposition comes from the observation that even when the right won, their justices often wrote separately. It is reason not result that counts for them. And this is as it should be: insistence on right reason affirms the rule of law. A focus on results is just about political power.
In contrast, when the left was in the majority, they tended to join opinions as one, even when they were as doctrinally unpersuasive as Justice Anthony Kennedy’s in the same-sex marriage case. The senior justice on the left boasted she kept her voters in line. Indeed the real division on the Court is between legalists of various kinds and ideologues of one kind.
What is to be done? Above, all win a Presidential election. Ultimately if we are to preserve the Constitution as a rule of law, we must elect someone committed to justices who will interpret it as other law, not a vessel for advancing the left’s ideology. Yet the leading candidate of one of our parties has already said that what matters to her is not jurisprudence but a result—the overruling of Citizens United, a case that perhaps not coincidentally permitted citizens to use a corporate form to distribute a film that criticized this candidate herself.
But what can be done in the interim by the justices themselves?
Hillary Clinton has made her first statement about what she wants in a Supreme Court justice. Instead of focusing on jurisprudential philosophy, Clinton has laid out a litmus test defined by a particular case: her justice must be committed to overruling Citizens United.
This comment shows that Clinton wants to abridge core political freedoms and to create two classes of citizens—the scribal class which has special privileges to speak at election time and the rest of us who are prevented from disseminating our views as effectively. Recall that Citizens United was a non-profit corporation that put out a video that criticized none other than Hillary Clinton, then as now running in a primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. The McCain-Feingold legislation made such criticism by a corporation illegal in the run-up to a primary, but the Supreme Court struck down this prohibition as violating the First Amendment. The legislation expressly exempted media corporations from its prohibitions, creating a distinction between those in the media and everyone else.
The Court’s decision was clearly correct. As I argued fifteen years ago, and as Mike McConnell has since developed independently at much greater length, the dissemination of such independent views is encompassed within the freedom of the press.
As she hawks her new book, Mrs. Clinton is saying provocative things. Her assertion that “American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world” has raised eyebrows across the country.
In a world in which violent coup d-etat are still relatively common in many parts of the world, that’s a striking claim. American politicians are toppled by elections, not by violence. The parties hurl invective at each other, not ordinance. As John Adams reflected to Thomas Jefferson in 1823, “I should like to see an election for a President in the British empire or in France or in Spain or in Prussia or Russia by way of experiment. We go on pretty well—for we use no other artillery than goose quills: & our ink is not so deleterious as language & grape.”*
To my constricted mind, elections are like meteorological events. They happen, at more or less regular intervals. People can’t stop talking about them. If I had a desire to participate actively in either, it wouldn’t make a difference; and so I never have and never will. I’d be grateful if electoral politics and the weather could stay in the background, where they belong; but if they intrude all too much I’ll move, uncomplainingly, to a place where they don’t . In short, I don’t have any actual opinion on Tuesday’s election or its outcome, only a few rain-drenched musings: