Tuesday, January 04, 2011

American Exceptionalism, the Constitution and the Left

Two subjects keep recurring, especially from left-leaning pundits - American Exceptionalism and the Constitution. What is being said about these subjects reveals a lot about the difference in approach between conservatives and progressives.

There is some confusion about the meaning of American Exceptionalism - does it refer to the country or the citizens and does it somehow reflect God's favor. The definition I am using is that America, by dint of its constitution and its values stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world. I will go into more detail later but a lot of this has to do with the Constitution and the founding principals.

Most conservatives believe in this or a close variant. The progressives and liberals do not. As expressed by President Obama, American Exceptionism is no different than German Exceptionalism, nothing more than an expression of national pride. America has no moral high ground on the rest of the world. This is reflected in State Department policy. The Obama State Department has been reluctant to criticize other countries for abusive governments or human rights violations.

The reason the progressives are reluctant to celebrate America is that they want to make fundamental changes. You cannot say that America is better than Cuba and then try to implement a health care system similar to Cuba's. To them, America is just one among many countries and one that is not accomplished as many progressives goals.

The other subject in this post is the Constitution. This has become a rallying cry among conservative, especially the Tea Party. The new Republican majority in the House will begin this year's session with a public reading of the Constitution and a rule requiring every bill to cite its constitutional authority. Both of these have been soundly mocked by the left. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post says:

the issue of the Constitution is not that people don't read the text and think they're following; the issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.

E. J. Dionne, also of the Washington Post, says:

From its inception, the Tea Party movement has treated the nation's great founding document not as the collection of shrewd political compromises that it is but as the equivalent of sacred scripture.

Yet as Gordon Wood, the widely admired historian of the Revolutionary era has noted, we "can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those 18th-century political leaders were not outside history. . . . They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance, and foolishness."

An examination of the Constitution that views it as something other than the books of Genesis or Leviticus would be good for the country.

These are typical reactions from the left. The Constitution is described as a living document that has to be constantly re-interpreted. It is old and hard to read. It does not have any special insight.

Here is where I am going to insert my own views. The Constitution is a unique document and the product of a unique time. During the mid-to-late 18th century the great thinkers were rejecting the traditional form of government, the monarchy, and debating what the proper form of government should be in order to protect the rights of the governed. The constitution they produced protected these rights by making them part of the document itself. There is a process for making changes but it requires widespread support. Our government also has a distinct separation of powers that prevents any one branch from overstepping its authority. This is in contrast with the parliamentary system that most of the world uses where the majority party has nearly unlimited power. This is the basis for American Exceptionalism. Our system simply does not allow the accumulation of power that led to the Terror in post-revolutionary France or to the Nazis.

But, the Constitution as it stands is an impediment to many of the objectives of the progressives. Their solution is to minimize it. They know that they will never get the support needed to make the changes they need so instead they reinterpret it or ignore it.

This became obvious during the debate about health care reform. Speaker Pelosi was asked what her constitutional authority was for establishing the individual mandate. Her response was, "Are you joking?" During the debate, supporters insisted that the mandate was not a tax. Now, when trying to justify it to the courts, it is now described as a tax. At best, this is sloppy lawmaking. A giant bill was passed which will affect everyone in the country but the justification for it was left to the Justice Department after the bill passed. That is why the new Congress will require the justification to be part of all new legislation.

A common argument in favor of Obamacare often ignores the Constitution completely. It says that the only way to pay for all of the new coverage mandated is through an individual mandate therefore it must be allowed. This boils down to saying that we can ignore the Constitution as long as the desired results are important enough. This opens the way for incredible abuse but the progressives can't see that. They are too focused on their immediate goal to see any further down the road.

The conservative answer to this is that, like it or not, the Constitution is the law of the land. There are procedures in place to amend the Constitution. If you want change then use them. If you cannot get enough support then you do not have the mandate you thought you did.

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