Friday, January 7, 2011

Reading the Constitution

They read the Constitution of the United States out loud in the House of Representatives yesterday. They read it ceremonially, with different members from both parties taking different parts. It made for a nice ritual. I am a great fan of civic rituals. One doesn't have to buy into Rousseau's ideology to recognize the value - indeed necessity - of civic rituals to articulate what a community is about and to strenghten community bonding against the stresses that threaten it. That's one reason why it is so problematic to tinker too much with the form and flow of established rituals, religious or secular.

So perhaps it would be a good thing to institutionalize the reading of the Consitution at the beginning of each new Congress. That said, what was actually accomplished by yesterday's ritual? The participation by members of both parties prevented it from being the purely partisan theater it might otherwise have been, but the event itself still reeked of partisan theatrics.

Partisanship, per se, is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. In the spirit of our founding document, however, it is not inappropriate to recall that the Founders themselves abominated political parties - "factions" as they tended to call them. Of course, the same Founders formed the first parties, and partisan rancor has been a regular part of our American political culture from the very start. In a letter he wrote on June 15, 1790, after little more than a year in office, President George Washington lamented that "the questions of assumption [Hamilton's plan for the Federal Government to assume the States' debts], residence [the controversy over where to locate the permanent national captial], and other matters have been agitated with warmth and intemperance, with prolixity and threats."

A lot of words have been spoken and written recently about the excessive partisan rancor of today. Sadly there is much truth in that. As others have noted, the creation of a commuter government in which, instead of living in Washington with their families as congressmen did no tso long ago, they now commute back home every week undoubtedly has contributed a lot to the current malaise. Instead of living nearby with their children going to the same schools and socializing together, congressmen today have to fly "home" to raise money by demonizing their fellow congressmen from the other party.

It will take a lot more than a ceremonial reading of the Constitution to correct any of that. An attentive reading of the Constitution could be a useful learning experience, however. Whether anyone is capable of actually learning anything anymore is an open question, however. So, along with the reading of the Constitution, we also have the sorry spectacle of the majority party's ideologically driven willingness to ignore the nonpartisan budget office's calculation that the Republican plan to repeal the health care law would add billions to the federal deficit over the next decade.

Both parties could actually learn a lot from an attentive reading of the Constitution. Republicans could re-learn why the document was written in the first place - in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, etc. The document they desire to honor with such ceremony would never have been written had it not been necessary to provide a foundation for a stronger, more effective, truly national government transcending the inadequacy and malignant pettiness of state governments. On the other hand, Democrats (and the Imperial Judiciary many liberals have enthusiastically supported) could do well to re-learn that, however, strong, effective, and energetic government is genuinely intended to be, it is inherently limited in its nature and purpose. It does not replace civil society and is not the origin or creator of fundamental human rights and such fundamental human institutions as marriage, family, etc., all of which existed prior to it and have a moral standing superior to it.

So by all means let's encourage everyone of all political persuasions to read our Constitution!

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