Forecast: the Death of the American Constitution
February 22, 2007
The world changes but America seems unable to see this and adapt as the post-WWII global order collapses around us. The post-WWII era was defined by:
All this slowly fades away. The daily newspapers record its passing, although most journalists are unaware of the larger significance of what they report. We are suffering from “change blindness,” a flaw in our mental processing in which we fail to recognize large changes which should be clearly visible.
Change blindness must be experienced to believe it. Take the test at the website below. Read the instructions! Right click on the picture to move to the next one. If you cannot see the change and give up, reduce the "gap" to zero.
A brief check on the health of the American nation-state.
Aristotle believed that the political regime of a state dominated other aspects of its society. Let’s have a quick test about the health of the American Nation-State. Following Aristotle’s view, it looks at the foundations of our polity. The correct answers are given directly after the list of questions.
The correct answers, unless you’re are a student or teacher, are all “so what.” Who cares? These are all dead documents, with no current effect on our lives.
The American Constitution
Let’s be relevant! Try this test, with questions conveniently segmented for each age group.
For the Greatest Generation, whose courage defeated fascism, whose love of freedom helped end legalized racial discrimination, and whose insatiable greed saddled their descendents with debts and liabilities impossible for them to ever pay.
For the Baby Boomers, who passively volunteered to be the subjects of a series of social experiments whose scope and daring would have horrified Dr. Frankenstein:
For everyone born after 1964, who inherit the mess left by the Greats and Boomers:
What is a living Constitution?
Under our Constitution the American people grew to a level of wealth and freedom unknown in human history. A constitution – written or unwritten – lives only to the degree it is inscribed on the hearts of its citizens. That was true throughout most of our history. That is no longer true today.
Once we no longer revere the Constitution, or even know what it says, it becomes a different kind of living document. Its meaning changes to conform to the current needs of our ruling elites. We return to the state of the Romans before the laws were drawn up on twelve ivory (or brass) tablets and posted in the Forum for all Rome to see. Or, if history repeats as farce, we are like the beasts in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The laws are written on the side of the barn, but most are too stupid to realize that they are changed by the pigs during the night.
Death of the American Constitution
The Constitution was designed largely according to the ideas of Montesquieu and John Locke. Following Montesquieu, it specifies the separate duties for each of America’s three branches. Following Locke, it limits the government’s powers so as to protect individual liberties.
Its ability to do the latter function has faded rapidly since the New Deal. For example, most of the Bill of Rights remain de jure in force but are de facto void. This can be easily tested by a Lexis search of successful attempts to use them in litigation. You will find almost none.
At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties. Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites. This is already true in the UK, as the “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.
One can see our future in the fracas over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Judicial outrage over the Bush administration bypassing of the Court of Review cannot result from concern over our civil liberties, as the Court of Review apparently seldom if ever denied requests for government action. The Supremes’ horror is understandable, however, as this cut the judiciary out from a role in the rapidly expanding national security apparatus – an obvious violation of the balance of power among the three Branches.
Perhaps this was inevitable, as “consent of the governed” to the Constitutional regime becomes a meaningless formula with the passing of time, as it refers to consent to the regime by folks long dead – not even ancestors to many of today’s Americans. It becomes a founding myth, like the foundation of all traditional governments.
We have become consumers, clients of the government, instead of citizens.
History shows that people’s recognition of a regime’s passing usually lags behind the facts. Generations passed before the Roman people recognized that the Republic was truly dead.
Who killed the Constitution?
How did this happen? There are many possible explanations. A few are discussed below.
A. It’s the Founders’ fault.
The Constitution was just not good enough.
B. America has changed.
Perhaps we no longer meet the conditions the Founders considered necessary for a republic.
Also, our population has grown by a factor of 90 since the Convention. The Constitution might not work for such a large, complex state.
C. Contingent history: it just happened.
The Constitution may have died to due our cumulative errors in judgment over the past two centuries. Plus some bad luck.
D. Bad or even evil people have killed the Constitution.
Both right and left sound alarms about the evil leadership plaguing America, although they differ on the names of those responsible. Why we tolerate such leaders is seldom explained. One exception is Thomas Frank in his book What's Wrong with Kansas, who attributes this to the stupidity of the American people (excepting only liberals). The cause of this epidemic of stupidity seems unclear. Too much TV, perhaps.
E. A simple explanation.
We have traded liberty for promises of equality, security, and prosperity. The cost is our Constitution. Everything has a price.
Once a people come to believe that governing themselves is too difficult or burdensome, someone will volunteer to take this load from them. After that happens there is no point in crying about the consequences.
Consequences of the Constitution’s death
The American government will likely continue to operate mostly as it does today, evolving as it has since WWI. It will grow larger, more intrusive, and absorb an ever larger fraction of the national income. It will become less responsive to direction from the American people and more controlled by – and benefiting – our elites.
As discussed at the opening, this evolution is to a large extent unseen by the current generation. When it is seen, to many this appears both natural and perhaps even desirable. Worst of all, many of those who consider this undesirable also believe it unstoppable. Most often we show ourselves to be easily guided by appeals to our base emotions of fear and greed, with the short memories suitable to and characteristic of sheep.
The experience of Europe shows how quickly deeply held beliefs can diminish. Christianity was a large and fundamental aspect of European culture, whose doctrines shaped their lives and whose rites occupied a large fraction of their time.
All this faded quickly away once God died in their hearts. After only a handful of generations the churches now see only tourists during the week and remain mostly empty even on Sunday. Divorce is common, and the cutting edge of social policy concerns euthanasia and infanticide (both relabeled for people’s comfort).
What might be the effect of the Constitution’s death on the cohesion of the American polity? It has been a primary source of America’s strength, helping us survive many crises of types often fatal to political regimes.
What gives us a sense of mutual belonging after the Constitution dies? What gives us a sense of being Americans? We share no common religion, ethnicity, heritage, or (with each passing year) even a common language. To what will we give our allegiance?
As cohesion decreases with every new generation, recruiting for the combat units of our military services might become far more difficult. For what will these men and women putting their lives at risk? Especially in future wars far more lethal than those now waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cutting edge of the scythe
We might stumble on for a few generations not noticing the corpse of the Constitution lying about except for one destabilizing factor: immigration. Although opposed by a large percentage of Americans of all ethnic groups (including Hispanics) our elites find open borders highly beneficial.
Perhaps most important, large numbers of hard-working and ambitious immigrants create competition for the middle class, spurring desperate efforts to maintain a stable lifestyle for themselves and their children. This creates a hard-working labor force, willing to work 24-7 at their Blackberries and home computers, with no thought of unions or overtime pay, and (best of all) no time or energy leftover for politics.
However desirable, the cost is high. To what will these new “Americans” give their allegiance? To our Constitution? That is radical concept in most lands, where they change constitutions as easily as our football teams change cities. Nor can they learn this allegiance from us, as most of us no longer have it.
Will they give their allegiance to the American nation-state? While our love of country lives on, it fades with each generation. Reading our children’s schoolbooks, watching their TV shows and movies, one wonders where the next generation will learn it – let alone transmit it to millions of immigrants.
The predominate reaction of the Romans to the death of the Republic was resignation, as seen in the popular philosophies of the Empire: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Hedonism, and Christianity. How will Americans react when they realize that the Constitution has died? Reform, rebellion, or resignation?
The future of America
The coming years might test America more than anything in our past, including the Revolutionary and Civil wars. America might lose both what defines it and what we hold most dear: our Constitution, our vast wealth, and our role as global hegemon.
This transition will be like a singularity in astrophysics, a point where the rules breakdown – and beyond which we cannot see.
Such trials appear throughout history. Consider Russia in 1942. Ruled by a madman. Their government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution, killed tens of millions, and reduced the nation to poverty. Most of their generals were dead, their armies were in full retreat, and vast areas were controlled by a ruthless invader.
The mark of a great people is the ability to carry on when all is lost, including hope. We can learn much from the Russian people’s behavior in WWII.
I doubt we will fall into such peril. On the other hand, our situation might be far more complex, with no clear enemy to unify us. But there is no cause for despair.
Our wealth is just things (“hardware”), an inheritance from past generations. What we lose we can work to replace. Our aspirations to global hegemony were revealed as a mirage in Vietnam and Iraqi, lasting less than two generations after WWII.
Our Constitution is just an idea, inherited from the founders. We created it, and its death will give us the experience to do better with the next version.
Our culture is a collection of discordant ideas, mixing lofty and base elements in a manner despised by much of the world – an easily understood disgust to anyone watching many of our TV shows and movies, or listening to some of our popular music.
The Constitution is not America. We are America. We are strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow leaders. We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects. We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on.
We will be what we want to be. The coming years will reveal what that is.
Are the developments discussed here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.
Please send your comments and corrections on this article to:
Meier, C. (1982). Caesar. New York: BasicBooks.
Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and the need to conserve and regenerate. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s strength and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.
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