Our Truly Messed-Up Constitution (And Those Dedicated To Keeping It That Way)

Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We The People Can Correct It) is a truly depressing book. As I read it last night and this morning–in preparation for a meeting today with this semester’s Wolfe Institute Faculty Discussion Group–I grew increasingly enraged, perplexed, and then, finally, even more convinced that the excessive veneration shown to the US Constitution is a scam, one perpetrated on this nation by a political class determined to ensure the US will never become a true democratic republic. (I am only up to Chapter Three as yet, and dread what awaits me in the remaining ones.)

Much of Levinson’s critique in Chapters Two (Our Undemocratic Legislative Process) and Three (The Legacy of Article II: Too-Powerful Presidents Chosen in an Indefensible Process, Who Cannot Be Displaced Even When They Are Manifestly Incompetent), was familiar to me in its bare outlines: the bicameral, or rather, tricameral legislature, with its multiplicity of ‘veto points’ that may stymie majoritarian legislation, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, (which without exaggeration may be termed as Levinson does, ‘illegitimate’), the misuse of presidential vetoes deployed on non-constitutional grounds, the all-too-frequent elections to the US House of Representatives, the idiotic Electoral College, the lame-duck Congresses, the delayed inauguration of the President. And so on. And on. But I don’t think I have ever had the Constitutions weaknesses and disastrous discordance with present-day realities laid out quite as infuriatingly well as Levinson does. (My familiarity with the outlines of Levinson’ critique should indicate part of the problem with the Constitution: most people, on being informed of its vagaries, are inclined to think it broke, and indeed scathing critique of the Constitution, given the dates on many of the commentaries and analyses cited by Levinson, is nothing new. But changing the Constitution is well-nigh impossible. We are, indeed, seemingly trapped in the ‘cage’ of its Articles and Clauses.)

A full reckoning of the Constitution’s problems as highlighted by Levinson requires a careful read of his book. Here is a tiny excerpt to get you started. Levinson cites Lynn A. Baker and Samuel H. Dinkin’s article ‘The Senate: An Institution Whose Time Has Gone?’ (Journal of Law and Politics, 1997) to offer a ‘terse summary of the practical consequences of the inequality of voting power in the Senate.’:

First, the Senate ensures  that the Federal Government will systematically redistribute income from the large states to the small states. Second, it provides racial minorities a voice in the federal lawmaking process that is disproportionately small relative to their numbers. Third, it protects diversity among the states by making federal homogenizing legislation more difficult to pass.

In case all that sounds too abstract, here is a little number of particular interest to me:

Over the period 1963-1999, New York taxpayers paid out $252 billion more in taxes than were received back in federal payments or services.

This is a mere sampler; besides the extant difficulties caused for the republic by the Constitution’s provisions, there are many crises waiting to happen in times of national emergency or even tied elections. It’s a clunker and a lemon rolled into one.  As Levinson notes, amending the Constitution is a near-intractable task, the difficulty of which may be gauged by revisiting John Roche’s paraphrasing  of Lord Acton‘s sagacious remark: It is not so much power that corrupts as the prospect of losing power.

Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.

Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion controversy.)

Our meeting last week was considerably enhanced by Corey Robin himself,  who joined our discussions of Chapters 6, 7, 8. I expected the discussion to not be restricted to these chapters, of course, and I was not disappointed. Over the course of our two-hour interaction, we were able to get Corey to describe the book’s central thesis–that conservatism is reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics, infused with romantic sentiment, responding vigorously to perceived threats –, clarify some theoretical points, and consider possible sharpenings and applications of his thesis. (One extension of great interest to me is to apply Corey’s central claims to conservatism beyond American and European shores.)

One of the most interesting clarifications of Robin’s thesis was the centrality of the romantic impulse in conservatism. Indeed, it seemed, after our discussions, that the romantic impulse is perhaps even more central than the reactionary, counter-revolutionary component of conservatism; it certainly explains conservative fascination with war, the attraction it presents to ‘outsiders,’ its glorification of strength and individual striving. (I intend to write a post very soon that explores the connection between the sentiments of the immigrant and the romantic imagination.)

There are some interesting theoretical resonances of this association of conservatism with romanticism.

First, here is Hannah Arendt (again!) in On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, page 197:

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century.[emphasis added]

Then, here is Susan Sontag, in ‘An Argument About Beauty’, (from At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007, page 9), where, after considering that works of art might be described as ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘beautiful’ in an attempt to make them ‘more inclusive’:

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of ‘the interesting’–whose antonym is ‘the boring’–appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics–and war–are interesting. [links added]