constitutional piety

Montpelier, VA: I am staying at an almost-literal shrine to the United States Constitution, James Madison’s own house, where they (rightly) preserve an ink stain on the floor that may be some of the ink with which Mr. Madison took his notes on ancient constitutions, preparing for the Philadelphia convention. My fellow visitors are all civic educators who teach American history or government at the high school or college level or in museums and other public institutions. They are diverse, and I would hesitate to characterize even the individuals politically, but there is a right-of-center median. Some participants worked in the Bush White House or clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justices. For some, deep respect for the Constitution in its original form is an important civic virtue.

I don’t personally think that the United States Constitution, as a document, is a particularly strong example of such an instrument in the 21st century. If you made a serious and open-minded comparison between our constitution and those of other successful and stable contemporary republics, ours would look significantly flawed. I know this sounds like heresy at a time when all the Republican presidential hopefuls agree: “America is stupendously great, awesomely great, so great that ‘great’ doesn’t begin to describe its greatness–and Obama just doesn’t get it.” But the way the Constitution frustrates accountability by dividing power seems highly problematic, not to mention the unequal representation in the Senate, lack of basic positive rights, and so on.

And yet here is a way in which I am quite conservative. Regimes or polities are organic wholes that develop slowly but can quickly go bad. One idiosyncratic but well-established aspect of the American polity is our veneration for the written text of the Constitution, which extends to piety about its authors and even the locations where they lived and wrote. This civic religion could not be transplanted to other democracies. But neither can all aspects of their political orders be imported here.

We could have a constitutional convention and rewrite the whole text, but the results would not necessarily be better; I fear they would be worse. The Constitution that we have frustrates some forms of good government but also prevents many forms of tyranny. Our polity, taken as a whole, has strengths and much potential for gradual improvement. For those reasons, a degree of reverence for the Constitution may be healthy–although I wouldn’t hide any of its flaws from students.