I sometimes wonder when the actual words of the Constitution became irrelevant in American political discourse. My guess, sadly, is that it happened sometime after Gouverneur Morris penned the famous Preamble during the Grand Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, and somewhat before Rhode Island became the final state to ratify the document in 1790. This likely seems a particularly pessimistic view of things; and I do admit that I’m not exactly an optimist when it comes to thinking about the current state of political understanding in this country. However, I believe that being aware of a problem is the first step to resolving it. As I see it, the biggest problem in American politics today is that while we Americans often assume that we have a working knowledge of the Constitution, in reality almost all of us are totally ignorant when it comes to understanding how our government is really supposed to work.
Before we go on, you must understand that my claim is not meant to be hyperbole. It is not some over the top assertion meant to draw attention to what I believe in the end is just a simple misunderstanding people have had about our Constitution for a few decades; a misunderstanding that can be remedied with a few paragraphs about what the Founders really meant. No, the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans simply don’t understand anything about the Constitution. They may think they’ve read it, or that they learned enough about it in school to understand it. Those who consider themselves really serious about politics might even quote it on a regular basis from memory. That said, I maintain that nearly no one in this country has really taken the time to think about the implications of the words written in the Constitution of the United States since Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay did so when they anonymously published the Federalist Papers back in 1787 and 1788.
Hamilton, Madison, and Jay – and certainly the rest of the “Founding Fathers” – spent significant time each day considering the ramifications of what every passage of the Constitution meant. The Constitutional Convention lasted 4 months, and the ratification debate that followed took nearly a year to come to a conclusion (and still by then only 11 of the 13 states had ratified it). However, most people today don’t even understand the most basic tenants that Americans are supposed to hold most dear, and they most certainly don’t think deeply about them on a daily basis. I’d like to use what I think is a pretty simple example to illustrate my point. Grab a pen and piece of paper and, without looking, quickly write down the five “freedoms” outlined in the First Amendment. You’ve got 30 seconds…
…IMAGINE JEOPARDY MUSIC HERE…
…and we’re back. How’d you do? Don’t worry if you didn’t get all of them – in my experience that’s pretty normal. Most politically intelligent people will get three: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. The fourth, as some of you may have remembered, is freedom of assembly; and the fifth, which most of you likely didn’t get, is the freedom to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Like I said, it’s pretty normal not to get all of them – so please understand that I’m not trying to say you’re stupid. After all, what does “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” even mean, right? And of course, that’s my point. You’re probably not a Constitutional scholar (neither am I, by the way), so to imagine that you fully understand the document and all of its intricacies would be a tad arrogant; which I suppose would be fine so long as you’re not, at the same time, attempting to lecture others on it.
That most Americans don’t know much about the Constitution shouldn’t be surprising, by the way. Even during the years surrounding the creation of the United States, the vast majority of its citizens were not wading deeply into the legal and philosophical arguments for or against the passing of a new Constitution on a day to day basis. They were busy doing what most humans have been busy doing every day of their lives for as long as humans have been around – living. There are chores to do, and jobs to work. Most of us simply don’t have the time to be experts on the Constitution. This is true across the political spectrum, and importantly it also includes all manner of people who we might otherwise think have it in their best interests to know what exactly the Constitution says and means.
Let’s take a look at exhibit A – a FOX news segment from about a month ago – for a better understanding of what I’m getting at:
Geraldo Rivera, a veteran journalist and someone who you’d think should fully comprehend free speech rights, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment not 10 seconds into that video. He asserts that the demonstrators are violating the freedom of speech of reporter Mike Tobin – a patently false assertion on its face considering we’re hearing Mike Tobin, you know, speak. But beyond that, and more importantly, the First Amendment states very specifically that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedoms it outlines. Being shouted down by protesters is simply not in any way a violation of a person’s right to speak freely. Quite to the contrary, unless it’s the Government that is attempting to suppress the speech in question, it ‘s actually a demonstration of free speech in action. That neither Geraldo, nor Mike Tobin, nor most other people watching understand this is somewhat troubling; especially when it becomes the focal point of a tirade about “rights.”
Examples like this abound, and that they do demonstrates to me the utter lack of concern people who claim to know all about our “rights” as American citizens really have for the document in which those rights are defined. I used a FOX News news clip here, but many “liberals” are equally as convinced that they know all about the Constitution while their actions and words often demonstrate otherwise. From the rabid populist movements of the early 1800’s to the unfounded fears of a communist takeover in the 1950’s to the debates about the creeping influence of Sharia law today, Americans of all political leanings have for the most part ignored the words and sentiments of the Constitution when they didn’t suit their own particular and individual understanding of the nation’s perceived problems.
We Americans can’t escape the fact that each and every one of us is only human. To believe that our feelings and personal prejudices won’t get in the way of our understanding of a document most of us have never even read from start to finish is more than a little bit naive. It was no less a figure than James Madison who wrote as much in the essay we now refer to as Federalist #10 when he asserted that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” In that essay he writes about the need for a republican democracy rather than a direct democracy; because, he says, in a truly direct democracy – one in which citizens vote on every law themselves – the majority will always run roughshod over the minority. It’s human nature for people to give greater weight to their own personal situations than to the welfare of any particular large collective. The causes of “faction” that Madison wanted us to understand are a normal and inescapable part of being human. Setting up a system of government that would mitigate the ill effects of factions was, for him, the only way to avoid a tyrannical majority.
Madison argued that a Federal Republic – in which power was not concentrated in a single source – was the best way to insulate against the tyranny of the majority. Spreading the different powers of government out over three distinct branches (and also down though different levels of national, state, and local entities) has the effect of keeping things moving through different government bodies slowly, thus not allowing any one group along the way to consolidate too much power. I would argue that, in general, this was at the time a good idea. The problem though, is that it also had the effect of dividing the government so fully that no one could ever really know which part of the government was supposed to be doing what. That is unless they spent as much time analyzing it as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay had. As should be clear now, no one was going to do that and thus knowledge of exactly “how” the Constitution affected us became less meaningful that how our daily lives do. It was an inevitable downward spiral into political illiteracy.
Conservatives often like blame the “liberal media” and “Hollywood” for our current state of affairs, and liberals tend to point fingers at the conservative tendency to ignore what the liberal sees as self-evident facts. Each side has constructed a scenario in which the other is the one being irrational and ignoring the tenants of our great Constitution. In the end, though, this is all just extraneous blabber. No amount of debate over the meaning of the Constitution by either side will lead us to an end to the political ignorance we now face in this country; because neither side is willing to concede that everyone is irrational and selfish, and that no one really knows what they’re talking about. There are no simple remedies to this problem, because the Constitution itself is such a complicated document. However, once we understand that we really don’t know much beyond the scope of our own personal experiences and then apply that knowledge to how we look at what we think everyone else knows, we’ll all be better off.