Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?
In a post titled Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance, I argued that the single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.
I posited health insurance reform as an example:
If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?
That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?
I posted three clips to illustrate my point:
I said we should eschew value judgments and assume good faith:
Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.
I cautioned that lack of knowledge and information was not partisan:
Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but about the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.
Finally, I explained why I believe the Constitution can’t be reduced to facile soundbites:
Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.
It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.
This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.
Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.
The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.
But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.
The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.
Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to America’s problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics.
… Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a “first principles” project “to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity”. A Heritage book and video (“We Still Hold These Truths”) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders’ imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.
Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.
It’s encouraging when citizens take pride in our founding documents and in the noble principles that undergird our democracy, but it’s dangerous to adopt passionate, often dogmatic, political views based on something you don’t understand, to lay claim to a shared Constitution you’ve barely read, to falsely attribute values to our founders then demonize political opponents for undermining those values, or to insist that your reading (or lack of reading) of the Constitution is definitive and inviolable.
As a Democrat and a progressive, I don’t want to discourage my fellow citizens from basing their views on a shared set of ideals and a common history — that’s what makes us all Americans. But I certainly don’t think we can have an honest debate if those shared ideals and principles are distorted, misconstrued or hoarded by one side.
At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration last late night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims. That’s not surprising: both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate its legality.
More from Digby:
The Obama administration’s overnight assertion that presidential assassination orders of American citizens should be treated as a state secret, and thus not reviewable by any court anywhere, the most shocking assertion of unfettered presidential power we’ve seen since John Yoo argued that presidents have the right to order torture as long as they don’t cause pain equivalent to organ failure. As Greenwald says, when Cheney worshiping neocon headcase David Rivkin thinks you’ve gone too far with the executive power, there’s not much more to say… Back when everyone naively thought that electing a Democrat would end these obscene royalist decrees, it was argued by a few of us that once given, these powers are rarely given back. But I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic constitutional scholar would actually double down on the dictatorial powers. I confess, I’m fairly gobsmacked.