Populist Interest in the Constitution is Nothing New

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Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is the author of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court (Norton, 2010).

The Constitution is getting a lot of attention these days.  Depending on your perspective, our national charter is being trampled, twisted, shredded, protected, upheld—everything, it appears, but neglected.

Of course, when you hear someone talking about the Constitution right now, that someone is most likely a Tea Party member or sympathizer.  This is to be expected:  the Constitution naturally arouses more interest among those who think it’s in mortal peril.  During the Bush years, the left felt that way; today, it’s most definitely and forcefully the right.  Bumper stickers, channeling the Supreme Court, proclaim, “Obamacare: It’s Unconstitutional.”  Republican officials, like Utah Governor Gary Herbert, complain that “the federal government is starting to overreach and do more than what the Constitution ever envisioned them to do.”  Conservative activists, for their part, speak in apocalyptic terms:  at last week’s Tea Party Summit in North Carolina, a mother of six told reporters that “it’s worth time away from my family to help save this country and save the Constitution for my children.”  

It was always thus.  As I describe in Supreme Power:  Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, the Constitution has never been short on right-wing rescuers.  But a review of their efforts in the early twentieth century shows, I think, how hard it will be for today’s conservatives to build a truly viable, popular movement under the banner of the Constitution.

In the wake of the First World War, some of the patriotic societies that had helped lead the fight for preparedness and intervention rededicated themselves to promoting “the meaning and value of our Constitution,” as the National Security League put it.  The wartime strain of patriotism lost little of its potency as fears of socialism, Bolshevism, and various other -isms resulted in a Red Scare in 1919 and, through the early 1920s, an energetic embrace of “constitutionalism” and “true Americanism” as “the best and only effective antidote against… alien cults.”  “Cherish the Constitution,” one group warned, “lest we perish.”

During the early 1930s, the advent of the New Deal gave such concerns a new urgency.  Now, it appeared, the barbarians were not at the gates, they were actually inside the Oval Office.  In 1934, a group of conservatives from both parties—prodded and funded by some of the nation’s leading businessmen—formed a new organization with a mission “to defend and uphold the Constitution,” to ensure governmental respect for property rights, and to “combat radical trends.”  They called their group the American Liberty League.  No issue, one of the League’s founders observed, “could command more support or evoke more enthusiasm among our people than the simple issue of the ‘Constitution.’…  The people, I believe, need merely to be led and instructed, and this affection will become almost worship and can be converted into an irresistible movement.”

For a time this seemed a real possibility.  The Liberty League’s message appealed to Americans who felt at odds with the New Deal—with its centralization of control, its redistribution of wealth and power, its supposed repudiation of values (thrift, industry, individualism) that they angrily refused to see as outworn.  These Americans felt like outcasts in their own land, making a last, brave stand for the “faith of our fathers.”  The Liberty League gave them hope and it gave them a voice.  Other groups, loosely modeled on the League, began to proliferate:  some, by their vehemence, made the League look weak-kneed.  America First! Inc., a fairly typical example, promised to deploy “a field force of vigilantes” to track politicians’ commitment to the Constitution; around the same time a group of retired military officers formed the Constitutional Democracy Association in an attempt to “apply scientific warfare” (whatever that meant) “against the enemies of the Constitution.”  By the fall of 1935, the GOP was growing hopeful that it could take back the White House with “the battle cry ‘Save the Constitution,’” as one party leader put it.

For all the evangelical fervor at the grassroots, and despite the Republicans’ insistent attempts to make the Constitution an issue in 1936, Roosevelt won re-election that fall by one of the biggest landslides in American history.  There were, of course, many reasons for this; but one of them, without question, was that “people can’t eat the Constitution,” as one Republican acknowledged.  By 1936, conservatives’ reverence for the Constitution, while heartfelt, struck many Americans as trumped up and cynical, and served to underscore the GOP’s lack of answers to the nation’s most pressing questions.  What conservatives learned then—and what their twenty-first century heirs would do well to remember—is that pieties are no substitute for a platform, especially in times of economic distress.  It is one thing (and a fine thing) to protect the Constitution, but quite another to fulfill, through constant effort and experimentation, its enduring principles.

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stephen frederick knott - 6/1/2010

"What conservatives learned then—and what their twenty-first century heirs would do well to remember—is that pieties are no substitute for a platform, especially in times of economic distress." The implication then is that the Constitution has become nothing more than a symbol; a quaint historic parchment suitable for display. The Constitution was intended to protect liberty by limiting the power of government. If the pressing needs of the day, as determined by the majority, override the Constitution, then the document is truly worthless.