Obsessed with their constitution

November 3, 2010

Danny Katch wonders why the Tea Party is fixated on such a boring document.

THE TEA Party revolution has arrived--exhaustively televised. So what's their plan to restore the economy and rescue America? Since they don't want to tax the rich or end our pointless and expensive wars, they're going to have to come up with something really innovative. What's it going to be?

In his victory speech last night, Kentucky's new Sen. Rand Paul proclaimed that the message of the Tea Party is "fiscal sanity, of limited constitutional government and balanced budgets."

Expect to hear more about the U.S. Constitution in the next couple of days. It's a big Tea Party theme. The now Republican-led House of Representatives may pass a number of resolutions this year in favor of having three branches of government and a bicameral legislature.

At least, that's what I remember to be the main points of the Constitution. It's a document that lays out the structure of the U.S. government, not a guide to action. A candidate who pledges to vote according to the Constitution is like a football coach whose strategy against an upcoming team is to read and re-read the rulebook.

Glenn Beck performing on his Fox television show
Glenn Beck performing on his Fox television show

Most of the Constitution is about as inspiring as the minutes of a local PTA meeting--if, that is, right before the report from the bake sale committee was a resolution extending the international slave trade for 20 years.

And yet, Tea Partiers can't get enough of it. In September, they organized nationwide public readings of the Constitution. I have to imagine that stopped seeming like such a great idea at about the two-hour mark of people awkwardly cheering on lines like: "In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction."

Some of the new members of Congress talk about truly understanding the Constitution with an intensity that I can only compare to my feelings about the Smiths when I was 15 years old. Like today's conservatives, I was frightened and angry, and I thought the world sucked. I knew things would be better if everyone would just sit on my bed and just...like...listen.

One reason that conservatives are so rapturous about something so boring may be that they're thinking of a totally different document. That's what you have to conclude after reading the preamble of the Constitution Party, a nutty group with close connections with the newly elected Rand Paul. The preamble states that the Constitution "established a Republic rooted in Biblical law," and that America "was founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

If these guys are right, then Jesus must be pissed, because he's not given credit even once in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or any of the Amendments. On the other hand, this would explain our government's lack of support for storm victims from New Orleans to Pakistan--after all, Biblical law is pretty tolerant toward the occasional apocalyptic flood.

THE MORE a Tea Party politician talks about the Constitution, the less likely he's actually referring to anything in the Constitution. It's just another cultural code word meant to conjure up a time when men were men, youth had respect, and there was no such thing as a Black president.

But opposition to Obama has merely added a new twist to the traditional right-wing silliness that the Constitution prohibits all measures not foreseen and approved by its authors--otherwise known as "progress." Social Security, Medicare and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were all opposed in their times as unconstitutional intrusions by the federal government into areas best handled by the states.

For some reason, conservatives view state capitals as idyllic paragons of popular democracy--while to the rest of us, they're just places where politicians live after they're elected and before they're sent to jail or busted for having an affair.

This "strict construction" view of the Constitution may have made some sense when it was first written, and We the White People were mostly small farmers who had fought a revolution to create their own independent communities, free from a tyrannical government.

But today's pseudo-libertarians are led by business owners and professionals whose lives are far from self-sufficient--unless Sarah Palin feeds and clothes her family exclusively with hunted moose. They only oppose those laws that limit their ability to exploit their workers or the environment that we all must share. At the same time, they're all for any government intervention that can help such exploitation--from ICE raids to anti-strike injunctions to publicly funded cleanups of privately caused oil spills.

And you can bet that the new rebels in Congress aren't planning to take on the real government tyranny of the ever-expanding Wars on Drugs, Immigrants and Terror. In fact, when it comes to these aspects of the state that are actually Orwellian, their main complaint is that the government isn't playing dirty enough--because it's too wedded to the Constitution!

Sarah Palin is the darling of the right because she isn't intimidated by this kind of faulty logic; instead, she revels in it with a narrow-mindedness so pure it inspires her audience. In a speech she gave earlier this year, she spoke for and against the Constitution in such rapid succession that somewhere in heaven Rick James must have been jealous:

Our vision for America is anchored in time-tested truths: Government that governs least governs best. That the Constitution provides the path to a more perfect union--it's the constitution! By the way, it's within our own borders and the homeland that we should feel safe and not condone any violence. That makes me want to say, in these volatile times, when we are a nation at war is when we need a commander in chief, not a constitutional law professor.

To Palin and her friends, there's no contradiction here: The Constitution is for us, not them. And those two categories aren't just defined by what side of the border you're on. For Rand Paul, "us" are business owners who shouldn't have been forced by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to have to serve African Americans, who obviously fall into the category of "them" for Kentucky's newest senator.

At the end of the day, the true Tea Party plan is to preserve the minority's sacred Constitutional right to its wealth by cutting the majority's benefits and services to the bone. The Democrats will meekly follow and hope we forget that they still control the White House and Senate.

If we want to stop them, we'll have to build an opposition in the streets and reclaim this country's revolutionary tradition for our side. We're the ones who fight for the freedoms of religion and speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. We're the ones organizing against an empire that denies self-government to peoples across an ocean.

The only thing today's new Congress-people have in common with the original Tea Party is that they don't give a shit about polluting our waterways.

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