And if you're a hard-core American conservative, it's the Constitution ... whether you really understand what it actually says or not.
As we look back at the past year of political gridlock in Washington and ahead to the raucous clown show of the presidential election, one of the things you'll be sure to hear a lot about is The Constitution. And one of the things you'll be able to see is that many of the people who shout loudest about The Constitution and whether or not something is constitutional have only the merest idea of what they're talking about.
I don't pretend to be a Constitutional scholar. I've read and studied the Constitution (much more so in the last two years), which - obviously - doesn't make me an expert on the subject. But I do think I've got a bit better idea than many people who treat the document as holy scripture of what it says and ... to the extent that we can interpret the thoughts of the Framers who wrote it in 1787 ... what it means.
The US Constitution is both the oldest (written in 1787) and the shortest (4400 words ... 4543, if you're counting the original, unamended version and the signatures) written Constitution in the world. The fact that it is so short is both a good and a bad thing ... good, because it was written to allow flexibility of interpretation (and sidestep difficult political and social issues like slavery); bad, because flexibility of interpretation leads to ... well ... differing interpretations.
You can see how the problem of differing interpretations manifests itself every day as Congress wrestles with how to avoid solving the nation's problems. What does it mean for a law or position to be constitutional? What did the founders really mean when they wrote the Second Amendment? Is a document written at the end of the 18th century still a viable guide to government at the dawn of the 21st?
The ongoing Constitution Cafe project tries to envision how the Constitution might be rewritten to meet the needs of a world very much different from that of the Revolutionary era. The Constitution Cafe website asks the question this way:
"What if we engaged in a 'constitutional thought experiment'? What if we held a ‘new’ Constitutional Convention of sorts, and acted as if we were the Framers? Using existing constitutional articles as the starting point, would we come to a more profound understanding of and appreciation for the amazing document created by our Framers -- even or especially if we decided to redo the articles? Would we be able to practice imaginative reasonableness, careful listening and equal recognition as we scrutinize a wide variety of proposals, inviting compelling objections and alternatives? Would we be able to reach creative compromise and consensus or even achieve a higher ground?"
This is a very interesting and profoundly important set of questions that goes to the very heart of our system of government and our ability to keep the freedoms and the representative democracy that set us apart from most of the rest of the world. As we take a deep breath and plunge into another acrimonious election season, and as Congress gets ready to come back from its recess and continue to do not very much other than generate hot waste gas, we need to think about the Big Picture. What kind of country do we want? Is a constitutional guarantee of unrestricted freedom more important than an emphasis on shared responsibilities? Should the Constitution be amended or completely junked and rewritten? In a time of such political divisiveness, could we even decide?
I'll be blogging about this topic quite a bit over the coming months. For the record at the outset, I don't believe it's realistic to even think about a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution. I don't think that in the current political atmosphere of my way or the highway we can display the imaginative reasonableness, careful listening and creative compromise envisioned in the Constitution Cafe project. But we can and should engage - to the extent we can - in a calm and rational debate over the direction in which the country needs to go and the best way to get there.
How would you amend or rewrite the Constitution? I have my own ideas that I'll trot out in this space, but I'd like to know what you think.
Let's have that responsible, respectful debate, because thinking and discussing is what we haven't been doing too much of over the last few years. We've been shouting and accusing, which isn't the same thing.
Have a good day. Let's talk about the country we want when the intellectual bloodletting of the election is over.
More thoughts coming.