January 3, 2012
by William A. Schambra
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To many observers of today's boisterously populist Tea Party, one of the movement's most striking features is its obsession with the U.S. Constitution. "More than any political movement in recent memory," Roger Williams University law professor Jared Goldstein writes, "the Tea Party is centrally focused on the meaning of the Constitution." Leading figures of the Tea Party itself seem to agree. For example, in Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, former House majority leader Dick Armey and co-author Matt Kibbe maintain that, "[f]irst and foremost, the Tea Party movement is concerned with recovering constitutional principles in government."
But some observers argue that this constitutional obsession reveals a deep contradiction within the Tea Party. In its efforts to recover constitutional principles, these critics contend, the Tea Party — an essentially grassroots movement — has tended to be fundamentally anti-democratic. Tea Partiers seek to restore an understanding of the Constitution that would re-impose limits on the reach of federal public policy, no matter how popular such policy might prove to be with American democratic majorities. Such a restoration could only further strengthen already powerful interests by preventing the government from regulating them. Goldstein concludes that the "Tea Party movement advances a broad anti-democratic agenda that seeks to rein in democracy by preventing majorities from enacting a large array of regulatory measures that have long been understood to be available through ordinary politics." In so doing, Goldstein adds, the Tea Party "expresses strong disdain for democracy."
To the Tea Party's detractors, this internal tension — a democratic movement devoted to re-imposing constitutional limits on the popular will — is simply further proof of the incoherence of a movement that is, in Harvard historian Jill LePore's characterization, both deeply anti-historical and anti-intellectual.
The truth, however, is more kind to the Tea Party. Hardly a symptom of hopeless confusion, the Tea Party's willingness to use the means of democracy to address the problem of democracy and its relationship to the Constitution is an important first step toward recovering that document from the Progressive opprobrium beneath which it has labored for more than a century. For as the Tea Party senses, Progressivism acquired for itself an unfair advantage when it linked the notion of constitutional legitimacy to the cause of unlimited government powers in the name of democracy.
There is another view of the Constitution — a view closer to that of the founders, that arose in defense of the Constitution against the Progressives, and that finds no contradiction in the notion of a constitutionally limited or constrained democracy. It was articulated with great subtlety and depth a century before the Tea Party, in a debate that prefigured many of the issues that now confront our country.
The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the American presidential election in which this very conflict of constitutional visions played a central role. And by revisiting the issues of the election of 1912 — in particular the contest for the Republican presidential nomination between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt — we may come to appreciate the coherence of a popular effort to restore limits on the popular will.
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Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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