Forecast: Death of the American Constitution
Summary: The the post-WWII global order collapses around us, but America seems unable to see this – let alone adapt to it. This post discusses one of the most important consequences: is the following still true? It has been revised several times since its original publication in 2006. Other chapters in this series appear at the end.
The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.
— Federalist Paper #39, James Madison (writing as Publius), 18 January 1788
- Death of the post-WWII era
- A brief self-check on the health of the American regime
- Who killed the Constitution?
- Consequences of the Constitution’s death – the government
- Consequences of the Constitution’s death - the people
- The cutting edge of Death’s scythe
- The future of America
- For more information
(1) Introduction — death of the post-WWII era
The post-WWII era was defined by:
- America as a model state: a capitalistic democratic republic which values its citizens’ liberty.
- American as a superpower, or even the sole superpower.
- The American dollar as reserve currency; “good as gold” for holding the world’s savings
- 3rd generation warfare as the dominant mode of military force.
- Growing American wealth through the “debt supercycle”, continuously expanding debt of both Government and households.
- Cheap energy, largely from coal, oil, and natural gas.
With each passing day these things slowly fade away. The daily newspapers record their passing, although most journalists are unaware of the larger significance of what they report. We do not see this since we have change blindness, a flaw in our mental processing in which we fail to recognize large changes which should be clearly visible. Change blindness must be experienced to believe it. Here is the classic demonstration. Here are other examples.
This essay discusses #1, the passing away of the political regime called the United States. Since that is a large, complex phenomenon, here we look at the dying of the regime’s heart: the Consitution.
(2) A brief self-check on the health of the American regime
“Do not scatter diamonds before ducks. They prefer grain.”
— Chiun, the current Master of Sinanju (from The Destroyer series of books by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy)
Aristotle said that the political regime of a state dominated other aspects of its society. So it has proved for us. Standing firmly on the foundation provided by our Constitution, we obtained wealth and freedom unknown in human history. But a constitution – written or unwritten – lives only to the degree it is inscribed on the hearts of its citizens. That was true throughout most of our history. That is no longer true today.
History shows that people’s recognition of a regime’s passing usually lags behind the facts. Generations passed before the Roman people recognized that the Republic was truly dead. So it is today. This is easy to prove. Let’s do a quick test about the health of the American Nation-State. Following Aristotle’s view, it looks at the foundations of our polity. The correct answers are given directly after the list of questions.
- Describe the major features of the Code of Hammurabi.
- List a simple majority of the Ten Commandments (either version, that in Exodus or Deuteronomy).
- List any three rights guaranteed under Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Freedoms – one of the foundational documents for our system of laws.
The correct answers, unless you’re are a student or teacher, are all “so what.” Who cares? These are all dead documents, with no current effect on our lives.
Let’s be relevant, and test our knowledge of the American Constitution. The questions are conveniently segmented for each age group.
(A) For the Greatest Generation, whose courage defeated fascism, whose love of freedom helped end legalized racial discrimination, and whose insatiable greed saddled their descendents with debts and liabilities impossible for them to ever pay.
- Quote the Preamble to the Constitution. Or paraphrase it for half credit.
- When drafted and by whom? Who ratified it? What came before it?
- Outline the Constitution’s major features, including powers of each branch of the Government and the checks of each branch on the other two.
- What is the Bill of Rights? Describe all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, and list ten rights so guaranteed.
(B) For the Baby Boomers, who passively volunteered to be the subjects of a series of social experiments whose scope and daring would have horrified Dr. Frankenstein:
- Quote the opening three words of the Constitution.
- What was the Constitutional Convention? Date? Name two members. Hint: Ben Franklin was one (from which state?).
- List the major features of the Constitution, including three powers of each branch.
- What is the Bill of Rights? List six rights it guarantees.
(C) For everyone born after 1964, who inherit the mess left by the Greats and Boomers:
- What is the Constitution?
- Who wrote it, and when?
- What are the three branches of Government and the powers of each branch?
- What is the Bill of Rights? List any three rights it guarantees.
- What is a living Constitution?
Whatever your score, the sad fact is that few Americans know what the Constitution says, let alone understand the political regime it describes.
Item: A 1998 national survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitution Center found that 59 percent of those interviewed could identify the Three Stooges while only 45 percent could provide the name of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and even fewer (41 percent) knew the three branches of the U.S. Government! Less than 2 percent could correctly identify James Madison as the “father” of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.
… In another poll taken by the National Constitution Center in November 2001, for example, two-thirds of those responding could not identify the Constitution as the framework for American government, while less than one-fourth could identify correctly the provisions of the Declaration of Independence and those of the U.S. Constitution; others were unclear as to the Bill of Rights’ place within the Constitution.
— “Bill of Rights Memories“, Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States), Prologue, Winter 2005
Once we no longer revere the Constitution, or even know what it says, it becomes a different kind of living document. Its meaning now changes to conform to the current needs of our ruling elites. We return to the state of the Romans before the laws were posted on the Twelve Tables of ivory (or brass) and posted in the Forum for all to see. Or, if history repeats as farce, we are like the beasts in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The laws are written on the side of the barn, but most are too stupid to realize that they are changed by the pigs during the night.
(3) Who killed the Constitution?
“… the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
— George Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789)
How did this happen? There are many possible explanations. A few are discussed below.
A. It’s the Founders’ fault. The Constitution was just not good enough.
B. America has changed. Perhaps we no longer meet the conditions the Founders considered necessary for a republic.
- A small government
- A citizenry of farmers, self-employed craftsman, and business owners (property owners, one and all)
- An educated citizenry, knowledgeable about the republic’s history and operation
- A people jealous of their liberties and willing to fight to preserve them.
- Also, our population has grown by a factor of 90 since the Convention. The Constitution might not work for such a large, complex state.
C. A contingency of history: it just happened. The Constitution may have died to due our cumulative errors in judgment over the past two centuries. Plus some bad luck.
D. Bad or even evil people have killed the Constitution. Both right and left sound alarms about the evil leadership plaguing America, although they differ on the names of those responsible. Why we tolerate such leaders is seldom explained. One exception is Thomas Frank in his book What’s Wrong with Kansas, who attributes this to the stupidity of the American people (excepting only liberals). The cause of this epidemic of stupidity seems unclear to Frank. Too much TV, perhaps.
E. This was inevitable, as “consent of the governed” to the Constitutional regime becomes a meaningless formula with the passing of time, as it refers to a consent to the regime by folks long dead – not even ancestors to many of today’s Americans. It becomes a founding myth, like the foundation of all traditional governments.
F. We have traded liberty for promises of equality, security, and prosperity. The cost is our Constitution. Everything has a price.
Whatever the cause, the result is by now obvious. We have become consumers, clients of the government, instead of citizens. This deprives the Constitution of its power source, its life. Once a people come to believe that governing themselves is too difficult or burdensome, someone will volunteer to take this load from them. After that happens there is no point in crying about the consequences.
“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the movie “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
(4) Consequences of the Constitution’s death: the government
”What more befits a decent man, a decent, peaceful citizen, than that he should remain aloof from civil disputes?”
— Letter from Caesar to Cicero, from Christian Meier’s Caesar (1982)
The Constitution was designed largely according to the ideas of Montesquieu and John Locke. Following Montesquieu, it specifies the separate duties for each of America’s three branches. Following Locke, it limits the government’s powers so as to protect individual liberties. Its ability to do the latter function has faded rapidly since the New Deal. For example, most of the Bill of Rights remain de jure in force but are de facto void. This can be easily tested by a Lexis search of successful attempts to use them in litigation. You will find almost none for most of them.
At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties. Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites. This is already true in the UK, as their “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.
One can see our future in the fracas over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Judicial outrage over the Bush administration bypassing of the Court of Review cannot result from concern over our civil liberties, as the Court of Review apparently seldom if ever denied requests for government action. The Supremes’ horror is understandable, however, as this cut the judiciary out from a role in the rapidly expanding national security apparatus – an obvious violation of the balance of power among the three Branches.
The American government will likely continue to evolve as it has since WWI Growing larger, more intrusive. Absorbing an ever larger fraction of the national income. It will become less responsive to direction from the American people and more controlled by and for our elites.
(5) Consequences of the Constitution’s death: the people
“Instead of decency, self-discipline and competence, there was insolence, corruption and rapacity.”
— Sallust (Roman historian, 86 – 34 BC), quoted in Meier (1982)
This evolution is to a large extent unseen by us. When it is seen, to many these things appear both natural and even desirable. Worst of all, many of those who consider this undesirable also believe it unstoppable. Either way we show ourselves to be easily guided by appeals to our base emotions of fear and greed, with the short memories characteristic of sheep.
The experience of Europe shows how quickly deeply held beliefs can diminish. Christianity was a large and fundamental aspect of European culture, whose doctrines shaped their lives and whose rites occupied a large fraction of their time. All this faded quickly away once God died in their hearts. After only a handful of generations the churches now see only tourists during the week and remain mostly empty even on Sunday. Divorce is common, and the cutting edge of social policy concerns euthanasia and infanticide (both relabeled for people’s comfort).
What might be the effect of the Constitution’s death on the cohesion of the American polity? It has been a primary source of America’s strength, helping us survive many crises of types often fatal to political regimes.
- The Civil War
- The Great Depression
- The racial turmoil of the late 1960′s, which at its worst burnt large areas of several cities.
What gives us a sense of mutual belonging (social cohesion) after the Constitution dies? What gives us a sense of being Americans? We share no common religion, ethnicity, heritage, or (with each passing year) even a common language. To what will we give our allegiance?
As cohesion decreases with every new generation, recruiting for the combat units of our military services might become far more difficult. For what will these men and women putting their lives at risk? Especially in future wars far more lethal than those now waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(6) The cutting edge of Death’s scythe
“What kind of a crisis was it in which it was not Roman society that fell apart, but Roman reality – the sense of shared security in an order that was essentially unquestioned?”
— Caesar: a biography by Christian Meier (1982)
We might stumble on for a few generations not noticing the corpse of the Constitution lying about except for one destabilizing factor: immigration. Although opposed by a large percentage of Americans of all ethnic groups (including Hispanics) our elites find open borders highly beneficial.
- Cheap servants for the upper middle classes
- Workers willing to accept low wage, for the business class
- Clients (and votes in support of) the welfare state
The elites running the Republican Party like #2; those running the Democratic Party like #3; both like #1. Perhaps most important, large numbers of hard-working and ambitious immigrants create competition for the middle class, spurring desperate efforts to maintain a stable lifestyle for themselves and their children. This creates a hard-working labor force, willing to work 24-7 at their Blackberries and home computers, with no thought of unions or overtime pay, and (best of all) no time or energy leftover for politics.
However desirable to our elites, the cost to America is high. To what will these new “Americans” give their allegiance? To our Constitution? That is radical concept in most lands, where they change constitutions as easily as our football teams change cities. They cannot learn this allegiance from us, as most of us no longer have it (this is the big change from the previous waves of immigration).
If not the Constitution, will they give their allegiance to the American nation-state? Even this is uncertain. While our love of country lives on, it fades with each generation. Reading our children’s schoolbooks, watching their TV shows and movies, one wonders where the next generation will learn it – let alone transmit it to millions of immigrants.
(7) The future of America
“There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”
— Marcus Aurelius, in the movie “Gladiator” (2000)
The predominate reaction of the Romans to the death of the Republic was resignation, as seen in the popular philosophies of the Empire: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Hedonism, and Christianity. How will Americans react when they realize that the Constitution has died? Reform, rebellion, or resignation?
The coming years might test America more than anything in our past, including the Revolutionary and Civil wars. America might lose both what defines it and what we hold most dear: our Constitution, our vast wealth, and our role as global hegemon. This transition will be like a singularity in astrophysics, a point where the rules breakdown – and beyond which we cannot see.
Such trials appear throughout history. Consider Russia in 1942. Ruled by a madman. Their government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution, killed tens of millions, and reduced the nation to poverty. Most of their generals were dead, their armies were in full retreat, and vast areas were controlled by a ruthless invader. The mark of a great people is the ability to carry on when all is lost, including hope. We can learn much from the Russian people’s behavior in WWII. I doubt we will fall into such peril. But no matter what happens, there is no cause for despair.
- Our wealth is just things (“hardware”), an inheritance from past generations. What we lose we can work to replace. Our aspirations to global hegemony were revealed as a mirage in Vietnam and Iraq, lasting less than two generations after WWII.
- Our culture is a collection of discordant ideas, mixing lofty and base elements in a manner despised by much of the world – a disgust easily understood by watching our TV shows and movies, or listening to some of our popular music.
- Our Constitution is just an idea inherited from the founders. We created it, and its death will give us the experience to do better with the next version.
We are America. We are strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow leaders. We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects. We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on.
People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.
We will be what we want to be. The coming years will reveal what that is.
“There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.”
— Maximus Decimus Meridius, in the movie “Gladiator”
(8) For more information
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest are:
Posts about the Constitution and our government:
- The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
- Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
- See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
- Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
- What comes after the Constitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
- Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
- “Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham, 24 May 2009
- “The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living, but dead.” – Supreme Court Justice Scalia, 9 June 2009
- More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
- Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
- Another nail put in the Constitution’s coffin, but we don’t care, 9 February 2010
- Does the US government have the American people’s consent to govern?, 10 March 2010
- Recommended reading about the Constitution, 17 March 2010
- Is freedom the only value by which to judge governments?, 31 March 2010
- Is the US government illegitimate? If so, does that justify violent revolution?, 1 April 2010
- Another step towards fascism: “Silencing the Lawyers”, 31 May 2010
- The Feds decide who to lock up for life (not just at Guantanamo), another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 2 June 2010
- The President’s big stick (domestic): his National Emergency Powers, 12 June 2010
- Code red! The Constitution is burning., 5 August 2010
- An Appalling Threat to Civil Liberties and Democracy, 8 August 2010
- Every day the Constitution dies a little more, 1 September 2010 — About US government assassination programs
- What do our Constitution-loving conservatives say about our government’s assassination programs?, 2 September 2010
- Cutting down the tree of liberty, 9 September 2010 — Government secrets trump fair trials.
- Which political party will best protect our liberties?, 10 September 2010
- The guilty ones responsible for the loss of our liberties, 11 September 2010