Summary: On July 4 2006 I wrote this, a diagnosis, warning, and prophecy. Here is a revision after eleven years additional experience and observations. It is the most important of the 4000+ posts on the FM website. One of the smartest men I know said that he sees the plains of La Mancha in his mind’s eye when reading this. Rightly so. The duties of citizenship and perhaps the American project itself look foolish to the wise. Let this note help inspire you on this 4th to celebrate and defy the odds against America’s survival!
“… 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).
When I first posted this ten years ago, many readers found it controversial. Now the dangerous state of the Republic is the everyday fare of op-ed pages. There is less agreement about the cause. Here are a few common explanations for the dying Constitution.
(a) It’s the Founders’ fault. The Constitution is just not good enough.
(b) America has changed. Perhaps we no longer meet the conditions the Founders considered necessary for a republic, such as…
- A small government;
- independent citizens (e.g., farmers, self-employed craftsman, business owners, property owners);
- educated citizenry, knowledgeable about the republic’s history and operation;
- a people jealous of their liberties and willing to fight to preserve them; and
- a small nation. Our population has grown by a factor of 90 since the Convention. The Constitution might not work for the large and complex state we have become.
(c) The Constitution died to due our cumulative errors in judgment over the past two centuries. Plus some bad luck.
(d) Both the Right and Left tell us that evil people killed the Constitution, although they disagree on the names of those responsible. Why we tolerate evil leaders is seldom explained. One exception is Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Time has shown the power of his insights. (See more about him here.)
(e) Our regime’s fall was inevitable. “Consent of the governed” to the Constitution became a meaningless formula with the passing of time. It becomes a founding myth, like the foundation of all traditional governments. Now we see ourselves as passengers of America, not its owners and crew.
(f) We traded away our liberty for promises of security and prosperity. Everything has a price.
(g) I believe that we have grown tired of carrying the burden of self-government. Inevitably others take this load from us. and in return govern in their interests (not ours). The Republic falling just like Rome’s Republic. Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography tells the story of the Roman Republic’s last generation, with its eerie similarities to our own time.
Whatever the cause, the result is now obvious. We have become consumers, clients of the government, instead of citizens. This deprives the Constitution of its power source — us.After that happens there is no point to us crying about the consequences.
“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the film “The Magnificent Seven” (1960).
After the Constitution’s death: the consequences to 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, a typical belief of elites after a Republic dies. From Meier’s Caesar.
The Founders designed the Constitution largely according to the ideas of Montesquieu and John Locke. From Montesquieu they got the three branches of government. Following Locke’s advice, they limited the government’s powers and protected individuals’ liberties.
Now in its third century, much of this has been lost. The Federal government is a maze of bewildering complexity, much of it unaccountable to citizens. The Constitution’s ability to protect us has faded rapidly since the New Deal. For example, much of the Bill of Rights remain in force de jure but are void de facto. This can be easily tested by a Lexis search of successful attempts to use them in litigation. Many are dead letters; most are rarely successfully used.
This evolution has not run its course. Most likely the Constitution will become a purely procedural document, describing the forms but not the substance of the government’s operations — much as the early Roman Empire retained the forms of the Republic. 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. Supreme Court justices were outraged over the Bush administration bypassing of the Court of Review. That cannot result from concern over our civil liberties, since the Court of Review seldom denied requests for government action (see 2015’s record). The Supremes’ anger is understandable since 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 US government will likely continue to evolve as it has since WWI: growing larger and 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.
Consequences to the people
Most of us ignore the Constitution’s decay. Some see it as natural or unstoppable. Some, like Eric Posner, see it as desirable. Europe shows how quickly deeply held beliefs can fade from a culture. For millennia Christianity’s doctrines and rites shaped their lives. It faded quickly away once God died in their hearts. After only a handful of generations, churches now see mostly tourists during the week; even on Sunday they remain lightly occupied. Divorce is common, and on the cutting edge of social policy are 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? Cohesion has been a major source of America’s strength. It has helped us survive crises often fatal to other political regimes, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the race riots of the late 1960’s (in which large areas of our major cities burned).
What will restore our social cohesion and sense of mutual belonging after the Constitution dies? What will give us a sense of being Americans? We share no common religion, ethnicity, heritage, or even (with each passing year) a common language. To what will we give our allegiance if not the Constitution?
As cohesion decreases with every new generation, recruiting for the combat units of our military services might become more difficult. For what will men and women put their lives at risk?
The cutting edge of Death’s scythe, and afterwards
“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?”
— From Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography (1982).
We might stumble on for a few generations without noticing the corpse of the Constitution in the room but for one destabilizing factor: massive immigration, now running at rates similar to the early-20th century peak. Although opposed by a large percentage of Americans of all ethnic groups (including Hispanics), our elites find open borders highly beneficial. The elites running the Republican Party like the cheap workers; those running the Democratic Party like new voters; both enjoy cheap servants. Their lack of allegiance to the old regime is also an advantage.
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.
“What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas.”
–- Henry F. Potter, leading banker in Bedford Falls, from It’s A Wonderful Life.
However desirable to our elites, the cost of immigration to America is high. To what will these new “Americans” give their allegiance? Probably not to our Constitution? That is strange concept in most societies, where they don’t have one, or it means nothing, or they change constitutions as easily as our football teams change cities. They cannot learn this allegiance from us, as so many of us no longer have it. This is the big change from the previous waves of immigration, who came to an America whose people still loved the Constitution.
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 love of country — let alone transmit it to millions of immigrants.
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 film “Gladiator” (2000).
The coming years might test America more than anything in our past, even more than the Revolutionary and Civil wars. America might lose what we hold most dear: our Constitution, our vast wealth, and our role as global hegemon.
Such trials appear throughout history. Consider Russia in 1942. Ruled by a madman who betrayed the hopes of the revolution and killed tens of millions of his own people. Most of their generals were dead, their armies were in retreat, with vast areas controlled by a ruthless invader. Yet they hung together and won. The mark of a great people is the ability to carry on when all is lost, including hope.
Unlike Russia, the Romans responded to the death of the Republic with resignation. The popular philosophies during the Empire were Stoicism, Hedonism (including Epicureanism), and Christianity. How will Americans react when they realize that the Constitution has died? Reform, rebellion, or resignation?
I believe that there is no cause for despair no matter how dark the peril becomes.
- 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 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. We will be what we want to be. The coming years will reveal what that is.
This transition will be like a singularity in astrophysics, a point where the rules break down — and beyond which we cannot see.
“There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.”
— Maximus Decimus Meridius, in the film “Gladiator” (2000).
For more information
- A third American regime will arise from the ashes of the present one.
- Origins of what may become the 3rd American Republic (a plutocracy).
- Lewis Lapham explains why America needs a Third Republic.
- We’ve worked through all 5 stages of grief for the Republic. Now, on to The New America!
- Is it time to take the drastic step of calling a Constitutional Convention?
- Was the 1787 Constitutional Convention a runaway, in effect a second revolution?
- Could a new Constitutional Convention help reform America? Is it worth the risk?
- Can Constitutional amendments save the Republic?