Ezra Klein recently appeared on a cable news show to discuss the Republican plan to read the Constitution on the floor of the House. He called it a stunt, and then elaborated:
The issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.
So the Constitution is confusing because it was written over a hundred years ago (actually it’s over 200 years old, but let’s not let little details like that deter us)? A fascinating comment coming from a Jewish intellectual, because the Hebrew Scriptures are a wee bit more than a hundred years old. Should we disregard the Bible because it was written centuries ago – and in several different languages? Also, it’s not as though the Constitution was written in old English. Sure there are some stylistic flourishes that were more common in 18th century America, but one doesn’t need some sort of secret decoder ring to decipher the meaning of the text. One need not be a PhD in ancient languages to understand the Constitution.
Klein’s comment is quite revealing, though. This is the main bone of contention that most Progressives have with the Constitution – it’s old. It was written over two hundred years ago by some dead white men, and therefore those of us living should not bind ourselves to some outdated and “confusing” text. This is an attitude as old as the Constitution itself, and is implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of changing the Constitution every 20 years.
What we see behind this attitude as expressed by Klein is a disdain for permanent things. It is the core issue that separates progressives and conservatives. Conservatives seek to preserve the heritage of the Constitution – and not just for the sake of it. We recognize that if we turn the Constitution into a mutable plaything, ever changing with the times, then we might as well discard the thing and live under the temporary whims of whoever is in charge of the federal government. This is not to deny that there are indeed differences of interpretation, but that only means we should carefully work to discern the original meaning, not that we should ignore the document altogether.
The last part of the bite is particularly interesting. Klein states that the Constitution’s meaning differs based on what people want to get done. But again, the fault here is with certain people – mainly people like Klein – who seek to pervert the Constitution in order to advance their own ideological agenda. Take the latest blowup over the individual mandate. No reasonable interpretation of the Constitution could possibly justify such a measure, and yet through a century of progressive jurisprudence we’ve managed to to reach a point where we can pretend that the Constitution is sufficiently vague enough to allow such an overreaching mandate. Only when we’ve allowed ourselves to succumb to the myth of a vague, living and breathing Constitution can we even countenance the constitutionality of that particular legislation.
The Constitution, as originally written and interpreted, acts as a stumbling block to the federal government enacting swift and sweeping legislation. It is therefore not surprising that progressives like Klein see it as a deterrent, and wish to mute its relevance and significance.