Conservatives think that if we could only return to the way the constitution was before “lawyer and liberals” spoiled it, everything would be great. Conservatives see this as the Holy Grail of arguments, the intellectual nuclear button: mention the constitution and our agenda become undeniable. In reality, this is a worthless argument. Not only do conservatives misunderstand the constitution, but citing the constitution simply isn’t a valid answer to the public.
Let’s start with the biggest reason not to make this argument: the constitution is meaningless to people’s lives. People look to politicians to solve problems and they evaluate ideologies in terms of their abilities to solve problems without creating new problems. For almost all Americans, the issues that matter are things like getting jobs, raising kids, buying a house, having a clean environment and good roads and good schools, and personal safety. The constitution doesn’t address any of that. Go ahead and look, you won’t find it.
The constitution is about the distribution of decision making authority, it never delves into the nature of the decisions to be made. In other words, it only talks about who gets to make the decision, not what the decision will be. That means, it offers nothing useful to average people who just want an answer.
Think of it this way. A group of people are arguing about where they want to hold a retirement party for a fellow employee. Some want to order pizza, some want to go out for burgers, and some want to bring cake. Arguing the constitution is the same as telling this group that the employee manual allows for employees to organize such a party... that’s absolutely useless to their needs. That’s the problem with the constitution argument: it’s useless. People want solutions, they don’t want to hear instructions on how decisions should be made.
And there’s more...
This is where it gets ugly. Let’s assume that people do care about the constitution. Here’s the problem: the conservative view of “the constitution” is actually a myth. When conservatives talk about the constitution, they are referring to an idealized interpretation of the document based on the rhetoric of the politicians who sold the document to the public, and not the document itself.
Indeed, to maintain their interpretation, conservatives overlook the parts they don’t like, like the commerce clause. The commerce clause (and the other caveats) allows the Federal government nearly unlimited power over most aspects of our economy. To get around this, conservatives fall back on a logical fallacy: “well, the government didn’t regulate this before, so it shouldn’t be able to regulate it now.” But that’s not a valid interpretation of the document. That’s an argument for tossing out the entire constitution and replacing it with one line: “The federal government shall have only the specific powers it exercised in the year 18__.”
Here is an example of the problem. The federal government has unlimited power to regulate commerce. Food is commerce. Ergo, the federal government has unlimited power to regulate food. Ergo, even under the conservative follow the constitution argument, the federal government has unlimited power to decide what you may or may not eat and under what conditions. Is that something conservatives want? No, it isn’t, so why are you putting all your eggs in that rotten basket?
So what is the point? Well, there are several.
First, trying to limit the government through the constitution is a hopeless cause. You may wish the constitution was written differently, but it’s not, and the way it’s written, the federal government has enough power to do everything liberals want. Relying on this argument is a dead end for conservatives.
Secondly, the American public has no interest in “what if” frivolity, nor do any of them want to turn the clock back to the 18th Century. So proposing to make things like they were when tricorn hats were in fashion will always fall on deaf ears with the public. Indeed, this argument makes it incredibly easy for the public to dismiss conservatives as out of touch. This argument reinforces the idea that conservatives don’t live in the modern world and have nothing to offer which the public could possibly want. It makes people think conservatives want America to look like Amish country.
Third, this argument is an evasion which takes conservatives out of the policy debate and cedes the ground to liberals to offer the public solutions...
Liberal: I can fix your problems.Who wins that debate?
Conservative: The constitution says I can’t help you.
This highlights something we touched upon in the comments yesterday. Conservatives too often get wrapped up in procedure rather than substance. A good example is the idea of pushing the Democrats to put together a budget. This is not something that matters to the public because it doesn’t affect the public if there is a budget or not... either way, the same amount of money gets spent. Conservatives need to start thinking in terms of how to frame arguments in ways that affect people in real terms. Technocratic arguments about the division of power don’t do that, especially when the public can just point to the Supreme Court, which never sees the constitution as a limit on federal power, and say, “see, you conservatives don’t know what you’re talking about with the constitution.”
Drop this argument. Focus instead on the policies that affect people in areas that matter to them.