Progressives and the 'Bad Stuff' in the Constitution

It is hard to actually believe that something as prototypically American as a public reading of the U.S. Constitution by people recently sworn to uphold it could be at all controversial.  For that matter, it is even harder to believe that such an exercise should become the subject for ridicule by the very people -- the press -- whose free speech the founders went out of their way to protect.  That the venerable document remains the oldest written Constitution in use by any nation on the planet is but one testament to its significance and enduring relevance.

But to hear the media buzz in the aftermath of the reading of by members of the House of Representatives from both political parties, it is clear that some on the left simply don't get it.  And stepping forward as the spokesperson for the mockers is Rachel Maddow, host of her own weeknight show on MSNBC.

Seizing on the fact that the reading this past Thursday left out the parts of the Constitution that were later repudiated and revised, Maddow insisted that these parts should have been left in to highlight that there are flaws in the supreme law of our land, what she called "dumb and evil stuff."  She seems to miss the point that the Constitution itself includes provisions for fixing errors.

Maddow reminded her listeners the other night that "the Constitution is not the ten commandments," though one wonders how seriously Rachel actually takes Mosaic Law.  She is a bright and articulate broadcaster, well-educated -- that process even including a doctorate from Oxford University (Rhodes scholar) -- but in the case of the Constitution, her liberal bias generates more heat than her intellect can handle.  She argues that when it comes to the Constitution of the United States:

You can handle that truth in one of two ways.  You could acknowledge that the Constitution has had really crazy stuff in it from time to time, use that as a teaching moment.  The Constitution is a living document that has changed over time in ways both bad and good as the country as gotten older.  Or you can be a Constitutional fundamentalist and ignore the fact that there has been bad stuff in it over time.

This is the debate equivalent of "heads, I win -- tails, you lose."

The idea that the Constitution has changed over the years "in ways both good and bad" is itself flawed.  As evidence of the "bad," Maddow predictably cites the 18th Amendment, the one enforcing Prohibition.  Sadly, and with apparent obliviousness, Maddow tasked Ted Williams, the Andy Warhol Man-of-the-Hour-with-the-Golden-Voice, to read it on her show as part of his current media tour.  Never mind that the image of a man whose life has been hitherto destroyed by alcohol and other substances, most of which remain "prohibited," thankfully, reading words about a well-meaning effort to assuage the scourge of substance abuse was awkward, to say the least. 

The salient point is that the 18th amendment, which had wide political support in the first decades of the 20th century, was eventually repealed.  Yet Maddow puts it front and center as proof that the Constitution can't be taken all that seriously.


The Prohibition movement was driven in this country largely by the political movement known as Progressivism.  In fact, it was one of its most prominent and unifying ideas, closely related to the burgeoning women's suffrage movement.  Arguably, a case can be made that the first impact women made on the American political landscape while en route to the right to vote was in the battle against booze.  The history of the Prohibition movement cannot be told without recounting the role of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). 

So it is ironic that the part of the Constitution Rachel Maddow & Co. use to "prove" its fallibility and irrelevance today was actually crucial to the thinking of a very liberal movement it its time.  In fact, feminists today owe a debt of gratitude to the brave women who sought, via a war on liquor, to change their world. 

And if Prohibition seems now in hindsight to be absurd and unworkable (as it indeed turned out to be), it should be considered that the current "Progressive" wars on things such as smoking and obesity as part of the national health-care discussion are not all that far removed from the mindset that brought us Prohibition.  The 18th Amendment was repealed, but it is still referred to by many as a "noble experiment."  And its failure highlights the flaws of all big-government efforts to micromanage personal lives. 

The presence of an 18th Amendment in the Constitution is not evidence of "bad stuff."  Rather, it is evidence of what can happen when the people decide to deliberate about an idea over decades, only to find that all their best hopes and efforts don't turn out to be practical.  And the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, the one repealing the 18th, is evidence that our system works very well.

But the Rachel Maddows of the world have no patience for process.  Their talk of a "living Constitution" does not involve the idea of lengthy national debate and structured deliberation.  Quite to the contrary, were Prohibition the law of the land today, they would ignore the remedy of a new constitutional amendment and opt instead for various legal maneuvers, thus rendering the wording in the Constitution itself moot. 

In other words, in pursuit of a living Constitution, what these liberals really seek is its effective death as a document to be taken seriously.

David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster.  His new book, The Shooting Salvationist (foreword by Bob Schieffer), will be released by Random House in July of 2011.