Constitution Worship and the Tea Party

Thomas Dumm
   Amherst College

Now that some of members of the Tea Party are actually charged with governing, it will be of some interest to see how their vision of the Constitution will play out. Many of these candidates insisted on a “return to the Constitution” as a plank in their platforms, and some are now proposing legislation that would require that any proposed law identify the specific Constitutional provisions that authorize the legislation being considered. 
But one only has to look back on the moment when Christine O’Donnell (R) interrogated Chris Coons (D) during the final Senate debate in Delaware on the doctrine of separation of church and state to realize that many of these candidates are relying on something other than the Constitution as interpreted for over two hundred and thirty years as their guidepost. You will recall that when Coons cited the doctrine of separation of church and state during that debate, O’Donnell challenged him, arguing that the First Amendment authorized no such thing, asking in a voice filled with incredulity for Coons to tell her where it said that. Coons mentioned the establishment clause, and the long history of its interpretation. O’Donnell, clearly flustered – the debate was at a law school and the audience couldn’t avoid reacting in disbelieving laughter at her questions – nonetheless acted as though she would be vindicated after the debate. Of course, she wasn’t. But what is more interesting is what she claimed justified her questions to Coons. In a statement she argued that Coons couldn’t show her the language that said there is to be “a wall of separation between church and state” in the First Amendment itself. Hence, she was justified in asking, and Coons, a lawyer of long experience, was the one who didn’t know what he was talking about.
There are more inconsistencies to be found in Tea Party arguments about the Constitution. Many Tea Party members think that certain amendments ought to be repealed, a position that is paradoxical for those who argue others are tampering with it. But it may be more interesting to see which parts of the Constitution they believe need amending. In forum after forum, these have been the 14th (revision) and the 16th and 17th (repeal). The latter two amendments provide for a national income tax and the direct election of senators. Both of these were the fruits of the Progressive era, deemed by Glenn Beck as the evil origin of our contemporary woes. The opposition to the income tax is fairly obvious. After all, it funds the overblown national government, and we are all taxed too much as is, in their view. The repeal of the 17th, while initially startling, indicates their great faith in state governments to provide for the interest of the people, as they are closer to understanding their needs.
But it has been the 14th Amendment that has captured their attention the most (John Boehner, incoming Speaker of the House and Tea Party sympathizer, has already suggested hearings). The 14th is in need of revision because in section one it says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This clause allows there to be “anchor babies,” children of undocumented residents who by birth are citizens. But it is also interesting to note something else about the 14th Amendment that has been attacked by Tea Partiers than birth citizenship, albeit much more obliquely, namely, the reaffirmation in the 14th Amendment of the rights of citizens of the United States to enjoy “the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.” In other words, this is the clause that establishes the national government as the supreme final arbiter of the rights and duties of citizens, settling all prior argument regarding that question.
There has been an interesting silence on this clause, which is also to be found in section one of the 14th Amendment. That silence could be heard during the campaign when candidates trumpet the virtues of the 10th Amendment, which reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This amendment -- which provided the basis for Calhoun’s ante bellum argument for state nullification of national law -- was touted by many Tea Partiers as a necessary antidote to too much federal action. Indeed, as early as the debate concerning the national healthcare law, Tea Partiers have argued the unconstitutionality of the law on the basis of the 10th amendment.
Back in the 1950s this was what was known as the “states rights” argument, and was directly attached to the white southern resistance to the civil rights movement. Its resurrection now is less obviously racist, but as Jairus Victor Grove documents in his recent post in The Contemporary Condition, there does seem to be a greater toleration of racist arguments now than there was even two years ago.
All of this strange revisionism – ahistoricism mingled with mythic history -- is draped in reverence for the Constitution itself as a sacred document of a chosen people. The long history of Constitution worship fits quite well into the Tea Party agenda, and attaches it more closely to the Biblical fundamentalism of conservative, evangelical Christians, a key actor in the right-wing resonance machine.
The deepest irony is that one of the most famous advocates for Constitution worship was Abraham Lincoln, the agnostic who did more than any other single American in history to reshape the Constitution. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, the 14th amendment, which established national citizenship and insured due process, and the 15th Amendment, which put into the Constitution equal rights for the newly freed slaves, all were a direct result of the Civil War that he led and won. But here is what Lincoln argued as a young man, in his later to be famous address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, January 27, 1838. 

"Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; --let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars."
Constitution worship never had a greater advocate than Lincoln, who not only did more to rewrite it, but who also violated it more than any president until the second half of the 20th century.

This strange religiosity, as it has from the start, operates to prevent Americans from reasonably confronting serious dysfunctionalities in a governing document that was never designed for a country of this size and power. What helped forestall a serious reexamination of the Constitution in the past was what the Constitutional historian Robert Ackerman once referred to as “Constitutional moments,” when the constituent power of a mobilized majority would be able, either through explicit amendment, or more likely by creative reinterpretation, make this creaky machine last another few thousand miles, staying alive. But as Anthony Scalia, a member of both the old and new Gang of Five says, the Constitution is not a living but a dead document. Of course it is Scalia himself who has helped kill it. Contemporary Tea Partiers hope to keep it dead – it is impossible, it seems, to worship living things.
But it may also be the case that they are forcing us to look at a document that has failed in recent decades to produce anything resembling democratic governance. If this is the case, they may be bringing forth more conflict than even they imagine. For the idea of replacing what has increasingly been a Constitution reliant on a history of interpretation – however literal these readers have been – with a new document, would suggest that the there has either been a revolution or the completion of withdrawal of consent from above, as the neo-liberalism of today bleeds into the neo-feudalism of the future.

Organizing Victory: Why Economic Decline Is No Excuse For Broken Promises

Michelle Tokarczyk
   Goucher College
At the end of Capitalism: A Love Story Michael Moore depicts incidents of rebellion: workers taking over a factory, families refusing to vacate a foreclosed home, citizens marching on Wall Street. These sites of resistance remind and inspire viewers that despite the capitalism’s reach, when people recognize and assert their rights, they can (surprisingly) prevail. I write now as the president of a new AAUP chapter that has achieved a small, but noteworthy, victory.

For the past several years the Goucher College faculty has clashed with the administration. Each year was marked by another attempt by the administration to rein in faculty: a move to impose merit pay, an attempt to dismantle faculty legislation, the abolition of the academic dean position. Each of these moves reflects disregard for the academic principle of shared governance and suggests the imposition of a top-down corporate model.

While we had vigorous meetings in which a number of faculty members challenged the administration, the faculty as a whole exhibited a kind of false consciousness specific to academia. Academic institutions are often insular, and Goucher’s small size (1400 students and 173 faculty members) as well as its geography increase this insularity. Located less than ten miles from Baltimore and in the heart of a suburban business district, the campus’s lush 287-acres replete with deer and hiking trails have earned it the appellation of “the Goucher bubble.” Because Goucher is a teaching college with a 3-3 course load and heavy committee work, faculty members who want a professional life beyond the college must struggle to find time for scholarly activities. Many give up. As a result, Goucher’s status and one’s professional status are, for many faculty, inextricably linked.
Also, as my scholarship in working-class studies has indicated, faculty members are often from the middle and upper classes, where the idea of unions or professional advocacy organizations is an anathema. As good progressives, faculty will certainly support blue-collar unions, even teachers’ unions, but they will balk at the suggestion that “independent agents” with doctorates should organize to improve their working conditions.
The inertia of many colleagues was indeed discouraging for those of us who wanted to challenge the administration’s top-down model. However, as an activist friend of mine says, “your boss is your best organizer.” Finally, the administration went too far.
The 2008 recession hit Goucher as it did every higher education institution. After consulting with representatives from faculty leadership, the administration froze salaries for the 2009-2010 academic year. For the most part, faculty accepted this freeze as necessary. By the time contracts were drawn up, however, the administration decided that further cuts were necessary, and the college would reduce its contribution to its employees’ TIAA-CREF retirement accounts from 200% of employees’ minimum required contribution to 50% of this amount. Faculty contracts run from September to September; staff contracts, in contrast, run from July to July. Apparently, the administration did not want to compute the start dates for two sets of contracts. It implemented faculty cuts in July of 2009—in effect, cutting benefits we’d already earned.
The timing of these cuts infuriated faculty members more than the cuts themselves. To us, cutting the contributions in July and August of 2009 was a clear violation of our contracts. The administration disputed—and still disputes—that it was guilty of any contractual or ethical violation. Yet as I have explained to those outside academia, their action is comparable to hiring someone to work for $10 an hour and then on payday and saying you can afford only $5 an hour. An understood agreement is broken.
Representatives from the national AAUP came to a faculty meeting in June of 2009 and met with a few faculty members over the summer. In the fall of 2009 the Goucher College AAUP chapter was revived; our first task was to get restitution of the disputed TIAA-CREF funds.
Although we were skeptical of working with the administration, we decided to make one last attempt to resolve the matter internally before resorting to legal action. Ideally, we wanted to get the faculty at large—not just AAUP members—to endorse a demand letter. I presented the case at a faculty meeting, and a substantial majority of those present voted to send the letter to the president (with copies to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and college counsel). A few days later, the president indicated a willingness to meet with the faculty chair and chairs of relevant committees and reluctantly, the president of AAUP.
At one point during our first meeting the president stated that lawyers had said the college was not at fault, and that it would indeed have a good case, should it go to court. I responded that if we wanted to go to court, we’d go to court. The discussions proceeded.
Ultimately, the college agreed to return the disputed TIAA-CREF funds so long as 115 faculty members signed a statement acknowledging that the college had admitted no wrongdoing and that the faculty members would take no legal action. On the advice of the national AAUP, the Goucher College chapter decided to hire a lawyer to review the proposed agreement. Our chapter dues coupled with funds from the Maryland State Conference AAUP provided necessary funds. The only concern our lawyer had about the proposed agreement was the requirement that 115 faculty sign waivers. We met the waiver requirements. In the summer of 2010 the disputed funds were restored.
   The fall of 2010 has been the first in several years without a battle between the administration and the faculty. Perhaps this is coincidental, or perhaps the AAUP chapter has shifted the power dynamics by demonstrating to the administration that we will stand up to unilateral decisions. Perhaps we have shown the administration and some other faculty members that Goucher College is not an exceptional place, but an institution bound by the same rules and subject to the same pressures as other workplaces. Perhaps we are learning the power of organizing.