May 5, 2010

The Tea Party, the new Anti-Federalists.

"We'll keep clinging to our Constitution." —Sarah Palin
Countless times I have heard my conservative friends, some of whom are Tea Partiers, claim exclusive fidelity to our nation's founding document.

The narrative plays out like this: We, the Tea Party (I'm using the term as a synecdoche for today's ultra-conservative voice as a whole), honor the Constitution by sticking to its original intent, which is relatively straightforward and simple to interpret. You big-government liberals dishonor the Constitution by treating it as a "living document" that means whatever you want it to mean, making America whatever you want it to be.

The irony is that Tea Partiers, in belief and in tone, have more in common with those who opposed the Constitution (the Anti-Federalists) than those who supported it (the Federalists) during the public debate about its ratification.

To the Anti-Federalists, the Constitution's federal government was too big, too powerful and too elitist. A national government comprising James Madison's "enlightened lawmakers" representing large areas and empowered to tax, to legislate and to raise a standing army would surely trample the rights of the people and the States.

The Tea Partiers—er, excuse me, the Anti-Federalists—pressed their points with frothy certitude about what the future would bring under the tyranny of such a strong national government.

"You gentlemen, the Preachers of the Constitution," wrote A True Friend (advocates of both sides used pseudonyms during the debate), "will not sure contest a fact proved by the records of all ages and of all nations that the liberties and rights of the people have been always encroached on, and finally destroyed by those, whom they had entrusted with the power of government."

"To lay and collect internal taxes in this extensive country must require a great number of Congressional ordinances," wrote Federal Farmer. "These must continually interfere with the State laws and thereby produce disorder and dissatisfaction till the one system of laws or the other ... must be abolished."

The Constitution's national government would produce "a vast number of expensive offices"; it would "totally annihilate the separate governments of the several States"; it would "have to be supported at a vast expense, by which our taxes would be doubled or trebled."

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

The Federalists, on the other hand, argued for a strong national government, one that clearly superseded State authority.

In fact, James Madison—primary author of the Constitution and co-author of The Federalist Papers—deeply distrusted what he regarded as the pettiness and self-interestedness of "local" politics, by which he meant any politics lower than national. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison argued vociferously for an absolute Congressional veto power over State laws. He thought national veto power "may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful."

He lost that debate. The Constitution contains no such federal veto power. But clearly, Madison was hardly a "States Rights" advocate in the modern understanding of that term.

What's more, Madison was deeply skeptical of the public's ability to responsibly evaluate the merits of the Constitution without having participated in the Convention's vigorous and complex interplay between ideas, interests and personalities.

"It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs," he lamented, "that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good."

As to the meaning of the Constitution and how it is to be ascertained? On this, Madison anticipated communication theories yet to come that would understand meaning-making as a transactional interplay among parties in the discussion.
"All new laws, though penned with the greatest technical skill, and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, are considered as more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications." —James Madison
When we debate the meaning of the Constitution, liquidating and ascertaining its meaning in our world by a series of particular discussions and adjudications, we are simultaneously formed by and form the Constitution's meaning. In doing so, we have the approval of no less than the document's primary author.

Does this mean that the Tea Party's concerns about the size of today's federal government are without merit? No. Does it mean they should quiet down about their concerns? Certainly not. Does it even mean that Madison was right and the Anti-Federalists were wrong? Not at all. None of these necessarily follow from the facts of the ratification debate.

But this does: Tea Party claims of exclusive Constitutional fidelity are false. They should stop clinging to the falsehood. Doing so might serve "that spirit of moderation" Madison extolled. Which would be good for our country. You know, the one formed by the Constitution.

Rings true to me. And you?


  1. Kyle, my feeling is that the Constitution has already BEEN "formed". We may debate its meaning, so to speak, but cannot deem that it now means this or that, based on current events or popular opinion. I think that's where our difficulties sometimes lie. Also, I must take issue with the term "ultra-conservative". It's just "conservative". A point has been made many times recently that to have simple conservative leanings, in this day and age, is to be considered ultra-conservative by the left. I hear your points on our supposed inconsistencies as what we cling to and such, relating to the Constitution but do feel that comparison is not quite fair. The opposing "parties" at the time when the Constitution was being formed probably felt themselves at a crossroad never before encountered. Mistrust of the unknown is a common trait and emotions were no doubt, running rampant.

  2. Kyle, Lovely post flying high over the heads of all rancorous participants in current debate.
    I am enamored of the recent polls that show that tea-baggers actually favor over 95% of federal spending when asked on a line-by-line basis. They are just pissed and they are too stupid to know who f*#k'd things up so badly.

  3. Kyle, apparently, when I use openID I show up as my art/business DBA 'digitao'

    ~Paul Lempke

  4. Paul, thanks, dear. :-) Yes, the disconnect between ultra-conservative emotions and positions is ironic. Which is, as you have discerned, the point of the post.

    Mitch, a couple of comments: I use "ultra-conservative" advisedly, as I feel it necessary to distinguish classic American conservatism of the Burke/Kirk/Buckley kind from the much more ideological right represented by the Tea Party, the new Newt Gingrich, Kansas Sen. Brownback, Rush, Hannity, Palin, and the rest. I think the classic conservatism has some connection with the current ultra-conservatism, but only tangentially. I can't imagine Russell Kirk or William F. Buckley, with their near reverential respect for custom, being anything even close to those I've named representing ultra-conservatism. So, with respect, I'm sticking with it.

    As to your other points, I agree completely that we ought not to try to make the Constitution mean anything we wish, willy-nilly, just 'cause we want it. But I think Madison was right that the meaning is in the usage -- in the discussions and adjudications. Notice that he called the meaning of a passed law "obscure and equivocal" even after it had been written with great skill and debated fully. I think you must take Madison seriously. You say the Constitution's meaning is already "formed." Well, to a degree, yes; to a degree, no. Its meaning is both settled and awaits further discussion and adjudication. That's what I mean by both formed by and formed. The process of adjudicating its meaning is never-ending as long as America exists.

    As to your comments on my comparison being unfair, I just must disagree. It's perfectly fair, whether emotions ran high or not. Surely you're not suggesting that emotions don't run high now. Emotions have always run high, and they always will. But the fact remains that ultra-conservatives claim exclusive faithfulness to a document while your positions more closely resemble the document's opponents at that period when, according to your originalism, the meaning would have been most apparent. This is an impossible dilemma.

  5. Kyle, nice post. And as always, nicely written. The anomaly is that you say Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution, without qualification. Yes, they did, but they had just fought a war protecting their rights, and they didn't want a sweeping, powerful centralized government coming in and usurping them.

    Surprisingly, you didn't mention the Bill of Rights in your post. The Anti-Federalists, in actuality, were opposed to a Constitution without a Bill of Rights, which is what they debated and eventually won. There were other concerns/debates too, but that was the biggest point of contention. And, to get the ratification they so desired, the Federalists had to give in and draft a Bill of Rights.

    I think it is also unfair to say that today's "Tea Partiers," a very loose term in my estimation, claim exclusive fidelity to the Constitution. I don't see that. What I do see a body of people who are typically much quieter coming out and saying "we won't stand anymore for what we believe to be a growing government that continues to act un-Constitutionally."

    I know several liberals who've stood on platforms and screamed over issues claiming Constitutional trampling - Arizona, hello. It's the only rulebook available when citizens feel their rights are being undermined.

    Concerns over usurpation of the Constitution are not contemporary to the Tea Party. I don't think Madison was completely wrong when he said, in short, that the Constitution would be fluid. Yes, he knew that as society changed, new laws would be required and rigorous deliberation would ensue. But, we have an amendment process for that -- one that requires a real deliberation and critical mass, and not an adjudication coming from one-to-nine human beings who may or may not have a political and social bias and agenda.

    Thanks for making me think early in the morning...

  6. Kyle, thanks for your thoughts. I must, however, RESPECTFULLY disagree (emphasis on "respectfully") with your dissection of conservatism into component parts. The people you referenced are absolutely conservative in the classic sense. In my humble opinion, its the "moderate" view that the left now refers to as "classic conservative", since it's nice and neat and just doesn't raise a fuss, if you will. I think it may be a genuine desire by the left that it be so. There are only 3 categories that really apply: liberal, moderate (fence-sitter) and conservative.

    Regarding your final point concerning our apparent disingenuous or exclusive faithfulness to the Constitution, I see where you're going with that but when I study the Constitution and it's root documents, the federalist papers, I'm left with one overpowering impression: WOW, I feel exactly in tune with that! I don't think anyone who considers himself a logical-minded individual would claim exclusivity where that's concerned, but just might indicate genuine frustration that we move inexorably distant from those ideals as time goes by.

    I really appreciate the opportunity to give my views. I'm a hopeless politico with strong convictions and would hope I'm not coming across as confrontational. It's really not my nature.

  7. Skip, a couple of points:

    Yes, the Anti-Federalists most certainly insisted on a Bill of Rights, which the Federalists resisted to no avail. But it is NOT the case that once the Federalists agreed to the B of R, Anti-Federalist complaints were silenced, as though that was alone their issue. The biggest beef of the Anti-Federalists remained these: (1) the relationship of the proposed federal government vis a vis the States, and (2) the scheme of representation, which the A-Fs considered completely elitist and inadequate in terms of ratio. Way too few representatives, each serving way too much geography. A promise to add a Bill of Rights tipped the ratification balance but did little to assuage the concerns of ardent Anti-Federalist advocates.

    As to the use of "Tea Party," I explain at the outset that I'm using it as a symbol, part-for-whole representing today's ultra-conservative thought. See the reply above for my justification of the term "ultra-conservative." And yes, they do claim exclusive fidelity to the Constitution. They distinguish themselves frequently vis a vis their political opponents in terms of "We believe in the Constitution," "We respect the Constitution," and Palin's quote at the top of the article. The point is that it's an article of faith in this movement that they respect or take seriously the Constitution in distinction from those damned liberals who don't.

    One more comment: Madison's sophisticated understanding of how a law's meaning is created through usage AFTER it is rigorously thought through and passed is not the same as your notion of amendment. Madison is NOT saying, as ultra-conservatives insist, that upon a law's passage, the meaning is set, and then you can discuss and adjudicate adding to (or subtracting from) that fixed meaning through the process of amendment. Not at all. He explicitly says a law's meaning upon passage is "more or less obscure and equivocal." The discussion and adjudication happens through its application and challenges to it. Which is exactly what happens in Congress, the Presidency, and the courts.

    Again, does that mean the Constitution's meaning is all up for grabs, willy-nilly, and that we have no idea how to lessen the fog of the obscure and bring melody to the equivocal? No. Though I did say we form its meaning, I also said we are formed by it. Perhaps a good metaphor is a river within its banks. The water's flow is both directed by the banks and creates the banks, never quite the same day-to-day but not utterly different either.

    But it does mean that the process of interpretation isn't simple; it isn't easy. It isn't just a matter of by golly let's open the book and discern original intent, Martha! It's complex, subject to interpretation, within the realm of human judgment, requiring wisdom, and most of all, begging for humility.

  8. Mitch, no prob, brutha, disagree with fervor! :-) And good Lord, man, you don't seem confrontational to me at all. Just expressing what "rings true" to you, which is the point of this blog.

    I'm going to stick with my distinction, as I don't think the people I list are classic conservatives. I would call people like Edmund Burke, the old National Review, Russell Kirk, Richard Lugar, and a bunch of other Republicans classic conservatives. But this new crowd is actually less conservative than they are radical. That is to say, they believe in a root-and-branch ideology. In Russell Kirk's classic book "The Conservative Mind," he just lays into this notion of conservatism as ideology. Exactly the opposite, he wrote. Following Burke's critique of the French Revolution, Kirk suggested that the essence of conservatism is its reverence for custom, which eschews ideology and resists (but does not refuse) reform. Perhaps even more explicitly communicating the distinction I'm making would be "radical conservatism." Kirk would have seen that as an oxymoron, but maybe that's closer to my point. I don't know if you'll like that any more, but I'm willing to make that change.

    As to your comfort with the Federalist Papers, cool! But check out the Anti-Federalist Papers and see what you think. It's doubtless to me which side today's radical conservatives (see, flows nicely, doesn't it?) sound more like.

  9. Eloquent rebuttal as always my friend. I don't have the bandwidth left today to dissect and discern your depth, but I will. I'll acquiesce on the Tea-Party moniker for your purposes, but I think it's a little caricature-ish. State/representation was an issue with the A-F's, but it wasn't the ballast required for ratification. So, I'm not sure I agree, but I need to now rethink that given the original intent of your post. Too tired... I'll be back.

  10. Nice job. I'm reading the Federalist Papers for a graduate class in politics and it occurred to me that the Tea Party doesn't actually seem to like the Constitution. So I googled "anti-federalists, tea party" and found your blog. You wrote exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

  11. Finaleyes, many thanks. Glad it could be of help. As you can see, I've been, um, well, a little lax in keeping this blog going. But your finding it and finding it useful piques my interest. Maybe I'll pick up the "pen" once again.

  12. I think that sounds like a splendid idea! I've been wanting to start a blog, more relevant to my research and work as an editor. Is it hard to start one that looks as clean as yours?