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US Elections 2012 Analysis: The Right's Fantasies about the Constitution, History, and "Americanism" (Crockatt)

Richard Crockatt, Professor Emeritus at the University of East Anglia, writes for EA:

Amid the blizzard of reactions to Barack Obama’s re-election, a voice from a past campaign --- 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin --- deserves close attention for what she reveals about the mentality of the far right in America.

In a Fox News interview, Palin bemoaned the fact that Obama might have the opportunity to appoint new members to the Supreme Court. This, she said, would be a blow against the "traditional interpretation of the Constitution".

Of course, Palin is right to point to the strategic importance of the Supreme Court in the US system of government. It is a key element in the Constitutional "checks and balances" that act as a prophylactic against extremism. Franklin Roosevelt's appointments in his 12-year Presidency ensured that a liberal voice would be heard well into the McCarthy era and beyond. The current situation is a mirror image, although less prominent, with a conservative majority during a "liberal" Presidency.

But it is not checks and balances that Sarah Palin wants. Behind her heartfelt advocacy of the "traditional interpretation of the Constitution" are a welter of assumptions about America’s history and its founding documents that the ideological right peddle as if they were self-evident truths. There is no single "traditional interpretation" of the Constitution: the phrase is code for a strict constructionist interpretation, one supposedly based on the "original intent" of the framers, which the Right believes has always been the saviour of American liberty.

There are two problems here. First, strict construction has usually worked against the extension of American liberty. It managed, for example, to delay the grant of rights to African Americans for close to a century after the Civil War.

Second, strict construction was never the sole approach of the Supreme Court, as is clear from the career of John Marshall, who presided over the Court from 1801 to 1835. Marshall established judicial review –-- the right of the Court to declare on the constitutionality of acts of Congress and of the states --- and he employed a judicious mixture in readings of the Constitution with an emphasis in his landmark cases on broad construction. There was no single line, no "traditional interpretation".

But the Right in the loves to believe that there was a golden time in America’s past when everyone understood what the Constitution really meant, when government kept off the backs of the people, and when freedom reigned in the land. That Utopia was shattered when big-government Democrats and liberals betrayed the values that defined "America". They tried to import alien European ideas such as socialized --- read "socialist" --- medicine, threatened traditional American freedoms such as the right to bear arms, spread immorality and irreligion, and, most damaging of all peddled the falsehood that Government might be the solution to some problems rather than the problem itself.

So, for this Right, political debate consists in decrying your liberal opponents’ good faith as Americans. That is what is at stake in "Americanism". You can spend a great deal of time and intellectual energy defining this term, but it is best seen as a cluster of values that is both deliberately vague and highly precise in "you know it when you see it", just as you know its opposites of "un-Americanism" and anti-Americanism". It’s a word that separates the sheep from the goats, and separates "us" from "them".

Like the saga of Constitutional interpretation, the idea of Americanism carries with it a history which is mostly fantasy, based on the view that in the good old days government did not interfere with the American people.

Why is it that the Right cannot accept that the debates which are held today about government are versions of differences stemming from the beginning of the US? Look at the debates between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s about the role of government in promotion of manufacturing and industry. Ironically, at this early date the big-government advocates (Hamiltonians) were the conservatives, and the limited government Jeffersonians were the liberals.

However, the point is that "America" is not fully defined by either one of these sets of principles but by the interplay between them. The debate over "internal improvements" in the decades leading up to the Civil War, about regulation of the railroads and utilities in the phase of industrialisation, about wages and hours legislation, about Federal programmes in the New Deal --- and well beyond --- form the spine of US political history. American governments have been involved directly and indirectly in the promotion and regulation of business from the outset. Like governments in other advanced countries, they have also been involved from the beginning of the 20th century in key social questions --- race, religion, women’s rights, abortion, the criminal justice system, and many others.

Yet the American Right speaks as if freedom was always something to be established in the teeth of government, as if government could never be a creator or at the very least a guarantor of freedom and rights --- or that it could only guarantee rights by keeping out of the people’s business. The result is that there is a huge disconnect between the reality of what American government actually does and what the Right thinks it should do. Indeed, it is hard to see that government could play any role which would satisfy the Right's artificial political vision.

A further consequence of the Right’s historical fantasising is that it militates against negotiation and compromise. If you believe the true faith has been denied and that only the true faith will do, there is no reason to come to an accommodation with your opponents. In the real world, however, negotiation is a necessity. That is true in the near-future in an America where the demographic trends are running against the Republican core constituency of white Protestant males.

It is recognition of this that could forestall confrontation borne out of fantasy, for seismic demographic change is a central challenge in American history which has been met on many occasions. On the basis of the Right’s grasp of America’s history in other fields the omens are not good but --- who knows? ---- realism may win out, despite the Sarah Palins, because it must to ensure the political fortunes of the Republican Party.

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