Why Constitutionalism Is An Empty Doctrine For Conservatives

Conservatives, especially serious conservatives, will usually say that they believe in returning America back to the principles of the Constitution, with respect to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. In the American context, this is a conservative doctrine, being that it hopes to conserve at least the legal (if not the social) form that the country set out to promote. This is typically phrased with reference to notions of clearly demarcated natural rights, festooned with quotes, and, if on a TV documentary, with a baritone voice-over.

The problem is not so much with the traditionalist impulse that motivates American conservatives, but with the doctrine of constitutionalism itself, namely the idea that a written constitution has a timeless, magic power that transcends the actual Constitution of the government, as in what and whom constitutes that government. The written constitution is a document. The Constitution of the government is what that government actually is.

When conservatives look at the Constitution of government, they often despair at how much it has departed from the written constitution, both un-amended and with amendments. They will say things like “we need to go back to the constitution” and “we need to re-affirm our constitutional principles of liberty” and “we need to re-establish the constitution.”

Recent history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has disproven this notion, that constitutions tend to be reliably binding documents that limit governments. Apart from the United States, which has not formally changed government since its founding, but has informally gone through several eras (unlike France with its numbered republics), most republican-constitutional governments have a short lifespan.

The Iraqi constitution, adopted in 2005, is unlikely to live much longer. Egypt ratified one constitution in 2012, and then replaced it less than 2 years later in 2014. Throughout the 20th century, European countries also revolved through many constitutions as the borders shifted this way and that way through war and revolution. The EU constitution itself, ratified in 2004, would be unlikely to continue to remain in effect should the EU itself crumble due to financial problems, as looks quite likely.

Constitutions are not guarantors of liberty any more than any written promise is a guarantee that the promise will be executed.

While the impulses that American conservatives have are usually positive, in that they hope for good government, the means that they are trying to use to achieve good government are radically insufficient for that task.

To assert through words a doctrine of law, and then to complain that the laws are not being executed faithfully, does nearly nothing to rectify the problem. It’s identical to the methods used by leftism, because constitutionalism is a doctrine held within the cushiest bosom of leftism. This notion that a legal doctrine can be created from air, and then enforced upon any group of people regardless of their qualities or differences, is the essence of the egalitarian idea that all men are equal.

Conservatives usually know who they consider to be an American, and know what beliefs Americans are supposed to affirm, what behaviors they’re supposed to exhibit, what values they’re supposed to uphold in their daily lives. Yet the idea of the universally applicable constitution, the magic document, does nothing whatsoever to ensure that the people charged with upholding it will either desire to uphold it or be predisposed to even want to uphold it.

Instead, it’s time to consider that the shared values are what matter more than appeals to the document. What conservatives need is to maintain a nation that upholds their values, irrespective of how a piece of paper says those values are supposed to be maintained. The constitution is not a sacred document: it was written by men for earthly purposes. Because it is no longer executing that purpose, appeals to restore it can only hope to be compelling rhetoric, rather than guides to action.

Restore what, precisely? You can rewrite the document if you have the votes to do so, but rewriting it wouldn’t change the predispositions and moral characters of existing citizens.

Given that many American citizens are hostile to conservative values — indeed, permanently hostile — it’s sensible to seek political separation, so that we can end the pointless series of conflicts between mutually incompatible groups of citizens over control of a government which has out-stripped its constitutional limitations.

Through separation, the mutually antagonistic factions of American citizens can sort themselves into governments which agree to their values.

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  1. …but rewriting it would change the predispositions and moral characters of existing citizens.

    I think you meant it “would not change the predispositions”.

    There’s something tragic about the quasi-religious reverence for the US Constitution, considering the current state of decay in the country. I would compare the belief in this “magic power”, as Danpier called it, to the leftists’ fantastical belief in equality, which disregards the innate traits and limitations of the individuals and subgroups that constitute the whole.

    1. Correct. Fixed. Thanks.

      >There’s something tragic about the quasi-religious reverence for the US Constitution, considering the current state of decay in the country. I would compare the belief in this “magic power”, as Danpier called it, to the leftists’ fantastical belief in equality, which disregards the innate traits and limitations of the individuals and subgroups that constitute the whole.

      It comes from the same erroneous root.

  2. Way back in the day, I lived in a majority-black district (sorry, not re-gentrifying it!), and I wrote to my (black) congressman asking him to explain his understanding of the 10th Amendment and how he was voting in accordance with it. I wasn’t being malicious at the time, but if did that today I would only do it as a cruel joke on a man just tryin’ to deliver da goods to his peeps.

  3. “…No compact among men (however provident in its construction and sacred in its ratification) can be pronounced everlasting and inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no wall of words, that no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”

    – George Washington; Draft of First Inaugural Address, April, 1789

  4. This point is one that those of us who study institutions and their stability, such as Mancur Olson’s public choice economics on “demoscleroris” have been making for a long time. The Constitution got us to where we are today, so if you don’t like where we are today, then you shouldn’t like the Constitution. It will just get us back here. If the problem is culture, then change the culture, to say you want to “restore the Constitution” is to focus attention on what is not the problem.

    The question of how to design a more stable institution for producing good governance is a fascinating and important one; it may be very difficult, but ignoring it will not make it go away. The American Constitution did an OK job, but clearly not a great job, we should seek to improve on it, not to restore it.

    1. Statecraft is a bit of a lost art in the west, mostly because state interests and state objectives are the anti-philosophy of the era. Statecraft/governance is an uncomfortable subject for liberalism–the state is supposed to be a relatively passive channel for the desires of the electorate and to institute conditions only insofar as they help citizens achieve their personal objectives. Certainly, the students being trained by top-tier universities in the U.S for the civil service and especially the State Department have no idea what the fuck they’re doing, partly because they’ve received no training even remotely related to the decisions they’re supposed to make and the analysis they’re supposed to produce.

      China and Russia do a much better job at educating elite students in governance. Part of the point of neoreaction is rebuilding statecraft with a western take, and that might require more digging up of old sources lost to time, as well as borrowing contemporary methods from other powers.

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