There’s a new-old word in town this election season, and it can tell us a lot about American politics today: “Constitutionalist.”
Animated cartoon villain and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has most closely associated himself with the Constitutionalist label (despite being born in Canada, which would disqualify him from the presidency according to strict Constitutionalists). When Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis was arrested for refusing to give out marriage licenses to a gay couple, Cruz called upon “every Believer, every Constitutionalist, every lover of liberty to stand with Kim Davis.” Glenn Beck, who has endorsed Cruz for the presidency, called Cruz a “true Constitutionalist” based partly on the folk tale that the Texas senator had memorized the Constitution at age 13.
All this talk of Constitutionalism implies, and purposefully so, that conservative firebrands like Cruz are motivated solely by a commitment to upholding the Constitution, while liberals who support universal healthcare, regulations on the financial industry, and gay marriage are supporting “judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny.” These progressive policies are held up as examples of government overreach. Really, they’re just policies that conservatives hate.
But what does Constitutionalism entail? The ideology draws from a hodgepodge of states’ rights, anti-abortionist, evangelical Christian, libertarian, and isolationist foreign policy beliefs. The Constitutional Party, founded in 1991 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party, is said to embody these beliefs, and its views largely follow those espoused in the Constitutionalist Manifesto.
The manifesto, published by Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group founded by Phyllis Schlafly, reveals a great deal. Amid all the rambling about the evils of the liberal culture war, and the judges whose decisions have supposedly violated Constitutional amendments, there is one clear target for Constitutionalists: anyone — and any idea, really — who deviates from their specific brand of Christian dogma.
“A ‘pluralism’ or ‘diversity’ of world views cannot provide a solid, workable foundation for our Constitution,” the proclamation says — despite demographic trends that indicate they might have some trouble headed their way.
A strong Christian identity is so central to Constitutionalists’ political identities that Wisconsin’s Constitution Party chairman dedicated an article to defending what would be, by any other name, a theocracy. The Constitution Party of Wisconsin describes itself as “a totally pro-life, liberty and traditional marriage/values party whose goal is to get Godly constitutionally-minded people into office at the local, state and federal levels. CPoW officers and candidates will never compromise on either God’s word or the Constitution.”
“These “Reconstructionist” judges (popularly labeled “liberals” and “judicial activists”) and their postmodernist allies throughout American culture must be repelled. The responsibility for such a counter-attack falls on us Constitutionalists (popularly known as “conservatives” and “judicial restraintists”),” reads another part of the Constitutionalist Manifesto. The proclamation is fixated on this specific interpretation of the Constitution — one that, unsurprisingly, holds up Christianity as the ultimate source of all legal authority.
Daniel Levin, a professor at the University of Utah, best summarized the Constitutionalist craze sweeping the conservative American electorate over a decade ago. American Constitutionalism was a “contemporary folk appropriation of classic liberal thought combined with the American tradition of frontier individualism,” according to a scholarly essay he published early 2001. Classic liberal thought, formulated predominantly by British philosopher John Locke, was among the first to articulate the notion of popular sovereignty as a way of securing power in the hands of the people. Rule by consent, a key aspect of the American Revolution, was informed by the writings of Locke and other Enlightenment Age philosophers.
But Constitutionalists have taken the concept of consent to extremes, arguing that government actions like moving off the gold standard and instituting a federal income tax have violated the government’s own legitimacy and infringed upon the individual freedoms of Americans. While Locke argued for personal freedom, especially vis-a-vis his ideological opponent, Thomas Hobbes, he also argued for a social contract, whereby individuals agree to a surrender some of their freedoms for the greater good of society. “Though men, when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society,” he wrote in section 131 of his Second Treatise, “with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse).”
While Constitutionalist theory is rooted in history, their emphasis on frontier individualism has increasingly become a powerful force for Constitutionalists, who distrust the United Nations and other major global institutions that formed the post-war world order.
This is just the kind of Christian paranoia that Ted Cruz uses to make up his base. “Cruz wants to ‘restore’ the United States to what he believes is its original identity: a Christian nation,” wrote John Fea, an American history professor at Messiah College, in a critique of his political objectives.
At one point, individualism was simply an appeal to the American tradition of the lone frontiersman — far beyond the reach of a tyrannical, coastal federal government — who was free to practice his Christian faith and lead a homestead for his family. But this country has no frontier beyond which there remains unclaimed land waiting for the arrival of white homesteaders moving west. That moment — just like the political dominance of white, heterosexual, religious Christianity — has long faded.
The Constitution Party has unequivocally opposed gay marriage and advocated ending tax breaks given to married gay couples. Citing the 10th Amendment, which states that Congress can’t take power not given to it under the Constitution, adherents of Constitutionalism have argued that marriage is a specifically Christian institution. “No government may legitimately authorize or define marriage or family relations contrary to what God has instituted,” read the Party’s family principles page. “We are opposed to any judicial ruling or amending the U.S. Constitution or any state constitution re-defining marriage with any definition other than the Biblical standard.”
Of course, progress on these issues is the sin of a federal government which “has been gradually perverted into a socialist machine for federal control in the domestic affairs of the states, a favorite talking point for conservatives when the Supreme Court rules against them.
If Constitutionalism — at least, as the term is currently defined — is a bit of a paradox, that’s by design. Many of its social and political positions are the result of misreadings of political theory and, more important, are politically untenable today.
Unrealistic demands like rolling back gay rights, pulling the country out of international institutions and radically shrinking the size of the federal government may be seductive to conservative voters, but those voters are being sold a bill of goods: Constitutionalists unwillingness to “compromise” — to govern — lies at the heart of the Republican obstructionism slowly destroying the party.