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The Origins and Revival of Constitutional Conservatism: 1912 and 2012

William A. Schambra

To many observers of today’s boisterously populist Tea Party movement, one of its most striking features is its apparent obsession with the U.S. Constitution. “More than any political movement in recent memory,” law professor Jared Goldstein writes, “the Tea Party is centrally focused on the meaning of the Constitution.” In apparent agreement, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe maintain in Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto that “First and foremost, the Tea Party movement is concerned with recovering constitutional principles in government.”

Observers are also puzzled by this populist effort to recover constitutional principles, for it seems to be fundamentally anti-populist or anti-democratic. In the past, widespread popular movements rallying around constitutional principles seemed to possess only a democratic “drive” gear. That is, according to a supportive school of thought, the “popular constitutionalists,” they drove the Constitution toward ever greater democratic inclusiveness and empowerment, as did the civil rights, women’s, and gay rights movements.

But the Tea Partiers seemingly want to add a “reverse” gear to popular constitutionalism, for they seek the restoration of a Constitution that would reimpose limits on the reach of federal public policy, no matter how popular it may prove to be with American democratic majorities. Goldstein concludes that the “Tea Party movement advances a broad anti-democratic agenda that seeks to rein in democracy by preventing majorities from enacting a large array of regulatory measures that have long been understood to be available through ordinary politics.” By seeking constitutional restoration, the movement “expresses strong disdain for democracy, arguing that the nation is facing catastrophe due to the excesses of democracy, in which strict limits on governmental powers have been abandoned.”

A democratic movement devoted to reimposing anti-democratic constitutional limits on the popular will: Is this simply another of the necessarily incoherent, self-contradictory impulses we have come to expect from a movement that is, in historian Jill Lepore’s characterization, both deeply anti-historical and anti-intellectual?

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