How to really defend the Constitution

Stop by any gathering of more than two or three Republicans, and you’ll hear something repeated ad nauseum: “The only way we are ever going to get this country back on track is if we follow the Constitution.”

Such a belief is so fundamental to a conservative that it is now taken at its face as fact and repeated to cheers and head nods with no hesitation.

But missing from these exhortations to simply follow the wisdom of our country’s founding generation is an answer to a very important question: “Why?”

To most Americans, being boxed in by blind adherence to a set of rules written by men more than 200 years ago seems ridiculous. How could they — old, white, property-owning men who were primarily farmers from rural, agrarian, colonial America — have any idea how to set up rules for a younger, multicultural, urban, modern country?

They don’t believe that they could have, which is why they so easily ignore the Constitution. Advocates for radical social change believe the document has mostly served its purpose but that it only stands in the way of progress now.

Conservative irritation with this dismissal of our most important document may be justified, but telling a poor family that is trying to scrape together enough money to pay the rent and grocery bill, and that is being suffocated by health-care premium increases and squeezed by hikes in the price of gas, heating oil and food, that the solution to its problems is to “follow the Constitution” isn’t going to be convincing.

If, for instance, a family doesn’t really care if Obamacare is constitutional or not and only cares if it helps the family make ends meet, why would conservatives feel a message of unconstitutionality would be helpful? Maybe that family should care about the constitutionality of a law more than its perceived benefits to them, but that’s a pretty hard sell.

This is the same problem that shows up at Republican candidate youth forums, where prospective GOP leaders talk about income tax cuts as a way to improve their lives to kids who can barely scrape together a couple nickels to go to the movies that night and don’t really pay much in income taxes — or even notice what they do pay.

The point, broadly, is that the conservative movement doesn’t understand what is in the mind of the voters and can’t respond to it. It thinks that a belief in the Constitution as a solution for all of the country’s problems puts a person in some kind of morally superior, esoteric club for people who “get it” and that no explanation or rationalization is required.

The Constitution is not a holy relic, always to be obeyed without question, and venerated to such a level that lemming-like adherence to it becomes our actual message.

Thomas Jefferson himself said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” suggesting that a new revolution should happen about once a generation or so.

What conservatives really need to do is more than just be right about reverence for the Constitution. That is only half of what is necessary. We need to prove that we understand why we are right about that reverence.

It is time we stopped saying, “We need to follow what the Constitution says, and all our problems will be solved,” and instead begin saying, “The Constitution is just as relevant today as it was then, and here’s why.”

Without doing that, we will forever be subject to the human predilection of ignoring the rules as is convenient, because basic respect for and trust of constitutional principles will not exist.

Only by focusing on the logical, rational arguments that back up the relevance of the founding document will we ever get the American people to believe that it is a document worthy of the respect and obedience to it that conservatives want us all to share.

I believe in the Constitution to my very core and think we need to defend it now more than ever. That’s why I am begging conservatives everywhere to connect it to the real lives of real people, and show why it is actually a good way to help manage their lives and make for a better country.

Final thought: I want to thank from the bottom of my heart everyone who sent well wishes, prayers and support after they learned I was in the hospital with a broken back after I was involved in a serious car accident. I can’t say how much it all meant to me.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.