It has become commonplace these days to say that America is in a time of crisis. We fear terrorism. The wars we launched in response to terrorism have descended into frustrating carnage abroad while, at home, we are engaged in a domestic struggle to find the proper line between needed security and our treasured liberty. There is sense that we are losing our way.
But there another thought that could provide both perspective and solution. Crisis is nothing new for us as a nation. We have been down the road of crisis before. We have faced and overcome much worse. The framers anticipated these moments and they gave us the tools for working through them, if we will remind ourselves of their wisdom and their invention.
Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. What a wonderful bit of Jeffersonian poetry. But we think something less dramatic, but perhaps harder in its own way, is needed right now. We as Americans need to tend our own garden. We need to renew not just our faith but our understanding of the system the Framers gave us. That understanding requires more than some sound bites about liberty and freedom. We need to embrace that our liberty and freedom flow directly from less glamorous but still vital ideas, such as compromise, and checks and balances, and representation and process. A dash of humility would not hurt either.
We paid insufficient attention to these values in the last few years. Partisan and ideological determination overwhelmed the search for consensus and common ground. Again, as we have before, we are learning that we make mistakes as a country when we do not follow the political processes and principles the framers laid out. This is not the first time that has happened.
Perhaps, it can be the last (for at least a long time).
Two of our most important modern Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, each saw the importance of renewing our understanding of American Constitutional government.
Roosevelt became President in the middle of the worst crisis of American Democracy since the Civil War. The link between the American political system and its economic success had snapped. Around the world, dictatorships of the left and the right were on the rise. There were people who came to FDR-- serious, important people-- to advise him that he might have to take authoritarian powers himself. Looking back we came much closer than many people realize to the loss of our democracy. But we did not lose it, thanks to the resolve of FDR and the strength in the American people of what we have come to describe as our Constitutional conscience. Four years later Roosevelt, in his first fireside chat of his second term as President said he hoped the American people had reread their Constitution in the last few weeks. "Like the bible," he said, "it ought to be read again and again."
Ironically, Roosevelt said this in a speech in which he argued for a plan to weaken the Supreme Court and strengthen the power of the Presidency and the Congress by putting more of his appointees on the Court. It is a testament to the strength of our Constitutional conscience that Roosevelt's way of arguing for this plan was to present it as a defense of the Constitution, not an infringement of it. The system stopped him anyway and even without these expanded powers he guided the country out of Depression. The court packing plan he outlined in that fireside chat has vanished into history. It turns out that the more important notion of that speech was Roosevelt's insistence that we reconnect with the Constitution regularly.
Half a century later, Ronald Reagan was saying farewell after eight years as President. He had come to office in the midst of a crisis of confidence. Watergate, stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the residue of the 60's had combined to shake Americans' faith in their country. Reagan had worked with considerable success to rebuild that faith. As he said farewell he took pride in that accomplishment.
But he recognized that the job was only partly done:
This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much and it won't last unless it is grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over thirty five or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.
Roosevelt and Reagan are the touchstone President's of the American Century. In some ways they could not represent more different political moments. The first brought a powerful centralized federal government into our domestic lives. The other drew the line to limit it. Yet across the half century that separated them they each affirmed the centrality of connecting Americans to their democratic heritage.
"So we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important," said Reagan. He concluded: "If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual."
We agree. Indeed, we think we owe it to the Framers and all succeeding Americans who have struggled for the Constitution to renew our connection to our own history. But even more, we owe it to the future, which will be shaped by our actions.
There is a strong sense we have become selfish and self-involved as a people. It is hard to say whether we are more self interested than Americans at the time the Constitution was written. It was written because the Framers thought we were very selfish and they decided they could not fight human nature, only harness it. That was the genius of their system. It accepted us for who we are and yet still offered the optimistic vision that we could, as a nation, compromise our differences to agree to do great and good things.
We are all for ideas to make us less selfish or self-interested. But we are with the Framers in doubting that human nature can be fundamentally changed.
But they were right that our more selfish impulses can be channeled. Americans throughout our history have understood that it was in their own interest, ultimately, to preserve this system that balanced everyone's demands. That understanding is what we mean by our Constitutional conscience. It is what the historian Sean Wilentz means when he describes the need for coalitions that cut across lines of wealth power and interest in order to protect our fragile democracy. It is noble to try to make people different. We admire those who try. But politics is the art of the possible. The Framers made it possible for us to live together in liberty and community. The 220 year history of our Constitution is a history of Americans repeatedly rekindling our belief that our own interests are served by this system that grants extensive liberty in exchange for willingness to compromise and tolerate differences. We need to rekindle that belief once more.
If we have one message, it is this: there is nothing about our past success that guarantees our future success. Each generation must do that for itself. We believe this is a hopeful message, because we are not alone in our struggle. We have been given a great gift and with it a great responsibility. We are the inheritors of the longest democratic tradition in the world. Americans still hold in great respect the men who began that tradition and the men and women who carried it forth and bequeathed it to us. That respect is a resource for us now. What we have tried to communicate is that the struggles we are having, the frustrations we are feeling, are exactly the struggles and frustrations the Framers anticipated when they designed our democracy. We can lean on them and their experience. By reaching backward to them and their ideas, we can move forward.
Introduction adapted from Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes' The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved our Country and Why It Can Again. (Bloomsbury 2007).