The Constitution: An Owner's Manual Without Directions

01/31/2017 09:02 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2017
Credit: Kalabai Yau/Shutterstock

When I teach my introduction to Political Science class about the Constitution, I tell them to think of it like an owner’s manual to an engine.

This owner’s manual breaks down the machine of government for us to understand: the three branches and how they relate; the bill of rights that protect our liberties; and the essential principles of federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.

Think of them like the pistons, valves, spark plugs, and other parts of an engine. The manual sets out our “constitutional specs,” as it were.

It tells us what our machine is capable of: how fast it can go (e.g. how quickly legislation moves); what type of fuel is most beneficial for its upkeep (e.g. civic participation); and still other parameters. As James Russel Lowell put it, the Constitution is a “machine that would go of itself.”

But there’s a catch: the constitutional owner’s manual doesn’t tell us how to use our machine.

It doesn’t advise against drunk driving. It doesn’t remind us to use the blinker when changing lanes. It doesn’t chastise us for not changing the oil every 3,000 miles. It doesn’t tell us that riding the clutch is a terrible idea, or that speeding is a great way to get us all killed.

We call these “best practices” many things: upkeep tips, the rules of the road. Common sense.

In politics, we call them political norms. They are the unwritten, but equally vital components, of a properly functioning government.

For now, the engine of government seems to chug along just the same as it always has. We have a president, a Congress, and (more or less) a Supreme Court. The president makes appointments and the Senate advises and consents. The federal system still stands. From a mechanical standpoint, we’re AOK.

But our political norms are in tatters.

We’re driving erratically: the current president tests policy through Tweets. He floats trade wars and civil liberties violations with reckless abandon.

We aren’t getting regular tune-ups or inspections: appropriations bills (the budget) are rare in Congress, and bipartisan legislation is rarer still. Partisan redistricting makes the latter increasingly unlikely.

We are riding the clutch: the Supreme Court still only has eight members, mostly because the Senate defied its own culture of affording President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing—even if it only would have been to vote him down. President Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, if confirmed would still not hear cases until October.

Political cultures are vital to the proper functioning of a constitutional democracy. They may be hard to describe, but they are harder still to build and maintain. And almost impossible to replace.

In Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis underscores just how fragile political cultures are. Only through dint of the Founders’ characters, and a heavy dose of good luck, did we come out with a deep commitment to the political principles taken for granted today.

The constitutional framework is a great bulwark of freedom, but it alone cannot protect American liberties. As I have said elsewhere, institutions are only as resilient as the people who staff them. Officials that do not abide by political norms may, intentionally or not, undermine effective governance.

In short, we may still be moving forward, but we’re tearing our engine apart. The longer this goes on, the more damage we will do. Some of it may be irreparable.

Machines can only take so much neglect. The same goes for government institutions.

One day, the nation will slam on the brake pedal expecting to prevent a genuine political crisis—only to realize that the brakes went long ago.

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