04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Constitution and the Tea Baggers

Earl Babbie, the distinguished sociologist and my good friend, sent the following missive to his local newspaper:

John Smith (name changed) in his 2/21/2010, letter,
"God in the Marketplace," takes offense at the idea
of the U. S. Constitution as a living document "that
needs to evolve with the changing times."

Repudiating the view of the Constitution as an evolving
document would come as especially bad news for women,
African-Americans, and renters, since they were
disempowered in the original document.

Mr.Smith should also realize that without the 22nd
Amendment, Bill Clinton would be serving his fifth term
as president, which I'm guessing would upset Mr. Smith,
even though the budget would be balanced, and there would
be no U.S. troops in Iraq.

Beautifully put. The Constitution, while a remarkable document with many astute, even noble ideas, is far from perfect. As Professor Babbie noted, an absolute majority of our population--then and now--including all women and African-Americans of both sexes, was blocked from citizenship. It was also written at a time when electricity was an experiment that Ben Franklin was working on, and it took months for a message to get from London to New York. Our guiding light, therefore, is a work that while retaining many crucial concepts, has benefited from revisions. Would any male like to tell his wife she cannot vote, or explain to a black colleague or neighbor why we should restore slavery, because these ideas were part of what the Constitutional Convention approved?

Folks like the letter writer above seem to be advocating a fundamentalist interpretation of the Constitution, but I think they are asking for something much larger. And they bear listening to.

My sense of their position is that it has little to do with national documents. They seem to be calling for an end to complexity, a return to a simpler world, where the U.S. was the only great country in the world, where we all bought GM cars. And where the president had an Anglo-Saxon name that rolled off the tongue.

Thus, I think that what America is really experiencing is one of its perennial waves of anti-modernism. I don't think Mr. Smith really wants to restore every feature of the original draft of our nation's bible. I do, however, believe he is uncomfortable with a non-white chief executive. The computer, also, may be a fun gadget, but it complicates our lives; many folks still can't figure out the basics, and in this new economy, don't have the skills for employment. A recent article on the troubled job situation in the New York Times highlighted a woman in her fifties who had worked all her adult life, holding sales and clerical jobs. Laid off, she was stuck with a high school diploma and no computer skills, and hasn't been able to land anything for many months. For her, the older world--America's past--was a better place.

Thus, I am revising a point I made in earlier blogs. I don't think the hysterical reaction to President Obama is completely about race. Yes, there is a big component of racism there, but there is also the issue of a changing America, of which Mr. Obama is the most prominent symbol. But there are many, many more revisions, some big, some small. When I was a kid every cowboy had a Colt pistol and a Winchester rifle. But the former makes only a few collectors' items, and the later went out of business, with a Belguim company picking up the leavings. What would Roy or Hoppy say?

There are a host of changes going on in our tumultuous era, some to our benefit, some not. But many Americans are troubled by all of them. And they seek out simple, fundamentalist solutions, not really as a specific remedy, but as a way of expressing anger and frustration at the world around them, and what is happening to it.