Does the Tea Party understand the Constitution?

The Right constantly claims devotion to our founding documents. The problem: Its policies completely violate them

Topics: U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, The Tea Party, The Right, Conservatism, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Editor's Picks,

Does the Tea Party understand the Constitution?Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Stacy Bengs)

Last month, 20 House Republicans, along with staffers from nearly 40 congressional offices attended the first meeting of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus. The three premises behind the Caucus, according to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who emceed the event, are “we’re taxed enough, we spend less than we take in, and we follow the Constitution.” This purported devotion to the founding documents echoes the themes reverberated at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March, where Sarah Palin and former Rick Santorum declared that the Declaration of Independence has given America “a set of principles and values” — and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) urged his party to respect the individual “by going forward to the classical and timeless ideas enshrined in our Constitution.”

Naturally, these pronouncements raise a fundamental question — namely, which governmental policies and programs are consistent with the core values and ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Are they the ones proposed by the Tea Party and conservatives? The Declaration of Independence proclaims that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men …” Slavery having been abolished and women enfranchised, Thomas Jefferson’s powerful words should be read to mean that all human beings are by nature equal as persons.

A student of classic Greek philosophy, Jefferson may have derived this insight from Plato: “All men are by nature equal, made all of the same earth by the same Workman, and however we deceive ourselves, as dear to God is the poor peasant as the mighty prince.” All people have rights inherent in their human nature including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all have bodies and brains. Although some people are smarter, better looking or more physically fit than others, we all need food, water, clothing and shelter to survive. But the mere satisfaction of our physical needs is not our ultimate goal. Our founding fathers learned from Aristotle that “happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It is a whole life well-lived and enriched by the cumulative possession of all the goods — health, sufficient wealth, knowledge, friendship and virtue — that a moral and ethical human being ought to desire.

Accordingly, John Adams believed “the happiness of society is the end of government.” Jefferson agreed, declaring that “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” The pursuit of happiness is dependent on, and calls for, governmental protection of our life and health. Viewed through the prism of the Declaration, then, universal background checks for gun purchases, health care reform legislation to cover the uninsured, child care, workplace safety, laws and regulations protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink, and measures to slow or reverse global warming that science tells us is threatening the health of our planet and its human inhabitants, are essential to protect our right to life and abet our pursuit of happiness.

Conservative Republican and Tea Party senators and representatives want to block, weaken, or abolish these programs even though they are consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the objectives of the Constitution, the Preamble of which includes ideals that were embedded in the Declaration: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Implicit in the Preamble is the assertion that no society in which we would want to live can exist without justice, civil peace, welfare and liberty. Toward these ends, Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”

The “general welfare” is an element in the common good that the government was created to serve. The critical question is how much should the government do to serve the common good and thereby secure for its citizens life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The Republican “Pledge to America” argues that Congress has ignored “the proper limits imposed by the Constitution.” It demands that the size of government be reduced, spending slashed, and taxes curtailed. The Tea Party “Contract from America” maintains that the “purpose of government should be limited to the protection of our liberties by administering justice and insuring our safety.” It asserts that government should not venture beyond these functions or attempt to increase its power over the marketplace and the economic decisions of individuals. These views echo the platform of the Libertarian Party, which emphasizes individual liberty in personal and economic affairs without interference from government. Libertarians place the highest value on liberty, and they want an unlimited amount of freedom even if the result is that some citizens are impoverished.

It must be remembered, however, that one of the purposes of the government according to the Constitution is to “establish justice.” Alexander Hamilton once asked, “Why has government been instituted at all?” His answer: “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act regulating financial markets and creating the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in the wake of the Great Recession of 2009, the implementation of which is being stymied by banks and financial institutions and their conservative supporters in Congress, is a perfect illustration of Hamilton’s point. Only when it is understood and agreed that greed at the harmful expense of others is not good — a concept not yet grasped by Wall Street and our representatives in Washington — will reason and justice prevail. Implicit in our founding documents and in the thinking of our founding fathers is the principle that there should be a balance between liberty and equality. Thomas Jefferson expressed it this way: “rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

How, then, should we resolve the conflict between the extremist proponents of liberty and equality? Conservative 20th century philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler proposed a definitive formula for achieving the appropriate balance in his 1981 book, “Six Great Ideas.” The nation’s founders, he wrote, recognized that “neither liberty nor equality is the prime value, that neither is an unlimited good, and that both can be maximized harmoniously only when regulated by justice.” We should have only as much liberty as justice allows, and society should strive for only as much equality of conditions as justice requires. The economic inequality that justice allows “consists in some having more wealth than anyone needs … but since the amount of wealth available for distribution is limited, no one should be in a position to earn by his productive contribution — to earn, not to steal or seize — so much wealth that not enough remains for distribution, in one way or another, to put all individuals on the base line of economic sufficiency.”

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In other words, justice requires that no individual or family be “seriously deprived, by destitution or dire poverty, of that minimal supply of economic goods that everyone needs … To this much everyone has a natural right.” Adler maintained that “the pursuit of happiness is our primary obligation.” He added, however, that we are also obligated to do what is right with regard to others and to the community. This is not a new concept, as one discovers when reading Jefferson’s version of the Bible (Matthew 25:34-36, New King James Version), which consisted only of the words of Jesus:

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you looked after Me; I was in prison and you came to Me … Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

We have enacted these precepts into law in the form of public assistance, food stamps, meals on wheels, low-income housing aid, heating assistance, income tax credits and other forms of help for those who have slipped below the poverty line or are seriously disabled. Regrettably, conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers have forced Congress to slash most of these social safety net programs in the belief that economic rights are not guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

It is true that economic rights were not a central concern in an 18th century society of self-sufficient farmers, artisans and slave plantations. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the abolition of slavery and the Industrial Revolution had totally transformed America. The mass production of a wide variety of goods raised the standard of living for a growing middle class. It also created a large class of low-paid workers struggling to subsist in squalid urban tenements. These conditions prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to recognize in 1910 that “the object of the government is the welfare of the people” and that the economic well being of laborers must be protected:

No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living and hours of labor short enough so that after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life with which we surround them.

In his message to Congress in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence … People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made …” He urged Congress to implement various economic rights — to a useful and remunerative job, adequate food and shelter, a decent home, adequate medical care, a good education, and protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment. Government programs that secure and implement these rights such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and federal funding to reform education, assist students, create jobs, boost energy efficiency, and repair the nation’s infrastructure — all under attack by the far Right, are consistent with the purposes and objectives of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These programs, along with all of the others mentioned in this article, safeguard our “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They also “form a more perfect union,” establish “justice,” promote “the general welfare,” and secure “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Unfortunately, we are still far from realizing these ideals of democracy. One in five Americans is unemployed or underemployed. More than 46 million people are living in poverty, and another 20 million barely subsist on Social Security. Over 1.5 million are homeless, and one in seven mortgages is in default or foreclosure. More than 17 million children lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. Over 48 million lack health insurance. These needy persons can expect little relief from conservative Republican and Tea Party representatives and senators who promise to stop “out of control spending” and reduce the size of government while at the same time insisting that the richest Americans and hugely profitable corporations continue to benefit from low effective rates of taxation and tax loopholes. Why? Because the wealthy individuals and anonymous organizations that support this agenda pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Congressional campaigns, and special corporate and industrial interests dedicate billions of dollars to lobbying.

The rich and super-rich who call the shots in Washington are not elected members of what Abraham Lincoln called our “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” They have not taken an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution. Yet, they exercise immense political power and have aborted and emasculated government programs on which millions of Americans depend for their survival. To prevent this political misuse of wealth, justice requires such reforms as public funding of electoral campaigns, shortening of the campaign season and assuring candidates equal time on television. To secure political liberty, justice requires an electoral system that does not impose unreasonable and unnecessary impediments to the right to vote, such as overly burdensome identification requirements and unduly restrictive times and places for the exercise of the franchise.

The “Pledge to America” and the “Contract from America” challenge us to recall our beginnings as a nation and revisit the ideas and ideals that form the basis of our government and society. This analysis is mandatory because, as Adler said, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the “American testament” and in relation to one another, “they are like the sacred scriptures of this nation.” There are even older scriptures, however, in the New Testament and the Torah that define the just and proper balance between the imperatives of liberty and equality (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, New Living Translation of the Bible; Exodus 16:18, Revised Standard Version of the Bible):

Of course, I don’t mean that you should give so much that you suffer from having too little. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help them. Then at some other time they can share with you when you need it. In this way, everyone’s needs will be met. Do you remember what the Scriptures say about this? “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

John D'Amico is a retired Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey. He has held elective office at the local, county and state levels, is a former State Senator, and also served as the Chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board.

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