The way we talk, the way we stand, the way we dance or sing—all are influenced by the laws of our land and the principles behind them, and our laws and principles spring from these two documents [the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence].Was it (a) Gene Hackman as Kevin Keeley, the naively moralistic senator in The Birdcage, or (b) Larry Arnn, author of The Founders' Key? Don’t feel bad if you can’t tell the difference. What Hackman played for laughs, Arnn presents in pathetic earnest. While Arnn says little that is actually incorrect, he unfortunately spotlights the core problems with much of today’s political discourse.
Arnn believes that America’s foundational documents form a continuum that time and changing society cannot break. The principles Jefferson voiced in the Declaration, Madison made practical in the Constitution. To honor one, we must respect the other, and this mutuality makes America’s political framework immune to social upheaval. Our foundation stands outside history, true for all ages, and cannot change.
I don’t dispute this premise. Though it feels incomplete (where does America’s first misguided constitution, the Articles of Confederation, fit in Arnn’s continuum?), it is at least useful. The problem arises in how Arnn applies it, making strange, baseless claims about how those who disagree with him try to consign one document or the other to history’s wastepaper bin.
Arnn claims this divide began with Franklin Roosevelt, who “divorced” the documents. He doesn’t say how FDR did this, or justify the claim in any way, or provide any source notes, except on one ancillary quote. I presume he means something regarding the New Deal, which conservatives for decades have decried as unconstitutional. Bur rather than explain his claim, Arnn simply asserts it, and walks away.
He extends this to contemporary politics, reducing Constitutional arguments for universal health care to a single infantile outburst from Nancy Pelosi. Arnn addresses few contemporary issues, but those he does address come almost exclusively from the Obama administration, suggesting (without saying) that Obama’s agenda is manifestly unconstitutional. But he approaches this claim only obliquely.
Most of Arnn’s argument consists of carefully unpacking these two documents, which non-lawyers often study only fleetingly. I enjoyed Arnn’s explication, because he places the documents, and their dated language, in a firm context. I remember Eighth Grade Civics, when I learned these documents as high-minded principles. Not so, says Arnn: these are practical truths that provide both force and boundaries to our body politic.
The problem is not Arnn’s scholarship, which is robust, but his application. Arnn attributes much recent governmental confusion to diminishing respect for our documents. This diminishment, in turn, he blames on “academics,” “modern thinkers,” and “the extensively educated.” Arnn is president of Hillsdale College. One wonders what education students receive at a school whose president disparages “academics.”
Arnn also sees the past, in important ways, as different from the present. He concedes that the Constitution is rife with “compromises,” naming specifically its tapdancing around slavery. But these compromises, in his mind, are now resolved. All meaningful problems have been excised from the Constitution, and we should stop fighting.
Were I staging a counterclaim, I would acknowledge that Arnn’s historical explication is mostly spot-on. It is both concise (less than 125 pages) and detailed, without expounding in tedious legalese. His inclusion of the full Declaration, Constitution, five Federalist Papers, and a Madison essay make testing his veracity both easy and edifying.
But then I would say that universal health and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, two contemporary developments Arnn calls unconstitutional, have secure constitutional footing. Consider Article I, Section 8: “Congress shall have the Power To... pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” Or the Declaration, which demands “Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
No, the Constitution does not call for universal health care. But the Framers wrote in 1789, when “medicine” mainly meant bloodletting and amputation. They also don’t call for NASA, the Interstate Highway System, or the Manhattan Project. But they built a foundation sophisticated enough to encompass our constantly changing world.
Arnn’s arguments probably make sense to readers who already agree with his claims. But in terms of advancing current debate, it’s a non-starter. It uses claims that were wheezy when I started following politics in 1989. It’s half of a good argument, and half talk-radio-style innuendo. I just don’t see it making much of a difference.