Monday, July 5, 2010

Progressive Unconstitutionalism

Matthew Spalding notes that "in many ways, both minor and fundamental, the Constitution does not operate as it was intended and as it did operate for much of our history," citing the "vast disjunction between the Founders’ Constitution and the 'living' Constitution that is today virtually a dead letter" — Do We Still Hold These Truths? "The new progressive thinking was profoundly shaped by two revolutionary, anti-foundational concepts," he explains:
    First, the progressive view rejected outright the very idea, at the heart of the Founders’ way of thinking, of political thought and practice being guided by permanent principles. Deeply skeptical about any philosophical ideas that claimed to be true beyond their particular situation, the progressives held that there were no fixed truths—certainly no objective or unchanging standards of right to guide politics. All truth claims are contingent, merely personal “values” relative to other equally valid claims. It made no sense to say anything was a “self-evident” truth. This was a faulty assumption, they argued, and assuredly the wrong starting point for establishing a political system, especially one meant to be responsive to changing circumstances.

    The second anti-foundational concept is called “historicism.” According to this view, not only are ideas relative to each other but all ideas and their meaning (and status) are relative to their moment in time. As such, ideas are relative to the era in which they are constructed, and must constantly be adapted to various historical developments. This means that ideas of the past are relevant only to the past. What might have been suitable for one century inevitably becomes outdated in another, making the past inferior to the present and the present but a step on the way to the future. The problem with the American Founders, the new thinkers argued, is that they did not understand and account for this lack of permanence and the constant flux and change in all things.

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