[This review was published in the Fall issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 376-379.]
A Constitutional Conversation: Letters from an Ohio Farmer
Ashbrook Center, Ashland University
Ashbrook Press, 2011
This book emerges from an on-going project conducted by the Ashbrook Center in Ohio that has caused a series of weekly open letters to be sent to the United States Congress on issues relating to the U.S. Constitution. The first 31 of the letters are compiled here in an easily readable book of 95 pages, to which are added appendices reprinting the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The project is a continuing one, and letters subsequent to those contained in this book can be found at www.OhioFarmer.org. It is in keeping with the spirit of the book that the letters’ writers are unidentified, since that is the way things were done in the United States in the political pamphleteering in the late eighteenth century. The letters, written as though from “an Ohio farmer,” are reverential toward the U.S. founding documents and toward the tradition of limited Constitutional government that prevailed, for the most part, prior to the New Deal of the 1930s.
Although they express no certainty that it will fully occur, the writers sense that a paradigmatic shift is taking form in the United States: a shift away from the “flexible Constitution” viewpoint, which has prevailed for the past seventy years and which has given the national government almost unlimited powers. The movement, as they suppose it, is toward a reinstatement of the Constitution as a truly delimiting document that more narrowly defines the functions of the national government, revivifies the “separation of powers” doctrine that splits functions among the three branches of government, and breathes new life into the “division of powers” between the national government and the states. When the authors perceive such a shift, they remind us of the observation more than a century ago by Herbert Spencer about a similar, but opposite, shift: that in England until the middle of the nineteenth century it was considered progressive to remove governmental interventions into people’s lives, but that thereafter the tone shifted to a clamor for more and more political solutions.
The fact that such a change of direction took place in nineteenth century England shows that such seismic shifts can occur. Whether the move toward limited government that these letters envision will prove more than evanescent should (however unfortunate it may seem to the writers and to this reviewer) be viewed with skepticism. The letters are replete with wishful thinking. Major social facts stand in the way. There is a broad opinion-forming elite in the United States – the one that defines “political correctness,” but that is more all-pervasive than even that term suggests – that, within its own precincts, hardly considers the American “Tea Party’s” call for less government respectable. And if, as we think, the long secular trend toward increased government has come from an alliance of the main intellectual subculture with a variety of unassimilated or disaffected groups, that trend will hardly go away as the demographic composition of the United States continues to change to reflect the attitudes and interests of the many millions of immigrants who have been entering the country from the Third World.
As this review is written, the United States Supreme Court is hearing argument on the Constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare’). Given the current make-up of the Court, it is widely felt there is a possibility the Court will declare the Act unconstitutional. If it does, the authors of the Ohio Farmer letters will justifiably take that as important evidence that the redirection toward less government is occurring. It will be a mistake, however, to assume that the composition of the Court will not over time, given the factors we referred to in the preceding paragraph, move to the left, probably permanently. If that happens, a 2012 declaration of unconstitutionality will be the “last hurrah” of the limited-government school, not a harbinger of a long-term revival of the Constitution.
The letters are quietly but also intensely patriotic, showing a love for the United States as Americans traditionally have seen it. They are for this reason a significant contribution to the “conversation,” as the authors put it, that is going on in the United States. But they are for a certain segment of the population only. They run up against a hurdle that the writers may not fully sense. This is that more than one generation of young people have been raised in a mental environment that sees the America that existed before the Civil Rights Movement as befouled – most certainly not as anything to idealize. If those who have been raised and educated with that orientation bother to read what “the Ohio farmer” has to say, they will do so with a jaundiced eye, interposing an objection to almost every expression of admiration. This means that A Constitutional Conversation will not be received as the clarion call that it would hope to be. Only if the seismic shift that the authors hope for really occurs will the letters come to be seen as meaningful to large numbers of people. In the meantime, the letters can have some influence, perhaps, in seeking such a shift.
The book’s style is one of congenial reason, often cast lovingly in the language of historic Americanism. It reminds this reviewer of the talks he and his grandfather used to hear back in the 1950s at luncheons of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Unfortunately, much has happened in the world since the 1950s. It is no longer enough, if it ever was, for those who revere the American tradition to focus almost exclusively on “big government” as the problem. No doubt, to those who want a limited government this does remain a problem, one that is seen as getting worse. But these letters aren’t intellectually sufficient even in a discussion of that. The examination of Constitutional issues is superficial at best, showing little awareness of the intricacies and nuances. We are particularly struck by the absence of any mention of the famous Footnote Four in the 1938 decision in United States v. Carolene Products Company, 58 SCt 778. That footnote constituted a rewriting of the U.S. Constitution arguably as significant as the Fourteenth Amendment. It established the paradigm for Court decisions ever since, setting down a formulaic approach that would give “strict scrutiny” to certain things (most significantly to protect the rights of “insular and discrete minorities”) and only light scrutiny to most other acts of legislation and government. If something fell within the “strict scrutiny” category, there was virtually no chance it would be upheld; the lighter scrutiny, on the other hand, gave carte blanche to virtually all else. Among other things, this set the stage for the double-track system of law in the United States that has treated ethnic minorities one way and everybody else another. The Carolene Products rationale is best understood as a judicial adoption of the American Left’s great ideological shift that occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, when the intellectual subculture’s alliance with workers gave way to an alliance, as we have said, with all disaffected or unassimilated minorities, especially ethnic.
It is no small thing that the book does take to task the well-nigh ubiquitously held notion that the United States should be policeman and social worker to the world. President John Quincy Adams is quoted as having said almost two hundred years ago that it was not the function of the United States to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Adams saw that the world would furnish no end to monsters to combat, and argued that the United States would better serve the world by preserving itself and setting an example of free government. The authors agree fully with Adams.
Other major issues that are central to the American people’s well-being today are, however, left entirely out of the discussion. It is oddly out of place to rail against the welfare state while ignoring the revolutionary changes in human life that are impending from workerless technology and a global economy that undercuts so much American labor. No thought is given to the radical restructuring of government and society that this is going to necessitate, and to how that restructuring can be accomplished in a way most compatible with the traditional American values the writers favor. Nor is there any mention of the existential threat posed by the historically unprecedented influx into the United States of many millions of people from vastly different cultures. The result is that the letters, which hold themselves out in confident tone as containing a prescription for a sound America, leave even readers who are disposed to welcome them with a distressing feeling of intellectual insufficiency.
Dwight D. Murphey