A number of good conservatives, including fellow American Spectator columnists Joseph Lawler and Jim Antle, have rightly been discussing and praising a recent National Review article by Ramesh Ponnuru defining "constitutionalism" and defending Texas Gov. Rick Perry's general approach to constitutional issues. Lawler ended by writing that "the next step" for Ponnuru would be to define specifically what conservative constitutionalism means.
Fortunately, that job already has been done just this month, exceedingly well, by conservative movement stalwarts Richard Viguerie and Mark Fitzgibbons. The two have produced a new, freely downloadable online pamphlet titled "The Law That Governs Government: Reclaiming the Constitution from Usurpers and Society's Biggest Lawbreaker." (Full disclosure: I provided, without remuneration, some very minor editing assistance to the project.) That "biggest lawbreaker," write Viguerie and Fitzgibbons, is American government itself, which repeatedly acts outside the bounds of the Constitution, which they correctly and cleverly call "the law that governs government" -- or at least is intended to govern, meaning to restrict, the government, but all too often without success.
"Government has become a bully to the very people it is supposed to protect and keep free," they write. (I wrote more on this subject this week here.) It has "injected itself into nearly every aspect of private affairs, and has taken an excessive, intrusive and omnipotent view of what are public matters. Given the vast and unilateral authority it claims to have over so much of society and property, government has unmatched opportunity for lawbreaking. It makes and rigs the rules in its favor…. After all, who's going to prevent the government from breaking the law? The government has more resources, and is bigger and more powerful than any of its victims. Plus, it has what private lawbreakers do not have: the power to control and change the rules of the game, and with penalties of law on its side."
The authors and Ponnuru agree that the left has abandoned constitutionalism. Here's Viguerie and Fitzgibbons: "The political establishment disregards and shows contempt for the notion that the Constitution is the law that binds them." Here's Ponnuru: "[P]rogressives have been far more likely than conservatives to express impatience with the whole constitutional scheme of limited government; and… progressives have long sought, often successfully, and still seek to change the Constitution without going to the trouble of formally amending it." Or, as Lawler once described the liberals' attitudes, "[W]ho would want to have to consider whether one of our biggest social programs is in accord with our founding documents? Who wants to worry about whether the laws of the land have any bearing on what the government does? Let's just go about our business and not get wrapped up in it."
Granted, there are some rare modern liberals who sincerely profess to be bound by the Constitution's actual text. Fine. They still read it wrongly. This is where Viguerie and Fitzgibbons, in one sentence, distinguish constitutional conservatism from constitutional liberalism: "Our Constitution is what enables our exceptionalism by securing our liberties." Modern liberals would choke on the combination of the two key words in that sentence, namely "exceptionalism" and "liberties" (in the sense, for the latter, of protections against government rather than benefits, tangible or intangible, doled out by government). The Constitution is a document by and for Americans, solely (i.e. "exceptionalism"), to keep governments from violating liberties that existed from time immemorial by God's grace without any government at all. The political left has done great damage by conflating "liberty" with "rights" and then by redefining "rights" to include positive demands on government's beneficence -- which in turn means that government must assert the power necessary to be able to provide such beneficence. And, worse, to define, by fiat, what "rights" it will deign to provide -- or impose -- next.
To digress, former Bush administration official Tim Goeglein in his new book Man in the Middle provides a succinctly comprehensive description of the conservative belief system that Viguerie and Fitzgibbons' constitutionalism surely would embrace in most or all particulars:
The essential nature of twenty-first century American conservatism is a view that the federal government is too large and should be relimited; that governments like families should live within their budgets; that the market economy is the road to prosperity and is consistent with human nature; that our defense budget must be robust in defense of our liberty; that above all we need to preoccupy ourselves with the moral framework of our freedom; and that we need to preserve the values of Western civilization in the Greco-Roman but especially the Judeo-Christian traditions as the bulwark of virtue that nurtures freedom.
As Viguerie and Fitzgibbons explain, in what is no mere intellectual exercise but instead a stirring (and fairly detailed) call to political arms, what is needed is a "constitutional conservative push back against government lawbreaking." They humbly offer numerous suggestions for how to conduct such a push-back. (Hint: Individual citizens must be politically and civically active, and vigilant.) Throughout, they insist that the Constitution is no mere plaything for lawyers but instead something that everyday Americans can and must read, understand, and safeguard.
As Ponnuru reminds us, conservatives should understand that reclaiming the Constitution will "require a great deal of public deliberation and support before the change can occur." In that spirit, Viguerie and Fitzgibbons are right to insist that "the constitutional conservative movement is the last and best chance to save America, and what you can do to reclaim your individual freedoms, protect your property rights, and keep America secure and prosperous for generations to come."