Some right-wing jurists, most notably Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, advocated "originalism," insisting that constitutional powers should apply only to what the Founders had in mind at the time. The Right ignored the clear record that the Founders intended their governing structure to meet both their immediate needs and the distant interests of their "posterity."
Indeed, if there was any true "originalism," it was that the Constitution should be sufficiently dynamic to cope with any number of anticipated and unanticipated challenges that might confront the nation. As the discussion about canal building shows, Madison, Washington and other key framers were pragmatists.
Yet, while the Right was bending the founding narrative to its purposes, the Left largely dismissed the importance of this debate, perhaps in part because the Left tends to disdain many Founders as slave-owning aristocrats who hypocritically denied their precious "unalienable rights" to women, blacks, Indians, the poor and many others.
While that surely was true, the nation's founding narrative retains a strong mythic appeal to many Americans -- and the Right's twisting of the history has proved a powerful tactic to rally many middle- and working-class Americans, particularly white men, to the Tea Party cause and to the Republican Party.
Believing they're channeling the true spirit of the Founders, many of these average Americans end up siding with ultra-rich plutocrats who see an effective and democratized federal government as the last obstacle to their total domination of the United States.
Thus, the Tea Partiers and their allies fight: to let Wall Street banks operate as recklessly as they wish; to let health insurance companies deny coverage to sick people; to let rich investors pay lower tax rates than their secretaries; to let billionaires buy up the political process through Super-PACs; to let companies outsource jobs; to let industry despoil the environment; and to slash life-saving federal programs like Medicare, food stamps and Social Security.
The "logic" behind this "populist" support for the interests of the rich is that many average folk think they are engaged in a principled stand for "liberty" -- with the federal government their oppressor, standing in for the British Crown in 1776. That's why the Tea Partiers wave "Don't Tread on Me" flags and dress up in Revolutionary War costumes.
Simply put, these Tea Partiers have been fooled by a well-funded propaganda campaign tricking them by substituting a false narrative about the nation's founding and thus enlisting their help in dismantling the Great American Middle Class.
Building the Middle Class
Many of these Americans have forgotten a basic truth: that the Great American Middle Class was largely a creation of the federal government and its policies dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. For many Tea Partiers, it is more satisfying to think that they or their parents climbed the social ladder on their own, that they "didn't need no guv-mint help."
But the truth is that it was government policies arising out of the Great Depression and carried forward through the post-World War II years by both Republican and Democratic presidents that created the opportunities for tens of millions of Americans to achieve relative comfort and economic security.
Those policies ranged from Social Security and labor rights in the 1930s to the GI Bill after World War II to Medicare in the 1960s and to government investments in infrastructure and technological research over many decades. Even in recent years, despite right-wing efforts to choke off money to government research, federal programs -- such as the Internet -- have brought greater efficiency to markets, as well as wealth to many entrepreneurs.
So, the Right's success in dismantling the New Deal, piece by piece, and shoving more and more Americans down the social ladder has hinged on the demonization of "guv-mint." This message -- often wrapped in patriotic hoopla and coded appeals to bigotry -- were delivered most effectively by the personable Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Yet, while rallying many working-class "Reagan Democrats" to his banner, Reagan's most important policy was slashing taxes on the rich. Under Reagan's "supply-side economics," the top marginal tax rate -- what the richest Americans pay on their highest tranche of income -- was more than halved, from 70 percent to 28 percent.
Still, the promised surge in "supply-side" growth never really materialized and a key result was the dramatic rise in the national debt. Another less obvious change was the incentivizing of greed, which had been discouraged by the much higher marginal tax rates of the post-World War II years, from Dwight Eisenhower (when the top marginal tax rate was 90 percent) through Jimmy Carter (with a 70 percent top rate).