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Is the Constitution Still Relevant?

By       Message Robert Parry       (Page 2 of 2 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Changing Reality

That the modern American Right twists historical reality, I suppose, should not come as a shock. After all, today's Right has organized itself around propaganda regarding current events, from talk radio to Fox News to ideological think tanks. So, why should anyone expect anything different about how the Right would deal with history?

The Right also understands that national mythology is a powerful force, very effective in manipulating Americans into believing they are standing with the Founders even if the history has to be falsified to achieve that emotional response. Many Tea Partiers, it seems, will eagerly eat up a stew of bad history served by the likes of Glenn Beck.

Thus, we have key chapters of that early history effectively expunged, such as the disastrous reign of the Articles of Confederation from 1777 to 1787. The Articles declared the 13 states "sovereign" and "independent" with the central government just a "league of friendship" with little power.

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Because of that original structure, the United States was lurching toward catastrophe by 1787, with a major revolt erupting in western Massachusetts (the Shays' Rebellion) and European powers plotting how to exploit divisions between the states and regions. General George Washington, in particular, worried that the hard-won independence of the new country was in jeopardy.

So, to understand what Washington, Madison and other key Framers were trying to do with the Constitution, you must first read the Articles of Confederation, i.e., what prompted the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Washington and Madison were so determined to correct the flaws of the Articles that they defied their instructions, which were to propose some changes to the Articles. Instead, they threw out the old system.

The Framers replaced the Articles and the emphasis on states' rights and a weak central government with nearly the opposite, a structure that made the federal government much more powerful and its law supreme across the land. Sovereignty was transferred to "We the People" and the states were left mostly with responsibility for local matters.

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At the time, opponents of the Constitution, known as the Anti-Federalists, were keenly aware of what Washington and Madison had engineered, and these skeptics fought fiercely against the federal power grab, just barely losing in several key states, such as Virginia, New York and Massachusetts.

A Revised Narrative

Yet, by recreating the Founding Narrative so it jumps from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 directly to the U.S. Constitution in 1787, the modern Right has learned that it can convince ill-informed Americans that the Constitution was devised as a states' rights document with a weak central government, when nearly the opposite was the case.

The key to the Right's false narrative is to delete (or ignore) the Articles of Confederation and thus eliminate what Washington and Madison were reacting against.

So, what the American people are now stuck with is a debate in which one side (the Left) largely dismisses the relevance of the Constitution (beyond some cherished individual rights) and the other (the Right) lies about what the document was designed to do. Thus, the nation finds itself in something between a muddle and a quandary.

The best path to firmer ground would seem to be, twofold: a serious effort to reclaim the real history of the Constitution from the charlatans on the Right and a recognition that the Constitution, as amended, creates an imperfect but still workable framework for democratic change, a rebuff to some on the Left.

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The reality is that the Framers did include broad and flexible powers in the Constitution, so future elected representatives could work their will on matters important to the "general Welfare." As already noted, the Commerce Clause was not limited by the Framers; it was restricted by the current majority of right-wing ideologues who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

And as for the Left, it should recognize that -- with some political changes, such as the expanded use of primaries and caucuses to select Democratic and Republican candidates, filibuster reform and some more public financing of campaigns -- the Constitution allows for a reasonably vibrant, though clearly imperfect, democratic process.

Today's political crisis can more accurately be blamed on the Right's well-funded propaganda machine which has succeeded in supplanting history and science with propaganda and disinformation -- and the failure of the Left and the Center to fight as hard for the truth as the Right fights for its fallacies.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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