BOOK REVIEW: Turning to founding document

DESIGNING A POLITY: AMERICA’S CONSTITUTION IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
By James W. Ceaser
Rowman and Littlefield, $35, 213 pages

“American exceptionalism” has found one of its best explainers in James W. Ceaser.His “Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice” is written with verve, erudition and a wide-ranging eye on the political world. Anyone who reads it will no longer feel amazement or surprise that the health care overhaul, the conduct of the Iraq war or many other hot-button issues are argued about in terms of its compatibility or incompatibility with a document that went into effect in 1789.

No one looks back to national beginnings as obsessively as Americans. (We don’t agree about what we see there, but that is another matter.) The Americans were the first to write down their Constitution, the first to deliberately plan a governmental structure instead of letting one evolve from custom or tradition. This unusual start has made us unusual.

Mr. Ceaser, a University of Virginia political theorist, reminds us that not just Tea Partyers but also liberals have been known to wave around copies of the founding charter and decry its betrayal. Liberal opponents of the war in Vietnam turned to the written text of the Constitution to try to pull U.S. policy toward ending that conflict. During the last administration, George W. Bush’s fiercest critics wanted to impeach him over the interrogation and detention of enemy fighters in Iraq. They charged him with multiple constitutional violations. So let’s appreciate the irony: Liberals participate in “American exceptionalism,” though they often mischaracterize it as bragging and say they want nothing to do with it.

No, it is not nationalistic smugness but a kind of dogged earnestness that is at the heart of American exceptionalism. The founding’s core proposition - that all human beings are created equal, with God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - seemed to people of other lands like an empty abstraction. They doubted a nation could be fashioned along the lines of that or any other theoretical proposition.

James Madison and company thought otherwise. They saw themselves as participating in a new “science of politics” that could “help sustain the new liberal democratic system they established,” Mr. Ceaser writes. Yet they knew making politics a science was not the same as making it easy. Allocating power so as to produce a just political order was an elusive goal. As Publius wrote in Federalist 37, “Questions daily occur in the course of practice, which prove the obscurity which reins in these subjects, and which puzzle the greatest adepts in political science.”

“Designing a Polity” tracks the intellectual and political battles that have arisen since the country began, taking time along the way to examine the pitfalls of our democracy and democracies generally. Mr. Ceaser’s look at demagogues past and present is compelling.

The fight to control the understanding of the Constitution has always been with us. Initially, the document’s authors wrestled with the Anti-Federalists over the proper understanding of the separation of powers. Since then, it has been misconstrued by a whole lot of people for a really long time. The misconstruction, whether by Anti-Federalists, Jeffersonian Republicans (who evolved into today’s Democrats), or Whigs (who evolved into today’s Republicans), was consistently in the direction of advocating the supremacy of the legislative branch as a way to limit the power of the executive branch. About 1950, according to Mr. Ceaser, political theorists began to clear away this view and reaffirm the constitutional prerogatives of the president.

The reason that “the Constitution managed to survive its own doctrinal misinterpretations” is that presidents went ahead and acted while paying lip service to the doctrine of legislative supremacy - which they usually said they were setting aside only because extraordinary circumstances demanded it. Meanwhile, however, “a strong, but still limited, presidency” was what the Founders originally designed. This should be food for thought for today’s conservatives. With confrontations looming between a Democratic president and a newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives, conservatives will likely think the actions Mr. Obama takes are wrong; they may want to think twice before they challenge his right to take them.

If there is obsessing on the home front about the principles that animate our body politic, this is happening abroad in spades. American exceptionalism causes resentment. This book shows Mr. Ceaser to be one of the foremost taxonomists of anti-Americanism in all of its political, philosophical and even psychological dimensions. As the last superpower standing after the demise of the Soviet Union, America is routinely called the world’s “hyperpower.”

One critic whom Mr. Ceaser quotes, an editor at Le Monde, has even accused the United States of “subjugate[ing] the world like no other empire has done in the history of humanity.” Mr. Ceaser’s comeback is a good one: Obviously Americans are not “holders of an empire in this sense,” because if that were the case, we sure wouldn’t “put up with the drumbeat of antagonistic commentary” issuing from Europe or the diatribes heard at the United Nations in New York the way we do. Even our forbearance is exceptional.

Lauren Weiner was a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates from 2007 to 2010.

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