The Atlantic

Constitutional Patriotism and the Threat of Tribalism

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

As a contentious confirmation hearing for a US Supreme Court nominee grabs the national spotlight, a more serious question looms about the state of American democracy. Is it fading? Does anyone care? Can democracy survive?

A pair of Yale law professors say the way for democracy to survive is to return to “constitutional patriotism.” “We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements,” they write in an article published in the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic.

The challenge, according to Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, is that “Americans have come to view the Constitution not as a statement of shared principles, but as a cudgel with which to attack their enemies.”

That’s regrettable, they argue, because the Constitution was the vehicle that created a nation out of colonies, a mix of nationalities and diverse, often warring religions.

“The Constitution managed to overcome these divisions,” Chua and Rubenfeld said. “The way it dealt with religion is illustrative. Colonial America had not embraced tolerance; on the contrary, the dissenters had become persecutors. Virginia imprisoned Quakers. Massachusetts whipped Baptists. Government-established churches were common, and nonbelievers were denied basic civil and political rights.

“But in a radical act, the Constitution not only guaranteed religious freedom; it also declared that the United States would have no national church and no religious tests for national office. These foundational guarantees helped America avoid the religious wars that for centuries had torn apart the nations of Europe.” 

The Constitution created a republic, in large part because founding father James Madison feared “rule by mob” as much as rule by tyrant. The Constitution reflected the viewpoint of the Enlightenment that wise men (they were all men in those days), separated from “local passions,” would make wise decisions. That’s how we got the Electoral College.

Madison and other founding fathers also loathed partisanship, but the Constitution they created did little to prevent the formation of political parties and factions. The founders themselves became ardent partisans.

Many of the same animating issues of those days persist today: racial divisions, farm versus factory, South versus North, the elite versus working class. Tribalism seems more intense now, Chua and Rosenfeld say, because a white majority is coming to an end, income inequality is growing and the news media is omnipresent.

“In these conditions,” the authors explain, “democracy devolves into a zero-sum competition, one in which parties succeed by stoking voters’ fears and appealing to their ugliest us-versus-them instincts.”

Instead of serving as a uniting set of principles, the Constitution has become its own punching bag. Progressives attack it as “irredeemably stained” by its initial compromise over slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. demanded racial justice promised in the Constitution. Now, constitutional protections such as freedom of speech, religious liberty and property rights are dismissed as dehumanizing, discriminatory and structurally unjust.

Political conservatives are “beginning to reject core constitutional principles,” Chua and Rubenfeld note, pointing to President Trump’s declaration that the news media is the “enemy of the people.”

Even the concept of “being American” is up for debate. Some see national identity in racial, ethnic or religious terms, Chua and Rubenfeld observe. Birthright citizenship has been questioned. Being of European descent or being Christian are offered as marks of being American. Chua and Rosenfeld strongly disagree:

“This trend runs counter to the Constitution’s foundational ideal: an America where citizens are citizens, regardless of race or religion; an America whose national identity belongs to no one tribe.

“America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.”

Chua and Rubenfeld say there are lessons for both the tribal right and tribal left. Defending the Constitution requires more than “flag-waving” by the right; it requires dedication to constitutional principles of equality. The Constitution can’t simply be dismissed by the left as a “smokescreen for oppression;” it must be seen as the “most inclusive form of governance in world history,” even if many of the Founding Fathers were also slaveowners.

The constitutional challenges facing the nation at this time are serious. But democracy’s only route to survival, Chua and Rubenfeld contend, may be through rededication to the constitutional principles that got us this far.

“For all its flaws, the United States is uniquely equipped to unite a diverse and divided society. Alone among the world powers, America has succeeded in forging a strong group-transcending national identity without requiring its citizens to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.”

You can be Irish American, Syrian American or Japanese American, but if you live in France or Germany, you can only be French or German. That’s a lot more than a semantic difference.


How to Make an Impossible Presidency Bearable and Successful

John Dickerson of CBS News wrote the cover story for The Atlantic that explores whether the modern US presidency is too big for any individual leader. There aren’t many answers for how to shrink the job or enlarge the men and women who occupy the White House.

John Dickerson of CBS News wrote the cover story for The Atlantic that explores whether the modern US presidency is too big for any individual leader. There aren’t many answers for how to shrink the job or enlarge the men and women who occupy the White House.

John Dickerson isn’t the first or last to wonder in print whether the US presidency has outgrown a single occupant.

In the cover article for the latest edition of The Atlantic, Dickerson contrasts today’s outsized view of the US presidency with the James Polk era, when the wife of the 11th President of the United States insisted bands played “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room – so people would recognize him.

Dickerson, who is now part of the CBS Morning News team, says the problems President Donald Trump seems ill-equipped to deal with in the Oval Office may be a reflection of the growing difficulty of one man – or one woman – to represent the best interests of 327 million citizens while managing 2 million employees in the federal government (not counting US military personnel).

Ivana Trump, one of the ex-wives of President Trump, confirms Dickerson’s thesis. She says Trump loves his personal freedom and feels trapped by all the demands on the President, including reading mounds of material about virtually every subject and corner of the world. Trump didn’t even know his namesake son was being divorced until his ex-wife told him during one of their monthly calls.

The demands on modern Presidents have led others to question the human capacity of a single person to fill the job. Jeremi Suri’s “The Impossible Presidency” traces how the presidency has advanced from George Washington, who was assumed above pedestrian politics, to today when Presidents must be commander-in-chief, world leader and a political wunderkind. The presidency was a radical idea hatched by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to be an “impartial, fair, forward-looking and unifying” force to guide the nation as a “model of virtuous behavior.” If anyone like that exists today, he or she probably couldn’t get elected as dog catcher, let alone President of the United States.

The talents required for a President are sprawling. They must be the war chief, preside over national sorrow and divine how to manage the economy, pretty much full-time on television – and now Twitter. Every misstep is magnified. Nothing is off-limits. Every problem sooner or later finds itself under the porte-cochére of the White House.

It is an interesting historical footnote that Washington never slept a night in the White House, John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House while it still was under construction. His impressions were less than superlative. Many modern presidents have referred to the White House as a prison. Trump compared it to a third-rate hotel. It would seem the digs don’t detonate the sparks of ambition to become President.

Which raises the question, why do people run for President? They tell supporters they want to make a difference, but they must realize the odds are stacked against them, especially when a President from one party serves with a Congress controlled by the other party. The founding fathers saw the wisdom of separation of powers, but they probably didn’t anticipate as much friction in the wheels of government as we witness today.

Dickerson lays much of the blame for dysfunction at the collective hands of the presidency. Since Andrew Jackson, American Presidents have become more powerful, more visible and more outgunned. They command an army that increasingly has become a covert operation. They appear on television in the Oval Office and make promises, which they often are unable to keep. They oversee a sprawling administration they can hardly contemplate, let alone manage. For the record, Jackson was an activist President trying to shrink the federal government, especially the National Bank.

If the problem with the presidency is obvious, solutions are opaque. Some have called for the United States to adopt a system closer to Britain’s parliamentary system, with a prime minister chosen by the controlling party. Others have emphasized the importance of bringing a competent team to Washington, DC to manage the levers of power. Still others have said government should be run more like a business.

The presidency is unlikely to morph into a prime minister that must seek approval, symbolic or otherwise, from the sovereign. Presidential teams are increasingly hard to assemble and keep in place for even a single term. The skills it takes to succeed in business may not be synonymous with what it takes to lead the nation. A CEO can give orders; a President has to find delicate balances on issues such as nuclear weapons that never reach the desk of a business executive.

In his book, Suri said Franklin Roosevelt was able in relative leisure to conduct war after Pearl Harbor. “Twenty years later, even as John F. Kennedy was confronting nuclear Armageddon in the form of the Cuban missile crisis, he was struggling to find time to deliberate with his closest advisers. His calendar was packed. The problem: a massive expansion of presidential power and responsibility.”

Dickerson concurs. He recalls how in 1938 some 100 demonstrators dressed up as Paul Revere and carried signs saying American didn’t want a dictator, a response to the first major reorganization of the executive branch since 1787. The reorganization was the result of a study commissioned by Roosevelt who basically said, “I need help.”

Since then, the world of Presidents has gotten a lot more intense. Nowadays, Presidents are held responsible for federal agents unable to provide emergency housing for hurricane victims. Maybe Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” sign needs some editing.

If skeptics need evidence, Dickerson said they should scan the 300 photos of Barack Obama taken by White House photographer Pete Souza that shows the President who hosts endless meetings, comforts wounded soldiers, negotiates with world leaders and high-fives kids in Halloween costumes.

“The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet,” Dickerson writes. “Meanwhile, the President lives in a most peculiar unreality. His picture is on almost every wall of his workplace. The other walls contain paintings of the men who achieved greatness in his job, as well as those who muddled through. It’s like taking a test with your competition’s scores posted around you.”

His best advice for a future successful President: Empower his or her Cabinet. Study up to hit the road running. Concentrate on a few well-chosen goals. Force Congress to do its job. Claim some personal down time. Those steps won’t make the presidency less challenging, but it might help a future officeholder do the job in ways that transcend partisanship.


Paul Ryan and the Wikipedia War

Paul Ryan's selection as Mitt Romney's running mate ignited a war on Wikipedia over whether it was relevant to note his high school voted him as the biggest brown noser. Photo by Gage Skidmore.The selection over the weekend of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Republican running mate  touched off a wave of pro and con commentary. None was more pitched than a series of edits and counter-edits to Paul Ryan's Wikipedia page.

The focus of the Wikipedia Wars quickly zeroed in on a 1988 reference in Ryan's high school yearbook that listed him as the "Biggest Brown-Noser."

Ryan sympathizers swept in to scrub the reference as irrelevant, but the vigilant opposition countered and put back the brown-nose reference, declaring it was relevant. The battle waged on with hundreds of revisions, including mention that Ryan was prom king his senior year.

Actually, a spate of Wikipedia edits in a politician's profile has now become a semi-official perch to judge whether a vice presidential candidate's stock is rising or falling. 

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber said reporters staked out the various Wikipedia pages of leading vice presidential candidates to see which one had the most editorial activity, a clue to who might get the nod. She noted that short-listers Rob Portman, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Ryan each had about the same amount of pre-announcement editing.

This was in sharp contrast, Garber said, to 2008 when Sarah Palin's Wikipedia page was edited 68 times the day before John McCain's surprise announcement of her as his running mate.

Political mischief-maker Stephen Colbert, perhaps miffed because he wasn't on anyone's short list, openly encouraged people to "go on Wikipedia and make as many edits as possible to your favorite VP contender." Wikipedia locked down the pages of the short-listers, which sucked the air out of Colbert's party.