Monday, October 25, 2010

14th Nervous Breakdown

My last post noted that the coverage of the Delaware senate debates had unfairly characterized Christine O'Donnell's comments on the First Amendment.  Perhaps even more egregious, however, was the lack of attention given to another of O'Donnell's answers to a constitutional question.

O'Donnell was asked in the same debate if she agrees with calls by other Tea Party candidates to repeal all or part of the 14th, 16th, and 17th Amendments to the Constitution.  O'Donnell was quick to deny any interest in repealing the 17th amendment—which is not a bad idea for someone running for senate, since it is the amendment that gave the voters, rather than state legislators, the right to choose senators. (For an earlier discussion of this issue, see here.)

What is noteworthy is the rest of O'Donnell's response.  She did not know what either the 14th or 16th Amendments were.  Laughing nervously, she said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.”  Doing her best impression of Sarah Palin, she tried to laugh off her ignorance and quipped: “Fortunately, senators don’t have to memorize the Constitution. Can you remind me of what the other ones are?"

That's true enough, memorizing the Constitution isn't a requirement for office.  But when you premise your candidacy in large part on your superior fidelity to the Constitution, is it too much to ask that you know what is actually in it?

After all, these are hardly the most obscure amendments.  I'll admit that I don't have all the amendments committed to memory either.  I could not tell you off the top of my head what, say, the 8th Amendment says (it bans excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment).  But these two I know, as should someone like O'Donnell who self-identifies with the Tea Party.

The 16th empowered Congress to levy the income tax, the relevance of which to Tea Partiers is self-evident.  And the 14th Amendment has been much in the news, ever since Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed repealing its provision for birth citizenship.

But the 14th Amendment does far more than that.  It arguably represents the most important single change in the Constitution in American history.  It made clear that the states did not have the power to deny citizens any of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  It guarantees all of us due process rights and equal protection of the laws.

It was, in many ways, an answer to the states rights doctrine of the Confederacy, and it created one nation.  As Eric Foner writes in his authoritative account Reconstruction, 1863-1877, some amendments

are broad statements of principle, giving constitutional form to the resolution of national crises, and permanently altering American nationality.  The Fourteenth Amendment was a measure of this kind.  In language that transcended race and region, it challenged legal discrimination throughout the nation and changed and broadened the meaning of freedom for all Americans.

The reason that this amendment is so important, and the reason some radical conservatives might not be entirely comfortable with it, is that in the words of a contemporary observer, "the powers of the States have been limited and the powers of Congress extended."  It meant that the states "could no longer infringe upon the liberties the Bill of Rights has secured against federal violation."

Although it took nearly another one hundred years, the foundation established by the 14th Amendment is what made possible the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (whose constitutionality has been challenged by another Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul).

It is bad enough that a senatorial candidate today could be ignorant of what the 14th Amendment is.  It is even worse that a sitting senator from one of the states whose wholesale disregard of civil rights prompted it in the first place is proposing that we tamper with this essential amendment.  But worst of all is the fact that, in this bizarre election year, neither of these things seems to merit any notice at all (much less outrage) from the electorate.

No comments:

Post a Comment