Constitutional conservatism and Conservative constitutionalism

“As a constitutional conservative, I believe in … a limited government that trusts in and preserves the unlimited potential of the American people. I don’t believe that the solutions to our problems come from Washington. More than ever, Washington is the problem, and the real solutions will come from our businesses, our communities, our schools, and the most basic and powerful unit of all—our families.”

(Rep. Michelle Bachmann, declaring her candidacy for the 2012 Republican nomination)

Will Wilkinson has an interesting post at The Economist that focuses on a dilemma I’ve thought about, too – do those who call and/or consider themselves, like Michelle Bachmann, “constitutional conservatives” want to conserve the Constitution as it is today, the document having been amended, interpreted and reinterpreted for over 200 years, or do they want to roll back all those changes including what Wilkinson calls “the massive, interlocking system of institutions” that has evolved with those interpretations. Obviously, the latter would be a vastly more radical endeavor.

I believe -but maybe readers of this blog will think otherwise- that Calvin Coolidge was a conservative, who was comfortable with the concept of a cautiously evolving and adaptable Constitution – what Wilkinson terms “within-the-system incrementalism.”But Coolidge was also crystal-clear in his understanding of the Constitution as a document that strictly limits the power of the federal government. In all his actions as president he followed that understanding. He never countenanced the efforts of so-called progressives, who had been seeking, with some success, to discredit the limits placed by the Constitution on federal power. By definition, a Constitution is a framework for a political system and process, not an instrument for micro-management of the nation’s affairs.

The question is whether more than a 100 years of executive, legislative and judicative meddling have debased the Constitution to a point where the more radical course is required to purge the system of these abuses. A latter-day Coolidge would then have the much different and much more formidable task of radically reforming a corrupted system.

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