Standing athwart history

In pushing through parts of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly told one wavering congressman, “I hope you will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.”

Even if not literally accurate, this statement does accurately condense, in the proverbial nutshell, the mindset that liberals and progressives had regarding the Constitution – which continues even down to this day (read on after the jump):

It is an expression of a mode of superiority over whatever stands in the way – be it those old fuddy-duddy Founding Fathers or their modern-day defenders. It doesn’t help that conservatives have accepted and even relished the role they were given in this script, the role of standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” as William F. Buckley famously put it. Buckley didn’t mean it this way, but implicitly, this stance appears to accept the idea that history is invariably marching (lurching?) in a leftward direction, one ratchet after the other.

A more accurate description might be that the Constitution marked a high point of progress, one which served the nation well in its first hundred years but which it has steadily retreated from during the last century. The sentence attributed to FDR might well have been spoken by Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, or Barack Obama. One president who would certainly never had said anything like this is Calvin Coolidge. In line with most of his predecessors, Coolidge keenly felt yet respected the constraints placed on his actions by the Constitution. It is no wonder that, near the end of his life, he is supposed to have said, somewhat resignedly, that he felt out of touch with the times. Happily for him, he did not live to see the day when adherence to the Constitution is widely considered at best a quaint relic of a bygone era, and at worst as a sure sign of extremism. The very slogan “Yes we can” may uncharitably be construed to mean that “we” can override democratic process and constitutional concerns when “we” have decided on a course of action. Which is not to say that excessive use of Executive Orders and other means of bypassing the legislative branch is unique to Democratic presidents. It is true that the democratic process of deliberation can be slow and tortuous. And sometimes it is slowed down even more because of political considerations. But within that process, there must be room (and time) for those who have legitimate concerns. Calvin Coolidge also said “it is better to block a bad law than to sign a good one.” But then he was standing athwart history” yelling “Stop!” in that umistakable New England twang.

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