Published: The Morning Call (August 15, 2011)
When reviewing “Atlas Shrugged,” the magnum opus of libertarian paladin Ayn Rand, famed anti-communist Whittaker Chambers made this observation about her philosophy: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”
Unfortunately, this mentality is all too prevalent among tea partyers today. While they may not share Rand’s views on religion (she was a militant atheist while tea partyers are often Christian right-wingers) and social morality (she supported the rights of homosexuals and others with nontraditional lifestyles, whereas the tea party tends to favor their repression), they certainly ape her claim to having cornered all understanding of the Founding Fathers’ will. This is a most unfortunate development.
Take, as an example, the brouhaha over President Barack Obama’s health care reform legislation. As one of the critics of the health care law, the tea party claims that the 10th Amendment, which declares all powers not expressly enumerated to the federal government as belonging to the states and/or the people, renders the health care law unconstitutional.
Liberals and others who support the law point out how the commerce clause of the Constitution allows the government to regulate interstate commerce, while the general welfare clause permits the state to create new taxes and spending programs so long as their objective is to promote the overall well-being of society. They further add that not only do both of these criteria apply to the issue of health care reform, but that also arguing against them on 10th Amendment grounds would nullify virtually every important progressive social reform since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, from federal spending on education and transportation to the passage of Medicare and the outlawing of child labor.
Right-wingers, naturally, respond with points of their own, from citing James Madison’s restrictive interpretation of the general welfare clause (and ignoring Alexander Hamilton’s rebuttal) to claiming that excessive regulation impedes economic growth.
And each side ultimately expounds at length about the ideological and historical arguments that can buttress their respective positions. This is both natural and healthy, as reflected by the ongoing legal battle that has taken Obamacare to the federal district courts — where jurists have so far issued wildly divergent rulings — and will, inevitably, bring it to the Supreme Court.
Where tea partyers add an unhealthy element to these debates is that they insist not merely that they are right but that their opinions are the only ones capable of being legitimate. They don’t view liberals and centrists as having different interpretations of the Founding Fathers’ intent, but of deliberately wishing to subvert it. What’s worse, they depict all modern Democratic presidents — from the bold social liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to the center-leftists like Bill Clinton and Obama — as being not merely incorrect, which can be reasonably argued, but as being sinister and radical, which cannot.
The irony here is that the men whose ideas tea partyers embrace as immutable gospel were hardly monolithic in their views. Individuals like Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Pickney, Paterson, Randolph and Franklin disagreed so frequently and dramatically that ideologies from across the political spectrum can use their writings for support.
Indeed, when reading the Federalist Papers or the transcripts of the Constitutional Convention, it is the very contentiousness of those proceedings that makes the document produced in Philadelphia and ratified by the 13 states, from Delaware to Rhode Island, so magnificent.
While it is easy to craft a charter or manifesto when the individuals involved in composing it are of one mind, it is quite another to do so when disagreements fly as thick and fast as insects in the summer heat. The beauty of the Constitution lies in the fact that it was the product not of divine ordinances dispensed from a higher power, but of a series of courageous compromises agreed upon by imperfect men.
Tragically, this is one reality that tea partyers, in the name of their self-proclaimed crusade, refuse to accept.
Matthew Rozsa, who resides in Forks Township, is a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and will begin Lehigh University’s Ph.D. program in history in January.