Midwest Voices

The Constitution isn’t about politics

Updated: 2013-10-06T23:51:40Z


Special to The Star

It is a sign of the political times that even the Constitution is cause for partisan division. One thing revealed in the ongoing investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative and libertarian political organizations is that the agency since at least January 2012 singled out for scrutiny groups whose declared purpose involved “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

“In their defense,” Jon Stewart commented sarcastically, “there is a good reason why people using the IRS to crackdown on political enemies would not want Americans educated about the Constitution.”

Stewart is no conservative, but he did see the scandal for what it is: a naked attempt by some in the IRS to use the agency to intimidate political foes.

But when did people who care about the Constitution become enemies of the IRS? The timing of the scandal suggests that it occurred only recently and only with the rising popularity of the tea party, a loose-knit group of individuals and organizations united mainly by concern about the size and scope of government.

The assumption made by some in the IRS — that “educating about the Constitution and Bill of Rights” is tantamount to stumping for partisan tea party causes — is wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because it overlooks the fact that there is much in the Constitution for the tea party to criticize, starting with the 16th Amendment, which gives Congress the power to “lay and collect taxes on incomes” (and, by extension, the power to create the IRS to do so).

It is dangerous because it risks equating the Constitution with one side in our bitterly divisive political debates. Yet the Constitution is not about ordinary politics.

It is a document that divides and distributes power, delineates governing procedures and provides a framework within which to create policy. To say it is conservative, liberal, libertarian or progressive — in the everyday sense of those terms — is disingenuous. It is something different altogether.

The Constitution is a form of higher law, a blueprint for the institutional apparatus by which we govern ourselves. It is the product of messy compromise, and yet it rests on real insights from history and political theory. When the drafters of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, they drew lessons from the experience of ancient republics, appealed to the inherited liberties of English subjects, and made use of the innovations of modern political thinkers such as Montesquieu and Locke.

The founders were well aware that they stood on the shoulders of giants. So do we today, and the maintenance of American constitutional government requires widespread education about the Constitution and its historical and philosophical underpinnings. Civic education is not a partisan endeavor, and it is vital to preserving and improving our government for the next generation.

Justin Dyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri in Columbia. To reach him, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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