Why Conservative Constitutionalism Matters

With the fault lines in presidential politics never being quite so clear as they are now, many of us on the conservative side like to talk about conservatism, constitutionalism, or simply, conservative constitutionalism. While I hold both concepts quite near to my heart, I don’t think we do a particularly good job of conveying what these terms really mean, or why they’re important. Simply saying that, for example, Ted Cruz is the candidate most likely to uphold constitutional values means nothing if we can’t adequately explain why we should want to uphold constitutional values, or why these values are still important to all those living today. Therefore I’d like to attempt to define and explain the importance of conservatism and how the U.S. Constitution is the best means of upholding the principles we hold as conservatives and, more importantly, as Americans.

If you ask the average person to tell you what a conservative is, he would tell you that a conservative is someone who advocates for lower taxes and limited government, who opposes abortion, and who wants a strong military. Indeed these are positions generally held by most conservatives, though certainly not all share these principles exactly. To the degree that conservatives do adhere to these ideas, do they do so because that is what conservatism is all about, or do they do so because the conservative philosophy leads individuals to take those positions? In other words, conservatives oppose the creation of a leviathan state not because such opposition is in and of itself rooted in the conservative ideology, but because the basic tenets of conservatism necessitate such a belief.

The conservative philosophy is not some rigid, pre-determined formula. There is no checklist where we can simply check off to identify whether someone is living up to orthodox conservative principles. Conservatism is more of a philosophy than an ideology, though clearly it has certain ideological components. Most famously Russell Kirk identified six canons of conservative thought in his seminal work, The Conservative Mind, and later expanded and adapted to these to ten principles. I’m not going to repeat them all here, but the recurring motif is order and tradition. For example, “belief in a transcendent order” implies that there is some overarching moral order guided by natural law. This natural law reveals itself to us through the working of history. More importantly, these six canons (or ten principled) get at the conservative distrust of utopian perfectionism, noted particularly in the fifth canon but implicit throughout all six canons. Even though the canons are themselves abstract, the point is that ideologies that prescribe a determinative, a priori set of guidelines for achieving the most just society create even more turmoil. Conservatives mistrust dogmatic assertions about human rights and the cries of the levelers who would abandon the social order in some quixotic attempt to create a perfect society.

In some ways conservatism, as defined by Kirk, is significant for what it is not. It is not a fixed system of ideals. It is not a philosophy for those who believe that we can achieve an idealized political system that sustains us for all history. Conservatism works against the current. Perhaps that is why conservatives always feel marginalized.  Conservatism is largely a defense against the onslaught of progressives and others who are constantly seeking to uproot society and fundamentally transform the existing social structure.

Another example of what we’re fighting against is exemplified in CS Lewis’s masterpiece, That Hideous Strength. It is a science fiction novel whose main antagonists are from the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments, ie. N.I.C.E. The scientists at N.I.C.E. literally seek to bring down the heavens and create a new order. Led by the “progressive set,” they utilize rather nasty measures in order to achieve their end goal. They emulate many of the totalitarians that so brutalized civilization throughout the 20th century. In the desire to create a perfect society, they are willing to crush all in their path and destroy large swathes of society. This is the core impulse of the progressive movement, which in turn feeds the totalitarian mind. This is what conservatives fight against.

So how does the United States Constitution fit into all of this? The Constitution reflects the innate conservatism of the Framers. They created a document that contained multiple institutional and structural safeguards to designed to protect the United States from devolving into tyranny. The Framers thought that the division of state and federal responsibilities, the system of separation of power and checks and balances, and other institutional mechanisms would prove to be a bulwark against tyranny. By putting power into different hands they had made despotism less likely.

The Framers created a political document that was difficult to amend. Whereas Thomas Jefferson advocated changing the Constitution every twenty years, Madison echoed most of his fellow-Framers in rejecting this idea. In Federalist 49 Madison rebutted a Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for amending the Constitution, writing:

 That as every appeal to the people would carry an implication of some defect in the government, frequent appeals would, in a great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability

This is a rather Burkean sentiment. Governments require stability and respect, and frequent alterations in the constitutional structure threaten both. Madison rejected the idea that the constitution should be frequently altered, as doing so could ultimately work to undermine our liberty. A fixed, written constitution sets the parameters on governmental powers, and the United States Constitution establishes very clear boundaries on the powers of the federal government.

Some conservative critics of the Constitution believe that the Framers themselves had established a constitutional order that promoted a large, expansive government. Alexander Hamilton is frequently the most cited villain in this regard. But Alexander Hamilton wanted the federal government to be efficient in the few and limited areas over which it had control, namely promoting commerce and the national defense. Hamilton would have bristled at the thought of the federal government immersing itself in all walks of life. He recognized that if the government overreached, it would no longer be as efficient because it would be involved in far too many activities. In fact the creation of a leviathan state actively works against Hamilton’s desire for an efficient government.

Long story short, conservatism as expressed in the Constitution is a check on political idealism. As Alexander Hamilton warned in the Federalist Papers, people may intend to do good, but are led astray by bad judgment. Sure, it takes a great deal of idealism to revolt against a mighty empire, and then attempt the massive undertaking of laying the groundwork for a new nation and a new form of government based on somewhat radical new principles. Yet the Framers tempered their idealism. They understood all too well the realities of human nature, and so established a government that prohibited lofty idealism from moving the government in a dangerous direction.

This may not satisfy many Trump supporters who view the established system as irretrievably broken, but this misses the point. The system is broken precisely because we have rejected these conservative, constitutional ideals. We established a republic led by a federal government of limited powers. Conservatives fear the expansion of the government not because a “big” government is ipso facto evil, but because a government that continually pushes the boundaries of its limited authority is a threat to liberty. The Constitution as written prescribed clear boundaries that have been broken. If we value liberty then the only way to safeguard our liberties is through our constitutional form of government, a form of government that is the best example of the conservative philosophy brought to life.