Starting Points: “Do We Still Support Constitutional Government?”
By Jeremy A. Rabkin
Earlier this year, Jeremy A. Rabkin participated in a panel at “We the People: Fidelity to the Constitution,” a conference hosted by the Bradley Foundation in partnership with JMC. The panel’s topic was, “Challenges to the Constitution.” Professor Rabkin’s remarks have been adapted into this article on the Starting Points website.
Legal scholars spend a lot of time debating the proper way to interpret the Constitution. Political scientists study voting blocks on the Court or trends in judicial appointments. But to think about the future of constitutional government, we should give more attention to the ultimate authority behind the Constitution – “We the People,” as the Preamble calls us.
The Founders did not think all people were equally capable of sustaining constitutional government. At the outset of the French Revolution, for example, Alexander Hamilton wrote to his friend Lafayette, expressing a “foreboding of ill.” He warned, among other things, about the “vehement character” of the French people and their susceptibility to “philosophic politicians” and “speculatists” [sic] propounding doctrines not compatible with “the composition of your nation.”
Perhaps that sounds bigoted or chauvinistic. But self-styled progressives were also quick to say, during the administration of George W. Bush, that it was absurd to expect that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to “a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq.” As it happens, Hamilton was proven right about the immediate course of the French Revolution, while opponents of the Iraq war were wrong about the durability of free debate and elected governments in Iraq. These are not isolated examples. Even in recent times, constitutional government has failed in Russia and Venezuela, but proven more enduring in many African and Asian countries where outsiders predicted a return to coups or chaos.
We should, therefore, not be dogmatic about the social and cultural prerequisites of constitutional government…
Jeremy A. Rabkin is a Professor of Law at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. Professor Rabkin was appointed to the Board of Directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace by President George W. Bush in 2007 and was reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2011. He also serves on the Council of Academic Advisers for the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on cybersecurity and internet governance issues, and is a chairman on the Board of Directors for the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. Professor Rabkin’s books include Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War (Encounter Books, 2017) (with John Yoo) and Law Without Nations? (Princeton University Press, 2005). His articles have appeared in major law reviews and political science journals and he has contributed to a range of magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
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