The Fourth of July of the year of our Lord Jesus Christ Two Thousand and Eleven having arrived, The Sconz thus comments on the state of America, her several states, and her democratic institutions, particularly the Supreme Court of the state of Wisconsin.
The people. It's always about the damn people. That's what you tend to hear whenever any discussion of reforming the way we select state Supreme Court justices comes up, whether it's from Brother John Nichols or Prince Fitzgerald of Fitzwalkerstan.
The outrage that meets any proposal to end the election of judges in Wisconsin demonstrates what political scientists would describe as "conservative bias" or a preference for the status quo. If the thought of depriving the people of a voice on the state Supreme Court is so abhorrent, then it seems to me that the biggest, baddest enemy of democracy is not the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, but the the U.S. Constitution, which imposes a judicial system on the country that is appointed rather than elected.
To my knowledge, there has never been any meaningful movement to change the way we select U.S. Supreme Court justices, although Progressives like La Follette did advocate for more accountability for judges in general. For some reason, most Americans don't seem too bothered by this one display of the Founders' well-documented suspicion of democracy.
The main problem with constitutional debate in politics and the media is what I would diagnose as the Founder Fetish. It is a serious perversion of our national psyche that substitutes nostalgia for reason. Hence, the authors of any constitution, whether it is the U.S. constitution or the Wisconsin constitution, are infallible. The wisdom that guided their decisions over 150-225 years ago is always the goal in any constitutional query.
The Founder Fetish is a phenomenon that has probably always existed but that I think has become even more pronounced with the rise of groups like the Tea Party that claim to be the living legacy of our forefathers. In fact, it's no surprise that it became popular for Tea Party activists to advocate for the repeal of the 17th amendment, which allows for the direct election of U.S. Senators. That change to the constitution, which was driven by the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, was a rare victory over the Founder Fetish.
I get it: We don't want judges legislating from the bench, warping the text of the constitution to fit their 21st century values and worldview. But the reason that often takes place is that nobody, particularly legislators, are ever willing to admit that they simply disagree with the founders and think the constitution ought to be changed.
In fact, the rare push to amend constitutions is often framed in the context of what the Founders "would have wanted." The most significant movement to change the constitution in recent years has focused on banning gay marriage, a stance proponents argue preserves the legacy of early America and early western civilization.
Why the reluctance to admit what everybody believes: Some of what the Founders said was right, some of it was wrong, and some of it is now obsolete.
Instead, we get this nauseating debate about which side is more in line with the values of the various slave owners who started the country. Theocrats quote Patrick Henry and secularists quote Thomas Jefferson. It never ends.
I love history and I love the story of America's founding. And I love the Fourth of July. But appreciating America is appreciating our ability to change as well as to preserve tradition.
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