When I read Jeff Mankoff’s editorial impugning any (appropriate) reverence for our Constitution (“Putting an end to Constitution worship,” 9/22), honestly, I was disappointed both by Mankoff’s failure to appreciate the Constitution’s rightful significance and the possibility that he might be representative of a sizable, ill-informed constituency of Americans. If he does indeed speak for anyone other than sixth-year Ph.D. students in misunderstanding the Constitution as a “crucial [piece] of American history,” the state of citizenship in this country is in serious trouble.
Mankoff seems to conflate respecting the moral and legal foundations of our country with “worshipping [the Constitution and Declaration of Independence] like sacred texts.” It’s unclear exactly what problem Mankoff has with the Declaration of Independence, as, after surreptitiously dropping its name in the second paragraph, he never returns to it again. One can only assume that he believes that, with its outmoded commitment to certain unalienable rights and government derived from the consent of the governed, it is like the Constitution: “very much a product of its time.”
Mankoff seems to have various imagined fights to pick with the Constitution. He argues that because it disproportionately weights the votes of citizens from Wyoming (a necessary compromise to prevent most of the country from being marginalized by the coastal population centers), the Constitution is out to reinforce some imagined oligarchy. And he claims that the judiciary’s insulation from the sordid business of electoral politics (which ensures that fear of popular reprisal need not temper judgment) invalidates its rulings on our body of laws. Indeed, this arrangement is “anti-democratic,” because it “allows the judiciary to usurp power from the elected legislative branch.” Just look back to high school civics class to realize that that very usurpation is what makes our system of government so amazing: because each branch of the government works at odds with the others, it acts as a mechanism of accountability.
What does Mankoff then propose to counter these anti-democratic tendencies? He seems to advocate allowing the legislature to run rampant over the Constitution, re-writing and abridging the very core of our nation as the mood strikes. Who knew that the “easiest and fairest” solution to the “poorly written” Second Amendment, which has certainly been subject to various interpretations, is to just rewrite it? Surely Mankoff can acknowledge the fact that the reason that particular Amendment has been so controversial is not because of the difficulty of parsing its language, but rather because there exists no national consensus or uniform community standard by which to judge it. Resolving a legitimately divisive issue cannot be achieved simply by turning the House (not the Senate, as that wouldn’t be democratic enough, thanks to Wyoming) loose in an inevitably ugly free-for-all that any career-conscious legislator would avoid like the plague.
There is a reason that amending the Constitution is, while not impossible, certainly difficult. An amendment requires a clear national consensus — ratification by three-fourths of the states — because the Constitution is our incarnation of Rousseau’s Social Contract: It is the bond between the government and governed that explicitly lays out the federal government’s powers and limitations. To allow the legislature to change it at will is to create a contract that is chameleonic — an ever-shifting mess of legislative quicksand instead of an appropriately rock-solid foundation on which the American people can depend. Only recently, the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage created an uproar because it sought to write into the Constitution an explicit limitation on the rights of a minority. By whatever relaxed standard Mankoff advocates, this amendment would surely already have sailed through the legislature, and, thanks to a lack of “mystic awe” for the Document, discrimination would now be enshrined alongside the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
This “mystic awe” is not something to be cynically derided. To shockingly and offhandedly dismiss people who take the Constitution seriously as racists and sexists is to reveal an intellectual immaturity I would hope that Mankoff had exorcised before high school, much less graduate school. The Constitution is not a mere historical document; it is an articulation of the precepts by which we govern and the ideals to which we continue to aspire as a nation. It is the blueprint for our great, free America — and perhaps a little “mystic awe” is justified.
Sam Heller is a sophomore in Pierson College.