A Confederacy of Dunces

There are many ironies in the Tea Party’s fetishization of the Constitution, including the  Tea Partiers’ laughable ignorance of the constitution and American history. But one particular irony of the Tea Partiers’ fetishization of their imagined Constitution has shaped the contest for the Republican nomination for President.

The Constitution was not, as all avid protectors of the Constitution should know, the first agreement between the separate colonies that eventually became the United States. The Articles of Confederation were passed by the Revolutionary Congress in 1777 and by 1781 it had been ratified by all of the original thirteen states. The Articles of Confederation strongly favored state sovereignty over a national government. Congress was the only branch of the national government, and it had little power over the states and none over individuals. The national government was so ineffectual that in 1787 Congress called for a constitutional convention to draft a new governing document. Over the next two years every state ratified the Constitution, and when the first Congress was convened in 1789, one of its first acts was to introduce the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.

Under the Constitution, states serve as a partial check on the authority of the national government, and the three branches of the national government check and balance each other. But states relinquishing much of their autonomy to the federal government was the key change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. This system is known, of course, as federalism.

Federalism has been contested ground since 1789. The Civil War was fought over federalism. Opposition to civil rights was framed as a matter of state’s rights against excessive federalism. Today the Republican candidates all tout their fealty to states rights as a means of preventing the federal government from doing things they don’t like, such as implementing the national health care bill passed in 2010 (though at the same time they’re fine with applying checks on state autonomy, such as the Defense of Marriage Act, for things they don’t like).

It’s often been pointed out that the arguments most conservatives use to supposedly “honor the constitution” are in fact mostly contrary to the arguments of the Federalist Papers, and that today’s conservatives fetishizing the Constitution are repeating the arguments of the anti-federalists who opposed ratifying the Constitution.

But there’s another irony that’s especially relevant this week. The Constitution was adopted because states relinquished autonomy and chose to come closer together under a stronger national government. But the Tea Party groups, consistent with their veneration of autonomy and demonization of communal ties and action, remained divided rather than unify behind a single anti-Romney, help that candidate with infrastructure and fundraising support and bestow conservative and Tea Party legitimacy on that single candidate.

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin declared “we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The Tea Party was largely a scam perpetrated by Fox News, with Koch money, to present a veneer of grassroots populist revolt over a big business attack on federalism and the New Deal. But some Tea Party groups did arise, and had they worked together, they might have easily determined the Republican nominee. But instead of hanging together and choosing their candidate, they’re in danger of hanging separately and watching Mitt Romney stumble to the nomination.

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