Becoming Engaged in Debate over Constitution: Jeffrey Rosen on Reconnecting with Populism

April 19, 2011

The Tea Party and other far-right activists are successfully shaping their image as a “constitutional movement” because they connect with “populist sentiment,” writes The New Republic’s Legal Affairs Editor Jeffrey Rosen.

“Enthusiasm about constitutional amendments generally tracks closely with populist sentiment,” Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University law school, writes. “Simply put, populist movements tend to expend energy on constitutional amendments; those that are more elite-driven do not.”

Rosen notes a slew of amendments that have been, and are being, pushed by the right-wing. Those include Tea Party-backed amendments to greatly restrict the power of the federal government and Religious Right-backed constitutional amendments aimed out curtailing reproductive rights and banning same-sex marriage.

Rosen concludes that “the lesson here for liberals isn’t necessarily about passing constitutional amendments. It’s that, in order to have any success as a constitutional movement, they need to find a way to reconnect with populism.”

One way to reconnect is to better promote objections to a government that is “heavily influenced by Wall Street.” Citing Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, progressives do share some common ground with elements of the Tea Party, a distrust of “corporate control.”

At an ACS event earlier this year concerning corporate influence on the courts, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer urged progressives to become far more engaged in the debate over the Constitution, to fight back against Tea Party activists’ claims that they have the market cornered on constitutional scholarship.

Spitzer said, “The Constitution is a wildly progressive document. It is an amazing thing. We all appreciate that. But our failure to stand up and defend it permits them to claim it.”

He continued, “This is a document that reflects society. It pains me that we are losing the Constitution because we are unwilling to stand up and defend what it really is. We have to do that.”

Some progressives have already taken to the challenge of fighting corporate influence on government. Jeffrey Clements, an ACS Issue Brief author on campaign finance regulation and corporate rights, has helped found a group dedicated to advancing a constitutional amendment that would reign in the ability of corporations to spend freely on elections.