Monday, July 16, 2012

Constitutionalism and the Democracy of the Dead

In Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton said
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial, American Battle Monuments Commission

This brings into clarity the difference between those who see the US Constitution as a "living document" and those of us who see it as being bound by the original intent of its authors.  Binding its meaning to the original intent at least gives a hint as to its authority; it is, as Chesterton put it, the vote of the dead, the concrete form of tradition in American government, and its authority comes from the consent given to it by previous generations.  If it is a "living document" with no meaning other than the most recent opinions from the Supreme Court, it can have no authority greater than the Court's own authority, which derives from the consent of the present generation through a fragile and tenuous chain.

If there is no Constitution, we are as unstable as the ancient Greek democracies.  If the Constitution has no stable meaning, but is merely a rhetorical conceit used by a small group of the "best" people to enforce their will upon us, then both the majority of the living and all of the dead have lost their votes, and we are no longer a democracy.

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