Hollow Words and Dog Whistles

Yesterday, in reaction to the SCOTUS ruling that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is constitutional, Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, said this:

If you don’t want the course that President Obama has put us on, if you want instead a course that the founders envisioned, then join me in this effort. Help us. Help us defeat Obamacare, help us defeat the liberal agenda that makes government too big, too intrusive, and that’s killing jobs across this great country.

I’d like to focus on the “the founders envisioned” part.

From a Breitbart.com on April 28, 2012 (I don’t think you should click on the link but it’s there because I like to cite things):

As the size of the government’s debt (including what the government owes to those who are on, or will be on, social security) continues its steady growth well beyond the size of the entire economy, economic growth will become more and more elusive.  In this respect, his vision of the role of government is fundamentally opposed to what the founders envisioned and gifted to their contemporaries and to their posterity.  They understood that limited government was essential to the growth of the country and its economy. With all due respect to President Obama, we believe the founders had it right and he has it wrong.

That asshole extraordinaire, Michael Savage (Feb 2012):

Barack Obama is the type of “petty dictator” the Founders envisioned, Savage told his national audience tonight.

Rick Santorum:

But I believe what I’ve been presenting is the genuine conservatism our Founders envisioned. One that fosters the opportunity for all Americans to live as we are called to live, in selfless families that contribute to the general welfare, the common good.

When Olympia Snowe chose to leave the Senate in March 2012, she said:

The institution, she said, “is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.” The Senate is supposed to be an “institutional check that ensures all voices are heard and considered,” but it is not “living up to its billing,” Snowe writes.

Clearly, this is a popular refrain. In discussion of how to interpet the Constitution, there is inevitably an argument about what the founders intended when they wrote the document. This has morphed now into this idea of what they envisioned for this country.

What the founders intended is a different idea from what they envisioned. The former implies a close textual analysis of the words in the Constitution and an attempt to understand why they were chosen, why they were written in the order they were, why they were included at all. This is a fraught endeavor.

The Constitution is a vaguely-worded document. I am no expert but I have read it and, as teacher of US history at the university level, I have taught it. My class did a close reading and tried to parse out what exactly the drafters of the Constitution were trying to do. There was almost no consensus. When you really read it, it gets more and more confusing, not less.

I am immediately skeptical of anyone who thinks that their reading of any part of the Constitution is correct, is the sole interpretation, or the final word on the issue. The reason we have a Supreme Court full of judicial and legal experts is that it takes the minds of people who have wrestled with the Constitution and legislation for many, many years to answer for all the complexities in the law. And as we know, that body changes it mind over time and it is often internally split on decisions. Partly this is a result of disagreements over how to interpret the Constitution – do we try to honor the original intent by the drafters or do we see the document as responding to an ever-changing society? But even if one agrees on if the Constitution should be read for founders’ intent or as a living document, that does not guarantee agreement over interpretation. Because the document is written in such a way as to cause confusion.

This is all to say, constitutional disagreement is very much a result of the document itself, not just the framework through which one interprets it.

Trying to deduce what the founders envisioned projects out from the Constitution into a larger, more undefined space.

First, the founders were not a singular bloc. They had MAJOR disagreements over how to form their new government. That is why we ended up with things like the 3/5ths clause (Article 1, Section 2). That is why we have a Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments). People love to say that the founders wanted the states to have lots of power (they quote Amendment 10) and feared federal government. Yet one of the most famous documents of the age is The Federalist Papers, anonymous pamphlets written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilon that argued for a strong federal government (part of the document argued against the Bill of Rights). Ratification itself was a hotly contested affair because so many feared the Constitution and what it stood for (mainly that it would be a slippery slope to tyranny). Nothing is simple when it comes to the creation of the Constitution. The founders themselves knew this and so made sure you could amend the document as needed.

Beyond that, asking us to envision what the founders wanted means that we have to go beyond what the Constitution says to see how they actively implemented it in the new US republic that formed after ratification.

Voting quickly became restricted to white men who owned property because many founders, including Jefferson, believed that anyone who worked for a wage (or was enslaved) was too dependent on another person to vote their own mind. Same reason that women could not vote.

Most devastatingly, what many founders envisioned was a land wiped of Native peoples, whether that meant extermination or removal.

Of course, worst of all, many of them envisioned a world were the much of the national economy was dependent on slave labor, a brutally racialized society. The world many envisioned did not even view people with dark (or, perhaps, not-white) skin as people. For those founders who opposed slavery, they still envisioned a country without black people in it, many advocating removal or hoping that black people would remain in the South, out of their cities and away from their farms.

Though I would disagree if Romney had argued that the founders who wrote the Constitution intended something different in their words than what the Supreme Court justices ruled yesterday, I would at least understand what he was referring to. Then his language would be couched in an age-old discussion about interpretation of the Constitution.

When Romney (or anyone) says something about getting back to an America “that the founders envisioned,” I cringe. If you are going to say such a thing, you need to concretely explain what you mean. I guess Romney means that the founders envisioned a smaller government but, like I mentioned before, who does he mean and to what exactly is he referring? And if we do agree that the founders wanted small, limited government, we have to acknowledge that they saw that as a possibility because they believed that there would always be enough land to go around to white men (part of the need to exterminate/remove Native people), that women would always be dependent and never part of the citizenry, that farms would be the primary space of residence, and that the economy would depend on exploited labor stolen from black people.

And while I would be the first to acknowledge that there was certainly good in the vision that the founders had for this country, it is always mediated mitigated by the terrible things they believed about the many groups who, combined, make up a large majority of this country today.

Therefore, from now on, anyone who mentions “the founders’ vision” or “what the founders envisioned,” I will assume they mean that they want slavery back or for women to not be able to vote or for Natives to just go away for good.

At best, “what the founders envisioned” are hollow words. At worst, they are dog whistles to people who wish the US would return to a time when white men were in control of everyone and everything.

For more, see this storify of tweets I put together of people on Twitter writing about the term. It’s really interesting.

Also, there is some good stuff at this Daily Kos piece about Romney’s use of this phrase.

From The Onion, 2009: Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be


One thought on “Hollow Words and Dog Whistles

  1. Pingback: Saturday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog

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