The next Liberty Forum features a tremendous essay from Michael Greve on “Constitutional Moments”where he argues that America must reconsider the current workings of its small c “constitution.” Great responses to Greve follow from William Galston “Toward a Softer, Kinder Constitutional Moment“ and Bill Voegeli “Can America Undo Its Purple Compromise?” Below is an excerpt from Greve’s essay:
I do not suggest that the formal Constitution is in any peril, nor even in need of revision. My subject, rather, is the “constitution” with a small c. It encompasses, along with the written Constitution, our basic political traditions and institutions. Think of the administrative state, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, or the Federal Reserve: technically, these arrangements can be wiped out at the stroke of a pen; practically, they are more deeply entrenched than many formal rules. A “constitutional moment” is when such institutions undergo or at any rate require a profound change.
We have had several moments of this sort. Some of them, foremost the Civil War and the Progressive era, produced formal constitutional changes. Others did not: the New Deal and the Great Society illustrate the point. But they all transformed our political institutions and our constitutional understanding.
Some high-level political theory suggest that we should be nearing another such moment. The late Samuel Huntington observed that every four decades or so, the country suffers a nervous breakdown. The Founding, the Great Awakening, the Civil War, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the ‘Sixties: now, we are overdue. Huntington argued that our moments follow a pattern, which he called The Promise of Disharmony: when the gulf between our lofty ideals and our crummy practices becomes too wide, politics engages not just our vulgar interests but our “creedal passions,” and we fight over what our principles mean. . . .
We are broke. The official national debt comes to well over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in America (and we will see that that isn’t the half of it). The economy has dragged itself along for three years, mostly on debt-financed stimulus measures and Fed-supplied fumes. The light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off. It was powered by Solyndra.
Other countries have reformed their way out of very similar distress, more or less in the ordinary course of politics. Germany, Canada, Brazil, and Sweden are shining examples. We won’t: as Huntington taught, our politics either changes not at all or else, convulsively. We will either revamp our institutions, or we will become Argentina.