Sober Solutions for American Constitutionalism

If there is one thing most Americans can agree on about the political and social developments of the last decade or so, it is that our communal project feels threatened. It is not just that conservatives and liberals disagree about policies, legislation, or even elections. We now fight over reality and find it harder to maintain friendships with those from across our various divides. We are more likely to believe it is no longer profitable for Texas and New York, for urban and rural, and for the religious and the secular parts of our society to live together under one, coherent political union.

And yet, there are still reasons to be hopeful if one thinks of America as a series of difficult disputes settled, over the course of years and through a diverse array of means. We do not need to look back to the Civil War, for instance, to find examples of partisan divides coloring day-to-day relationships in American life. The popular presses of the founding era, the 1830s, and the 1930s, for example, all show fierce partisanship, political pessimism, and commercialization of sensationalizing political disputes. The early days of Maryland as a colony, the theological disputes between Mormons and their mostly Protestant neighbors, and the Scopes Trial all show that the US has navigated difficult religious terrain before.

It is in this spirit that Steven Pittz and Joseph Postell offer an edited series of thoughtful essays for our consideration. The question American Citizenship and Constitutionalism in Principle and Practice seeks to answer is whether we can still live together coherently in spite of our differences. The collective answer of these pieces is that we can, but that it will not be a smooth road. The collection offers us this tentative hope in two ways. First, by providing thoughtful examinations of specific historical cases where past Americans navigated fundamental challenges, and secondly by mining the design of American constitutionalism for tools we can wield to help us get through the political challenges of our day.

Among the chapters that dive into specific cases, a few stand out as particularly salient for today. Aaron Kushner’s look at the struggle for Cherokee citizenship by that tribe’s Freedmen, dating back to 1866 sheds light on the relationship between the US government and the Cherokee nation on the question of tribal citizenship. From the early days of Reconstruction, the US government has sided with the Freedmen and their descendants in their battle to achieve Cherokee citizenship. It was not until 2021, however, that the Cherokee Supreme Court amended the tribal constitution to allow for the descendants of former Cherokee Freedmen to hold citizenship rights, including the right to hold tribal elected office.

A particular strength of this essay is that it shows how notions of citizenship often feel fixed in a given time, even though they may be undergoing seismic change in the subterranean ground of the American legal system.

Perhaps the best place to look for tips on getting through today’s tests is to examine how Americans of the past handled similarly intense disputes. For instance, looking across American history we see that working for incremental political improvement is the norm, rather than the exception, among the great reformers. Looking at the lives of the most influential Americans (such as Lincoln, Douglass, and MLK) we also see that combining honesty about injustices with a generosity that holds out hope for future change.

Likewise instructive is James Stoner’s reexamination of Publius’s conceptions of the American system. The value here is both in looking at what the sharpest early American minds correctly foresaw and seeing where their predictions have gone astray. As much as anything, this essay invites a humility that is vital to a functioning democracy. If Madison could be so wrong about how political parties would influence his country, or, maybe most importantly, about the eventual power dynamics in the relationship between Congress and the presidency, then we ought to accept that our smartest analysts, with the deepest convictions, cannot tell us with certainty how a novel policy proposal is going to shape our society for generations to come. One question this leaves us with in the practical sphere is what we can do about the areas where our system has not succeeded in moderating conflict. This is something Americans, on both the left and the right, would do well to think hard about, because patching the holes of a civil political discourse could grow harder as strife wears on our collective sense of confidence in our political institutions.

This is not a manual for those who want quick fixes and it is not a Pollyanna’s treatise of American exceptionalism. It takes a sober look at where we have come.

Among the essays that examine the way America currently does broad civic education is Rebecca Burgess’s look at how Americans have worked, and can work anew, to “[craft] the cords that bind” Americans to one another in civic life. Burgess’s concern, put simply, is what we can do to better nurture the breadth and depth of civic loyalty within the hearts of Americans today. Her examination of our unique history leads her to conclude that it is not enough to remind Americans that we live in the same land, but rather we need a newly robust approach to civic education that inculcates in us a love for our specific political and historical gifts.

Why would Americans buy this perspective in a time of shrill partisanship? Precisely because of the tenor of our discord, the value of a robust, if imperfect, common good, can be appealing. We need not all like each other, but if we truly work to live together, knowing that doing so is not only materially beneficial but historically impressive, we should have a better chance at regaining a nomos, even though it will not be exactly the one any one American most desires. While this essay is creatively hopeful, it will not be an easy task to reignite a broad commitment to our system, above and beyond the partisan level. It may not be the case that a universal approach to civic education can work as well as it did before, but that still leaves us with the question of what to actually do, even in part, to reset the foundation of citizen investment in the idea of America and a commitment to its practical workings.

Joseph Postell provides another worthy historical examination for today’s citizen. He revisits the Progressive era to find conservatives of that time defending the strong party system—that is a political environment where a small number of political parties powerfully channel almost all important political decision-making—as an important tool for channeling democracy toward a common good. This essay is a timely response to the millions of Americans who now casually lament that our system has only two parties, that the parties do not seem different enough, that they are both home to zealots, or even that we have parties at all. What Postell recovers is the argument that without strong parties we will have no mechanism of channeling our passions, competing interests, and political energy.

Put another way, if we do not have strong parties that have a chance to harness and organize our diverse “factions,” then what hope do we have for a functioning political life, in the long term? Or we can think about it this way: The two big parties are not going anywhere, at least not any time soon. We may not like them. In fact, most of us do like either of them right now. But we do not have a real chance, legally or politically, of replacing them anytime soon. They have enshrined their power into state election laws, all three branches of the federal government, and in the political imaginations of voters. It might not be easy to make them representative of broad swaths of America or to have them check and moderate each other, but we had better try. Wishing the parties away for today’s America is like wishing a family history of a specific health threat away. The only response is to know and combat the threat, rather than to hope it disappears. Of course, accepting that the parties we have are better than most likely alternatives does not do anything to solve the issues the current system presents. We should think carefully, and in search of specific practical reforms, toward the end of improving the things that do ail the party system we have today.

Taken together, Pittz and Postell, along with the impressive collection of thinkers who contribute to this volume, provide their readers with an innovative, historically grounded, and good faith look at America today, as well as how we might work toward a better America tomorrow. This is not a manual for those who want quick fixes and it is not a Pollyanna’s treatise of American exceptionalism. And this is where its virtue lies. It takes a sober look at where we have come to and resolves to use our history, the creativity built into our unique system, and a commitment to civic hopefulness as tools to do the real work of citizenship: to strive to see the good in one’s fellow Americans and to apply one’s gifts toward making the whole community a place with a stronger common good. While this anthology presents a worthy look at some of the major things that trouble American democracy today, it is short on specific, realistic policy proposals that could lead to widespread improvement. The question of what to do next, then, is largely left up to the reader, but it is the most important conundrum facing those who want to rejuvenate American political life.