Saturday, June 5, 2010

Populist Interest in the Constitution is Nothing New

Populist Interest in the Constitution is Nothing New, says Jeff Shesol on HNN, recapping his own study of the 1930s. His relaying of GOP efforts to capture the energy of an anti-New Deal movement that concentrated on defending the Constitution is an interesting historical parallel for this fall. In his own right, FDR tried to use invocations of the Constitutional order and citizenship for his own purposes. I just finished reading Benjamin Alpers' terrific book on the concept of dictatorship in 1930s-50s political culture, in which he describes how Roosevelt creatively argued against the dictatorial power of the Supreme Court in 1937 (of course, unsuccessfully) during the court-packing controversy. The Roosevelt Administration also helped to launch "I Am an American Day," a new and short-lived holiday that celebrated new voters turning 21 and the Constitutional order they were about to join. The WPA ran naturalization courses for immigrants that focused heavily on instruction in the Constitution.

So the real issue is how critics of the welfare state used a popular conception of the Constitution to attack liberals. Such efforts continued well after the 1930s. Lawmakers in Ohio in the early 1950s required high school students who wanted to take courses that discussed economics, social issues, foreign affairs, or the United Nations to take a course on the US Constitution first -- so fellow traveler teachers couldn't get their hooks in them first. My guys in the American Legion made broad public education in the Constitution a lynch pin of their anticommunist efforts during the Cold War, insisting that the American political system did not guarantee anyone more than their natural rights. The Tenth Amendment became a popular tool of segregationists to defend themselves from federal intrusion. etc...

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