Academic journal article Humanitas

Imperialism Destroys the Constitutional Republic

Academic journal article Humanitas

Imperialism Destroys the Constitutional Republic

Article excerpt

Because of its sober and realistic assuptions about human nature and the human condition, the American republic of the Constitutuion of 1789 is not designed to do the big things typical of empires. It is especially not designed to do that which has most characterized empire: conquer. When America does pursue empire, it undermines the very fabric of its constitutional government. Imperial expansion pulls at the threads of constitutionalism, ripping away the supports of limited government: separated powers, federalism, and checks and balances. More importantly, the quest for empire, even in the modern ideological form of spreading democracy, liberty, and equality around the globe, diverts the American imagination from the center of constitutional politics and life. The unwritten constitution, the cultural foundation for constitutional government, ceases to concentrate its attention on what is primary to a modest republic: the soul, the family, the neighborhood, the school, the church, the community. It directs the imagination to a distant abstract world in which virtue becomes syn-onymous with global humanitarian crusading. It makes a spectacle of politics. The place of modest republicanism, by contrast, is local; its scale is proportionate to its modest objectives; it is threatened by the vulgarity of empire, which poisons the sensibilities of those who struggle to possess republican virtue.

To follow the path of empire is to transofm american identity and self-understanding; it is to transform the constitutional regime itself. To boorw the language of Walter McDougall, in doing so, America ceases to be a promised land and becomes a crusader state. (1)

American crusaders like Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly recognized the inadequacy of the Framers' constitutional system for the work of political religion. They insisted that the cumbersome American constitutional system be reformed to empower government for the chalenge of social and global transformation. Ironically, the more successful the Progressives have been in centralizing power, the less great by traditional standards America has become. The Framers did not design the American republic for imperial greatness, but when it functions as intended, it produces something even greater than empire: a free society with limited government and the rule of law.

But there is more to the special kind of American greatness bequeathed by the Framers. Due in large part to their variegated cir cumstances, Americans have been sensitive to the value of human diversity, appreciating that it may play a part in pursuing universality. The American motto, e pluribus unum, and the federal and decentralized character of American political institutions testify to this aspect of the American genealogy and character. In America, local communities and groups have been free, within limits, to find their own way to the good life. The kind of uniformity that stifles diversity, more common to unitary systems of government, is incompatible with America's historical past. Unity is found through diversity, because there is more than one road to the common human ground. (2)

From the early days of America's formation, a contrary tendency has been present in the American imagination, one that looks disparagingly upon decentralized power and a multiplicity of communities. This view pushes toward uniformity as represented in Rousseau's notion of the general will. It insists on a monistic, allegedly virtuous uniformity that divides society and world into stark categories of good and evil. According to this view, Americanism is the best possible way of life for all people. (3) A recent form of this creed is reflected in the idea of Francis Fukuyama that history has "ended" in the sense that it is inconceivable that any society could surpass the American/Western achievement. (4). This ideology asks: Who wouldn't welcome American democracy, liberty, and equality? Isn't it obvious that so many people in the world live lives that are inferior to those of Americans? …

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