Rule of Law

Liberals Fight Tea Party on Constitution Day


Mother Jones
Liberals Fight Tea Party on Constitution Day
By Stephanie Mencimer
September 16, 2011


You probably didn’t know it, but today is Constitution Day, a federally designated holiday created in 2004 by the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D). While no one gets the day off, the law does require all public schools to devote some time to teaching the Constitution on this day each year. The law, impossible to enforce in already overstretched schools, might have died with Byrd if it weren’t for the tea party movement. Tea partiers have seized on the congressional mandate to try to force public schools to introduce the movement’s version of constitutional history to impressionable youth.

The Tea Party Patriots especially have been working hard over the past six months to pressure school boards and school officials to teach constitutional history as written by Glenn Beck’s favorite author, W. Cleon Skousen, a rabid anti-Communist Mormon whose texts have been knocked for including white supremacist dogma and racist commentary. In Skousen’s view, the US was founded as a Christian nation, possibly by descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, a view that might run into trouble in a public school.

It’s unclear how many schools have actually taken the plunge, but the tea partiers have been successful in one respect: they’ve energized a bunch of liberal legal types who have been horrified at the way the tea party and its favorite legislators have been interpreting the Constitution.

To that end, this week, the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center and the People for the American Way Foundation, among others, launched a new project called Constitutional Progressives, with the intent of trying to correct the record. Doug Kendall, one of the main instigators of the project and head of the CAC, said in a conference call this week that they’ve decided to fight back because, “It seems tea party thinks the entire 20th century is unconstitutional.”

The Constiutional Progressives certainly have plenty of material to highlight.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has been a particularly good source. The tea party favorite who recently ousted an establishment Republican has, among other things, declared unconstitutional: the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development, child labor laws, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, all federal anti-poverty programs, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the Food and Drug Administration. And then there’s Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who claimed that the Founders “that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

The Constitutional Progressives are trying to strike back against all of this legal malpractice, and remind the public that the Constitution remains a progressive document. Friday morning, they’re kicking things off with an event that is designed to present the worst-case scenario: What happens if the tea party wins? (You can watch it live here.) These constitutionalists warn that if the tea party’s view of the Constitution really prevailed in the courts, the country would return to the bad old days of the 19th century, before minimum wage laws or the civil rights movement or even Social Security. Being lawyers, of course, they plan to fight the tea party with the Constitution itself, issuing briefs on the progressive elements of the document and quickly responding to misrepresentations in the press. Such figures as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have already signed on to the initiative.

The worst-case scenario makes for a pretty compelling argument, but facts these days don’t seem to have much a persuasive effect on public opinion. Glenn Beck helped Skousen return from the dead as a national bestseller, after all. The liberal activists are going to need more than John Kerry and a bunch of policy papers to help persuade a nation of Fox News viewers that when it comes to the Constitution, tea partiers have got it all wrong.