Friday, December 03, 2004

The Progressive Constitution and the Public Good -- post by Mark Agrast

Several posts identify the progressive Constitution with such overarching values as human dignity. Others seek a unifying principle in a revival of the Privileges and Immunities Clause—a proposal which seems as pregnant with possibility, though alas, no closer to realization, than it was when Charles Black urged such a revival as a replacement for the “leaky tire” of substantive due process. With our current political alignment unlikely to yield a Court that will incline toward such holistic modes of interpretation, American progressives can only look on with envy as foreign courts interpret such modern charters as the Constitution of South Africa, whose very text enjoins the courts to “promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights.”

Could such a generous approach to unenumerated rights ever command popular assent in America? It seems to me that even in the dismal tidings of this past November there are seeds of hope. The pollsters tell us that a substantial proportion of the electorate voted on the basis of “moral values.”  We can stipulate that the values they chose were the wrong ones. Yet their willingness to put aside their self-interest is a good sign for progressives—if we can seize the opportunity to offer a compelling moral vision of the kind of country America can be.

Despite what the election results might seem to indicate, most Americans subscribe to such progressive values as fair play, shared sacrifice, equal justice under law, and respect for the dignity of every human being. They share the progressive insight that our greatness as a nation stems from our ability not only to tolerate but to celebrate our diversity—and from a shared devotion to democratic values compared to which our differences are of little account.

Our failure to reify those commitments allowed right-wing plutocrats successfully to portray their Democratic opponents as the party of special interests.  Yet as the unwholesome effects of this new Gilded Age are felt more widely, progressives have a fresh opportunity to present a conception of the public good that is rooted in our shared values, and to give concrete expression to those values in policies that foster such widely-supported goals as healthy communities, good schools, clean air and water, competitive markets, an equitable tax system, and a secure retirement.

We should not shy away from framing these goals in explicitly moral terms; indeed, we must do so. At the Center for American Progress, we are working with our allies in the religious community to infuse our progressive messages with the language and spirit of the prophetic traditions that animated so many earlier movements for social change.

Nor should we abandon our commitment to equal protection for the excluded and the disenfranchised in our anxiety to escape the “special interests” label. Our task is rather to frame a narrative that links those concerns to the strength and well-being of the community as a whole.

-- Mark Agrast