The Most Powerful Dichotomy

March 1, 2011
In his 2008 book, The Political Mind, George Lakoff describes the subconscious motivators driving the American political engine; most poignantly, he outlines the role which American citizens have played in propagating dangerous philosophies of government, noting, “Our democracy is in danger. The danger has its roots in money, social structure, and history, but the ultimate source of that danger is in the brains of our citizens.” Given this striking assertion, it is easy to see that The Political Mind is a bold challenge to the cherished beliefs that pundits and political leaders alike have espoused in the last decade. Tying directly into his argument is the role that the founders’ constitutional interpretations have played shaping today’s modern political philosophy; simply put, the Founders' view of the Constitution is far less important than our interpretations today, which ultimately carry the true weight and belie the greatest ramifications in American society.

The American Constitution was written at a time of great philosophical rumblings in Europe, and consequently in the Americas where European descendants were preparing their bold step into independence. The ideals highlighted by the founders in the Constitution were exemplary of the triumphs of the Enlightenment -- of reason and equality, democracy and popular sovereignty -- at the end of the 18th century. However, it is very hard to run a modern country on expired -- or at least geriatric -- ideas; as Lakoff writes, “There is a problem with the Enlightenment...and it lies not in its ideals, but in the 18th century views of reason.” Ultimately, it is impossible to understand 21st century politics with an 18th century brain.

Quoted simply, the founders’ view of the Constitution exemplify archaic thought. By seeing today’s complex and strictly modern issues through a pre-industrial lens inevitably results in misconstrued perceptions and flawed results. The light of reason, which should still be espoused today, will be refracted from its true course; reason, manifested in its purest and most relevant form, is immediate, while the founders’ minds are historic, decayed and gone. Their views are only important insofar as they give a foundation upon which modern thinkers can safely tread; they provide the safety net into which today’s risk-takers will fall if they commit an error or fallacy. However, the net is there for emergencies, and should not be thought of as vehicle of convenience, as is often the case when pundits say, ‘what would the founders do?’ or ‘how would the founders act?’ By interpreting the Constitution that way, the logical conclusions should be that the second amendment provides for muskets, not automatic assault weapons, and the notions of racial equality built up during the 1960s (well after the founders’ lives) are irrelevant -- Thomas Jefferson, slaveowner, would surely not consent to an African-American president.

In fact, it is true laziness to rely on the interpretations of past leaders, whether they are famous, infamous, or anonymous; the great must look to the psychology of their own time for inspiration and direction. It is certainly acceptable to ask what the founders would have done, but one must put the answer into perspective, to see the context in which it was made, to chart the changes which have occurred over the 250 years America has been an independent country, and then come to a conclusion about its importance. If every political figure exercised their 21st century mind in this way, a far more powerful philosophy would emerge, one not rooted in the past, but rather nourished by it. Only through modern interpretation -- one perhaps built upon and not permanently anchored to the backs of our so-called ‘giants’ -- that a truly effective government can be achieved.

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