Anyone who has been through a breakup, like a divorce or the dissolution of a business partnership, knows they take on a life of their own. There is rarely one thing that sets the relationship off on the path to destruction. It is the accumulation of small things that build to an undefinable point where the relationship shifts from natural cooperation to natural opposition. Actions that used to build cooperation suddenly become points of contention until the two sides realize the relationship must end.
This is the dynamic in which most civic nationalist now find themselves with their old partner the “founding documents.” For longer than the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, the civic nationalist has looked at his citizenship as defined by the partnership with the founding of America. The Declaration and to a lesser extent the Constitution have been his life partner. These documents and the mythology that has been created around them are what make him whole.
These documents, along with the founding itself, exist within the larger definition of America that the civic nationalist will defend with his life. There is some variation in that some of them still promote the melting pot idea while others are in the creedal camp, but all of them are married to the general concept of America. They will defend America from critics on all sides, mostly from the Right, of course, but they will even make some noises about defending their love from the Left as well.
The problem is America does not love them anymore. Those founding documents, the marriage certificate of the relationship, no longer matter to America. The reason America keeps them locked away and rarely mentions them is they are just not that important because the relationship is not that important. America is ready to move onto to the new vibrant stage of its life. That means leaving behind the old phase, the marriage to the civic nationalists.
Like a jilted lover, the civic nationalists cannot accept it. Here is an example in a legacy publication defending the Declaration. The elevation of the Declaration over the actual founding documents of the country was the result of a prior rough patch in the relationship during the last century. The Caesarism of Roosevelt needed to be addressed, like an infidelity in a relationship. The solution was provided by Harry Jaffe, a second rate scholar who peddled bromides to third rate thinkers.
There was no way to square what the progressives had done in the first half of the twentieth century with the text and spirit of the Constitution. There was no way to challenge them as they controlled the important bits of society. The solution was to embrace a form of Jacobinism. America was now defined, so the theory goes, by the egalitarian spirit of the Declaration. This also allowed them to embrace the tyrant Lincoln as their new Moses.
The new vision of America the civic nationalist created in response to the authoritarianism of the new regime was made to look like tradition by rewriting the founding history. The real founding document was the Declaration. The Constitution was an imperfect compromise to get started. The Civil War was an effort to address the big flaws to bring the document in line with the Declaration. The Gettysburg Address was a restatement of the genuine founding ideal.
This is utter nonsense, but it kept the relationship going. Like the cuckold who convinces himself the wife is taking night classes at the university so she can get a better job once the kids are in school, the civic nationalists occupied themselves with the Lincoln fantasy. Meanwhile, the America they loved was getting busy with every left-wing fad that came out of the academy. She was no longer even trying to pretend that she cared about the relationship with the civic nationalists.
There are some civic nationalists who see the problem. They hope to refashion the relationship around something they call common good conservatism, which creates an open marriage between themselves and the Constitution. America can still carry on with the latest thing, as long as it does not threaten the marriage. The common good civic nationalists will step in to enforce discipline when needed. They imagine the cuckold finally gaining the courage to call his wife home.
In fairness, there are some within the civic nationalist space who sense that the relationship is over and it is time to move on. They mostly focus on the old originalism idea embraced by the legal wing of civic nationalism. Originalism seeks to elevate the text of the Constitution over legal aspirations to the contrary. The problem is they are left to defend a document that was flawed from the start and has been butchered by previous efforts to minimize it.
The hard cold truth is that the America the civic nationalists claim to love is not around anymore and she is never coming back. In fact, she never really existed. It was a creation of the last century. The America of the founding died at Gettysburg and was buried in Reconstruction. It took two wars in the 20th century to create a replacement, which maintained the trappings of the original, but was fundamentally different from the republic fashioned by the Founders.
The crisis of the present is not over the strains in the old relationship with the America imagined by the civic nationalists. It is the result of the America formed in the 20th century having no rationale in the 21st century. The America of the civic nationalist is dust in a grave, left untended in the 19th century. Not only is she never coming back, but she also cannot be replaced with anything similar. Like the cuckold whose wife has left for good, the civic nationalists need to move on with their lives.
Whatever comes next is going to be fashioned by those who close the door on the past and accept the present, along with what future can be made of it. There are lessons to be gleaned from America’s past. There are lessons to be gleaned from the Franco-Prussian War and Revolutions of 1848. Those lessons only matter if they are put to use understanding the present in order to create a future. That future is not going to include the founding documents moldering away in a museum.
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