Compromise and utopianism
Professor David Adamany in an essay written many years ago maintained that one consequence of the FDR's Court-packing plan of 1937 was that Roosevelt lost vital political capital that could have been spent on other liberal reforms. Most scholars agree that after the failed Court-packing plan and the failed purge of southern conservatives in 1938, the momentum for the Second New Deal was largely over, not to be revived until the 1960s.
Roosevelt’s experience may teach two related lessons about politics. The first is that politics cannot be about everything at once. Political movements must choose their issues. Abraham Lincoln urged his former Whig followers not to raise tariff issues in order to maintain a united front against the expansion of slavery. Ronald Reagan during his first term downplayed opposition to abortion in order to maintain a united front in favor budget cuts. Roosevelt, by choosing to emphasize judicial reform, diverted vital resources from previous fights for economic equality. The second is that politics makes strange bedfellows. To paraphrase Churchill on his alliance with Stalin, he would make a pact with the Devil to fight Hitler (I’ve forgotten the exact quote). Roosevelt’s coalition of racist southern populists and northern workers (who, as Paul Frymer points out, were not exactly racial egalitarians) accomplished much good. Roosevelt’s effort to forge a purer coalition stalled his program completely.For the past year, my friend and co-blogger Sandy Levinson has called for a political movement for constitutional reform. He is correct to note that many features of the contemporary constitution are undemocratic and that others suffer from different flaws. The call for a political movement, however, entails more than the observation that the constitution is defective. Rather, participants in the political movement must believe the defects of the constitution are significantly worse than the other ills of American politics so that, in the political conflicts between political conflicts, constitutional revision ought to take precedence over questions of war and peace, economic reform, environmental degradation, etc. At the very least, political resources allocated to those political struggles ought to be diverted. This, of course, raises two questions. On what issues should diversion take place? Who should be diverted? Perhaps a political movement for constitutional reform can be done without diversion, but the Roosevelt experience in 1937 suggests that liberals who engage in constitutional reform pay liberal costs for diverting the electorate. At the very least, those who attend Sandy's call for suggestions to how to form this political movement ought to take seriously the costs to other desired political movements and either explain why the benefits will outweigh the costs or why, in fact, this movement for constitutional reform will, unlike any other, have no substantial costs for liberal goals.
It is, of course, hard to disagree with Mark's general point. All politics involves compromise and tradeoffs, and I have long believed that the enemy of achieving some real goods is a utopian commitment to achieving the best. So one response to Mark is to pick and choose and specific problems with the Constitution and concentrate on those. As regular readers know, my greatest concern these days is the costs of being stuck with an incompetent president/commander-in-chief, which strikes me as an issue of transcendent importance given the ability of same to make truly important decisions of war/peace, life/death. I don't like the presidential veto, obviously, but I'd put that off if there were any prospect of adopting a vote of no confidence. And, for all of my dislike of life tenure for Supreme Court justices, I'd put it at the bottom of the list, since it really doesn't threaten us in the way that an incompetent president can. BUT, and here is where things get truly tricky, if one is also concerned about the way that the present constitutional system makes it difficult to achieve a whole bunch of programs--I am interested primarily in "progressive programs," but I have suggested that political conservatives shouldn't be much happier with regard to achieving their own legislative goals inasmuch as they have them--then it is indeed necessary to start pulling at the thread of our constitutional system even at the risk of unravelling significant aspects of the status quo.
The peculiarity of FDR's situation is that he perceived himself, at least as of 1936-37, as having a compliant Congress that would pretty much follow his lead. He viewed the only impediment to achieving his program as the Supreme Court. Thus the Court-packing plan. We know now that he was living in something of a fool's paradise, that Congress was ready to break free of his reins and would do so after his disastrous attempt to "purge" recalcitrant Southerners in 1938, after which the New Deal was basically over. The next time the stars were aligned for significant change was 1964-66, a period that lasted even a shorter time than 1933-39.
So there may be a time when what appears to be "utopian" may actually be "realistic." Consider Mark's own list of "questions of war and peace, economic reform, [and] environmental degradation." Isn't it more and more clear that our coming to grips with any of these may require fundamental constitutional reform? Or, perhaps things aren't so dire as Mark suggests with regard to our really having to choose. After all, our present reality is that there are no mainstream politicians--and no real popular political movement--willing to ask the kinds of questions about constitutional fundamentals that one found throughout the Progressive period. And it might be that the fear of opening up what some view as the Pandora's box of constitutional reform would lead to the making of certain compromises that are not on the table today. After all, the 17th Amendment finally got through the Senate in part because of a fear that enough states would call for a constitutional convention on the issue of popular election.
Can the American political system really not run and chew gum at the same time?