Michele Bachmann really wants you to know she’s a “constitutional conservative.” The term is featured prominently on her web ads. She mentioned it three times in her announcement speech. It’s in the first sentence of her official bio. But what exactly does it mean? While the term can signify different things to different people, it turns out it’s especially important to Bachmann. As a candidate who doesn’t want to get confined to a social conservative ghetto in an election year that is revolving around fiscal and economic issues—and as someone with a well-earned reputation for extremism—her strong “constitutional conservative” stance indicates, but only to those who are trained to listen, a decidedly radical agenda that is at least as congenial to rabid social conservatives as it is to property-rights absolutists or anti-tax zealots. In short, it enables her to run as a middle-of-the-road conservative who just wants to get rid of ObamaCare and balance the budget, even as she lets the initiated know she has other, more ambitious, plans for the country.
Despite the growing ubiquity of the “constitutional conservative” identifier in the Tea Party movement and the right-wing blogosphere, there’s no authorized definition of the term and some who proudly wear the label doubtless disagree about its meaning. Adam J. White of the Weekly Standard attributes its recent emergence to an influential 2009 essay in the Wall Street Journal by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz. The Berkowitz formulation did indeed focus on the need for Republicans to return to first principles, with “the constitutional order” providing the key optic. But he also called “moderation” in the pursuit of liberty an essential constitutional concept, which is not a term one would normally associate with Michele Bachmann or Constitution-brandishing Tea Party activists.
Among this crowd, it more commonly connotes an allegiance to a set of fixed—eternally fixed, for the more religiously inclined—ideas of how government should operate in every field. Constitutional conservatives want to distinguish themselves from the more tradition-bound type of conservatives who adapt to changing social and economic needs and, for that matter, to the perceived wants and needs of the populace. They rarely come right out and denounce democracy, of course, but it’s clear they think their liberties are endangered by people who, say, would like government-guaranteed access to affordable health care.
Conservative polemicist and radio host Mark Levin offered an exceptionally clear explanation of the connection between this kind of affinity for the Constitution as the sum of political wisdom and a degree of hostility to democracy:
[F]or the Founding Fathers, individual liberty was not possible without private property rights. For the Founding Fathers, the only legitimate government was not only one that was instituted with the consent of the people, but one that would preserve and protect the individual’s right to property. Jefferson talked about it, talked about ‘tyranny of the legislature.’ So the consent of the governed is only part of it.
Levin’s words are an appropriate reminder that constitutional conservatives think of America as a sort of ruined paradise, bestowed a perfect form of government by its wise Founders but gradually imperiled by the looting impulses of voters and politicians. In their backwards-looking vision, constitutional conservatives like to talk about the inalienable rights conferred by the Founders—not specifically in the Constitution, as a matter of fact, but in the Declaration of Independence, which is frequently and intentionally conflated with the Constitution as the part of the Founders’ design. It’s from the Declaration, for instance, that today’s conservatives derive their belief that “natural rights” (often interpreted to include quasi-absolute property rights or the prerogatives of the traditional family), as well as the “rights of the unborn,” were fundamental to the American political experiment and made immutable by their divine origin.
This Restorationist character of constitutional conservatism was nicely captured by The Economist’s pseudonymous American reporter w.w. in a commentary on Bachmann’s Iowa launch event:
[I]f one bothers to really think about it, constitutional conservativism, as construed by Ms Bachmann and her boosters, might be better labeled "constitutional restorationism", which I think more clearly conveys the idea of a return to the system of government laid out in the constitution, interpreted as the authors intended. But this idea, if taken really seriously, is staggeringly radical.
No kidding. But that’s where the dog whistle aspect of calling yourself a constitutional conservative comes into play. The obvious utility of the label is that it hints at a far more radical agenda than meets the untrained eye, all the while elevating the proud bearer above the factional disputes of the conservative movement’s economic and cultural factions.
On the economic side of the coin, most mainstream politicians are not going to publicly say that the monstrosities they associate with ObamaCare, “redistribution of wealth,” or Keynesian stimulus techniques are rooted in their desire to reverse the New Deal, as well as a long chain of Supreme Court decisions that also happened to make possible the abolition of segregation. But many conservative activists actually think that way, and have in mind as their goal nothing so modest as a mere rollback of federal social programs to the levels of the Bush or even the Reagan administration. Bachmann and other candidates can talk to most voters as though they are simply trying to defend America from a vast overreach by the 44th president. But to the radicalized conservative base that dominates contests like the Iowa Caucuses, the constitutional conservative label hints broadly at a more audacious agenda ultimately aimed at bringing back the lost American Eden of the 1920s, if not an earlier era.
On the religious side of the coin, meanwhile, the phrase is equally if not even more useful to Bachmann. The Christian Right, which is Bachmann’s authentic political home, has largely organized itself over the years around the proposition that activist judges have destroyed the true faith-based character of the Republic, along with unleashing a “holocaust” of legalized abortion and inflicting various indignities on the patriarchal family. Restoring the Founders’ design, in their eyes, means overturning Roe v. Wade and abandoning the idolatrous fiction of church-state separation. In this sense, it’s very handy that Bachmann can use the phrase to efficiently remind the faithful that she’s still in their camp by pledging allegiance to those God-fearing Founders, while avoiding the need to dwell on particular issues.
But will this gambit succeed in allowing Bachmann to seek to keep the base excited while simultaneously reaching out beyond its ranks? That’s hard to say. Bachmann’s own intimate connections to the more radical strains of conservative thinking, which long predate the Tea Party movement, are there for anyone to see. And there is only so much mileage she can gain from her so-far successful efforts to exceed the expectations of those who had the vague but erroneous impression that her extremist tendencies are the product of stupidity or indiscipline.
It is clear, though, that Bachmann’s task is made much easier by the tendency of observers unfamiliar with the code to dismiss constitutional conservatism as meaningless or banal. Those two words pack a lot of punch.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.