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The Decline of the Constitution in Public Discourse

Posted By Joe Postell On August 25, 2008 @ 12:11 pm In First Principles | Comments Disabled

As all eyes turn to Denver and the Democratic National Convention this week, anticipation is building for Barack Obama’s address to a crowd of 75,000 at Invesco Field. The speech everyone is awaiting is another in a long line of addresses by both candidates this election cycle. What do these speeches tell us about the status of the Constitution in American politics today?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is that our public officials and candidates have progressively ignored the Constitution as a theme of their governing philosophy. Andrew E. Busch, Associate Professor of Political Science at Claremont-McKenna College, has recently chronicled the decline of our Constitution and its principles in public discourse [1]. Public officials from both parties have, to some degree, abandoned the task of discussing their constitutional philosophy when addressing the voters. Over the last 150 years, the downward trend in references to the Constitution by our public leaders has continued largely uninterrupted.

In particular, the record of 20th Century Presidents is decidedly mixed. Presidents typically present their vision and constitutional philosophy on memorable and ceremonial occasions – Inaugural Addresses and State of the Union Addresses. Professor Busch’s research reveals that only Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan averaged over 10 references to the Constitution in their State of the Union Addresses, and that the record of our most recent Presidents, from both parties, is discouraging:

References to Constitution in State of Union Addresses

The extent to which our presidential candidates will govern according to constitutional principles will be determined in part by how strongly they connect their policy proposals to those principles. Thus, as we listen to our presidential candidates this fall, we should bear in mind whether they judge the principles of our Constitution a worthy subject for discussion, or, alternatively, whether they will contribute to the ongoing decline of our understanding of those principles which constitute us as a nation.


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[1] has recently chronicled the decline of our Constitution and its principles in public discourse: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Thought/upload/sr_22.pdf

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