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Our Document No. 1

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Perhaps inspired by the Searchers’ great 1964 hit “Love Potion No. 9,” the Chinese Communist party seems to be rallying behind “Document No. 9.” As the New York Times reported last week, a memorandum with that title issued forth in April from a party office. While the wisdom of Documents Nos. 1-8 is lost in the mists of time, Document No. 9 has, in the months since its appearance, been read aloud to senior party cadres throughout China.

Constitution

The full text hasn’t been made public, but the memo apparently enumerates “seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.” The Chinese rulers are intelligent and experienced enemies of liberty. What are they worried about? Among other perils, the spread of Western notions of free markets, human rights, media independence, civic participation, and frank criticism of the ruling party. But No. 1 on the list is “Western constitutional democracy.”

The rulers of China are right to be alarmed. Their dictatorship is less stable than it appears. The idea of constitutional democracy is indeed subversive of a regime that now depends for its legitimacy solely on ever-rising living standards. What happens when—as surely must happen—there’s an interruption in the rise?

As Gary Schmitt and James W. Ceaser pointed out in this magazine last November, there’s a reason Alexis de Tocqueville’s Old Regime and the Revolution is being studied by high-ranking officials in China: because they fear their regime could suffer the fate that the old regime in France did in 1789. As Schmitt and Ceaser explain,

In Tocqueville’s account, the Old Regime in France went through two major phases. .  .  . In the second phase, modernizing French kings undermined the government’s traditional foundations—slowly at first, but at a gathering pace. .  .  . This second phase is the one in which China finds itself today. .  .  . As Tocqueville explains—in an analysis that could easily apply to Mao’s China—these successive efforts at modernization and control created “an immense empty space” between the government and the people, in which there were no intermediate institutions to allow the people’s voices to be heard or to mitigate the government’s control. Any remaining notion or practice of citizenship had been squeezed out. .  .  . The Chinese reader will almost certainly also be alarmed at encountering Tocqueville’s theory of the “revolution of rising expectations,” which outlines the dangers that accompany the process of change. .  .  . “Every abuse that is then eliminated seems to highlight those that remain. .  .  . [T]he evil has decreased, it is true, but the sensitivity is greater.” .  .  . Who in China today would not hear echoes of the French peasants’ grievances as they survey their own country, a population relieved of the worst abuses of Mao’s rule and used to rapidly rising incomes, but now facing an uncertain economic future while “party princelings” and their families continue to make millions through connections to the governing and party elite?

Schmitt and Ceaser’s analysis would suggest that Document No. 9 is unlikely to succeed in helping China’s old regime avert a fate like that of the French monarchy. But Document No. 9 can help Americans. It can help remind us of the centrality of constitutionalism—both our formal Constitution and the broader political, social, and economic constitution of our liberal democracy—to our experiment in freedom and self-government. 

The rulers of China do not like the idea of a governing document that derives its authority from We the People. The rulers of China do not like the idea of a governing document that limits government and enumerates its powers. The rulers of China do not like the idea of a governing document that separates powers and assigns responsibility. They do not like the idea of a governing document that at once secures citizens’ freedom and creates a government strong enough to govern effectively at home and abroad.

Americans are fortunate to live still under such a governing document—despite all the efforts of progressives to progress away from it. Conservatives are right to try to restore the Constitution to pride of place in our politics. It is, or should be, our Document No. 1. The Tea Party was much mocked when it made the Constitution a rallying cry, and when the Republican majority it helped produce in 2011 opened the new session of Congress by reading the Constitution on the House floor. But the Tea Party’s instinct was a sound one. 

Everyone knows there are disagreements between libertarian conservatives and national security conservatives, between populist conservatives and conservative elites, between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian conservatives. But constitutionalism unites almost all conservatives. Liberals can find common ground with the rulers of China in disdaining the Constitution. Conservatives can find in the Constitution a worthy standard for our movement, and one to which our fellow citizens can be persuaded to repair.

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