Our Document No. 1
Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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.
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,
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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