To study and believe in a constitution—to give political allegiance to it as a nation’s highest law—requires a commitment to procedure. If the right rules are followed, if the procedures are fair, then the result, however regrettable, must be legitimate. I’ve been teaching and studying the U.S. Constitution for a quarter-century, and events have sometimes tugged at my procedural head and my substantive heart in different directions.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton, for example, struck me as a ludicrous comic-opera coup d’etat—but the House and Senate followed constitutional forms scrupulously, and had Clinton been removed he would have had to go. George Bush’s war in Iraq seemed at best reckless and at worst insane—but Bush obtained approval from Congress, as required by Article I, and the war became the nation’s war, fought in some way with my consent as a citizen. People put bumper stickers on their cars—pictures of Bush saying, “He’s not my president.” I thought that was untrue to the American system.
But procedure can carry us only so far. The Constitution does not exist on its own, as a kind of suprahuman imperative; it was created over time, and is followed today, to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” When “we the people” use it for these goals, mistakes may do harm, but they are legitimately the people’s acts.