BRIGHT IDEAS: Robert Tsai on Eloquence & Reason

eloquence and reason.jpgI am pleased to have Robert Tsai as our first author in the Bright Ideas series. Robert is an associate professor at American University. He started teaching at the University of Oregon, where he received the university’s Lorry I. Lokey Award for exemplary interdisciplinary scholarship and the law school’s Orlando J. Hollis Teaching Award. His papers have twice been selected for the Stanford-Yale Junior Faculty Forum: once in constitutional theory and once in constitutional history. Before becoming a professor, Robert clerked for Hugh H. Bownes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and Denny Chin, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. His primary research interests include American political culture, the discourses of popular sovereignty, radical constitutionalism, the rules of criminal procedure, and the interaction between courts and other institutions. And Robert has guest blogged with us too.

So here is Robert Tsai on his book, Eloquence & Reason, (Yale University Press, 2008)


For as long as I can remember, I have believed in the First Amendment. But I could not put my finger on the source of this vague feeling, which ripened over time. I could not recall anyone telling me I had to obey that provision, above all others, in the United States Constitution. It just made sense. Initially as an immigrant to this country and later as a student in the public schools, I took it on faith that to be an American was to enjoy the rights to express myself and to worship as I saw fit.

Even as I began to doubt that any complex democracy could actually strike a maximal rights posture, I remained struck by just how deeply ingrained this default position was. The modern First Amendment persists even though most countries have considered and rejected the strong pro-rights position. It occurred to me that, for better or worse, the values of the First Amendment comprise elemental features of American national identity. A number of distinguished thinkers have devoted their careers to assessing whether privileging freedom of expression is normatively desirable. I have been more interested in how we arrived in such a state of affairs and what it says about our political order.

The challenging question is: how do you prove these intuitions about the First Amendment to be true? Eloquence and Reason tackles this project mostly by showing how activists, lawyers, judges, and even presidents have employed the First Amendment. In the process, they created and helped to sustain a political culture in which certain political values became privileged. An ever-tighter linkage was created in the public mind between the First Amendment and the citizen’s sense of self. A language of rights arose and became systematized. Citizens learned to characterize a wide range of social matters as First Amendment problems, and advocates became highly skilled at leveraging the comparative advantages of the various forms of constitutional discourse.

To illustrate these themes, the book juxtaposes activists who agitated for civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s with social conservatives who sought to alter the law’s relationship with people of faith in the final decades of the twentieth century. It also examines how presidents can change the way people talk and think about constitutional rights. I discuss how Franklin Roosevelt prioritized the right of conscience—an idea not mentioned in the Constitution—and thereby pressured the Supreme Court to give it greater credence. Similarly, Ronald Reagan accentuated the right of religious expression and discouraged separationist discourse in constitutional debate.

It turns out that the actual wording of the First Amendment has played a relatively small part in how the law has developed. Instead, human beings turned to the language of the Constitution to master the world around them. Except in rare cases, the Constitution does not dictate answers so much as it empowers people to battle over plausible answers. It’s an unsettling answer to some, but it’s the only satisfactory answer for why people respect the Constitution even if they have never read it; and for why one can obey the First Amendment even though a denizen of eighteenth century America would have had difficulty imagining its current form.

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3 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    “the Constitution does not dictate answers so much as it empowers people to battle over plausible answers. “

    Are the “people” here Supreme Court lawyers, who battle over plausible answers and then have members of the Supreme Court dictate the answers? Or are you referring more to the public debate over what the Constitution means?

  2. Robert Tsai says:

    Orin: the people include lawyers, activists, and other political elites, as well as ordinary people who are mobilized or turn to the courts. Anyone can purport to speak on behalf of the people, but most of the time, constitutional meaning is determined by those who exercise control over existing institutions and the prevailing culture.

  3. Robert Tsai says:

    Anyone interested in an exchange between Jim Fleming, Boston University, and me over “Eloquence and Reason” can go to the following.