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Yesterday, in an NPR interview, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor promoted an interactive Website, iCivics. Although it is intended as a tool to educate middle school students about government, it’s still worth a moment of time from those of us who left middle school many years ago.  

iCivics was developed, O’Connor says, because “few states make civics and government a requirement anymore.”  I can think of another big reason that tools like iCivics are sorely needed: The Tea Party. Consider the following:

— The Salem Missouri Tea Party Webpage identifies Tea partiers as, among other things, citizens who:

… believe in smaller government, & responsible government. We support the American Dream, & believe in upholding the Ideals as set forth in the Constitution of the United States of America.

— At one of the first local St. Louis appearances of the Tea Party, an AFP-brokered meeting between a representative of Senator Claire McCaskill and several hundred Tea Partiers, a young man who grandiloquently attacked health care on constitutional grounds was the biggest hit of the evening with the rambunctious crowd.  

Emphasis on the constitution is a common theme with Tea Partiers, although one suspects that few of those cheering when the constitution is rhetorically flourished, know much more about the document than, as we recently learned, many avowed Christians know about the teachings of their own churches. Stanford Law School’s Larry Krammer contends that the Tea Party understanding of the Constitution often tends toward “some loose, ill-informed version of originalism.”

One could argue that the Tea Partiers’ constitution also carries the burden of their anxiety and resentment in the face of social change. An NPR report on the subject observed that:

Tea Party members are often vague about exactly how their constitutional rights are being denied. But they all believe the federal government has expanded far beyond what the Constitution intended.

The same report later asserts that though Tea Party “constitutional arguments may sound abstract, they are grounded in something visceral,” and quotes a Columbia Law Professor whose polls of Tea Party supporters leads him to conclude more specifically that:

A lot of this taps into people’s objections to Obama personally – you know, we’ve had all kinds of constitutional arguments that have been raised against Obama,” he says, “whether you’re pointing to the birther movement, for example, or constitutional objections to individual policies.

The upshot of all this commotion is simply that the Constitution is our newest bone of contention. A retrograde political element is trying to appropriate the document to assuage their social angst, and if progressives want to hold the line against their encroachments, they need tools like those the iCivics Project provides. If we don’t want people jerking their knees in time to canned Tea Party (or any other party) noise about the constitution or any other government topic, we are responsible to see that they get sufficient information – and preferably from sources a little more unbiased than the Glenn Becks of fringedom who are rushing in to fill the vacuum we have allowed to develop.