I woke up this morning thinking about the United States Constitution, specifically about the Preamble, which I can recite from memory. (Thanks, Schoolhouse Rock.)
The Preamble sets out the goals of our democratic republic. It famously begins, We the People of the United States. This means everyone is part of this enterprise, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or political views. It was part of the wisdom of the Founders to frame this document in such an expansive way, even though, at the time, only free men, who were overwhelmingly white, could vote. Much of the history of the United States has been about expanding our understanding of who “we the people” are, a process that continues to this day.
in Order to form a more perfect Union – We the People are, at this moment, moving away from a more perfect Union. I take this Constitutional call seriously and am sad and frightened about the current state of affairs, which is causing so many divides in our country. There are millions of people who are embroiled in an “us versus them” mentality over religion, political party, race. gender, ethnicity, and/or viewpoint on a particular issue. There are millions of people who can’t have a civil discussion of an issue without petty name-calling and dismissiveness of the other’s viewpoint. That moves us away from “a more perfect Union”.
establish Justice – Our Constitution creates an entire co-equal branch dedicated to this goal. Sadly, the independence of the judiciary is under threat, most obviously this week by the executive branch interfering in the sentencing of a friend of the president’s who was tried and found guilty by a jury on all seven counts with which he was charged. The Attorney General, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, is supposed to be the chief law officer for We the People; as such, most attornies-general have observed independence from the executive branch. AG Barr is not doing that. Chillingly, he has also ordered that no investigation into political campaigns can occur without him personally giving permission. This mean that the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot follow leads, collect evidence, question witnesses, or take any action unless Barr authorizes it. He could order investigations of Democratic candidates while blocking those of Republican candidates. Given that twelve Russian operatives are under indictment for election interference to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, this raises the specter of similar efforts by Russians or other foreign actors not being investigated at all, as long as they benefit the current administration and other Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, the Senate has been interfering with the judicial branch, too. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not bring President Obama’s federal court nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Not only did Merrick Garland not get a vote to join the Supreme Court but also dozens of nominees to lower courts were denied votes. McConnell has spent a lot of the Senate’s time pushing through the current administration’s judicial nominees, even those rated as “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. Traditionally in the Senate, sixty of one hundred votes would have been needed to bring these to the floor, but that rule has been suspended, so even the not-qualified candidates receive lifetime appointments to the courts with only fifty votes.
insure domestic Tranquility – Our domestic life is anything but tranquil. The incivility noted in the “more perfect Union” section too often devolves into verbal abuse and threats to personal safety. There have been threats of violence, even death, to journalists, public officeholders, diplomats, members of the military, and people who either question the administration or come forward to give truthful testimony. Even ordinary folks can be threatened over simple things like video games or expressing their opinion about books or topics of public interest.
Too many people are hurt or killed by violent acts, especially those involving firearms. Mass shootings and police shootings get the most media coverage, but every day people are shot by someone they know or are victims of accidental shootings. The majority of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. These are not marks of domestic tranquility.
Millions of people don’t have access to sufficient food, safe shelter, medical care, and other necessities of a dignified life. Most of them are employed, but not earning a living wage. Millions of people are suffering from addictions. Millions of people are exploited because of their gender, immigration status, age, or other factors that make them fearful to seek help. Millions of people face discrimination because of their race, gender, age, ethnicity, or beliefs. None of these things are tranquil for those suffering through them or for those who sympathize with them.
provide for the common defence – The United States military is the most powerful institution in the world. It should be used to defend the United States and our allies from aggression. Often, the presence of US military is enough to deter countries from attacking their neighbors. I am appalled by the way this administration has pulled back support for our allies, such as South Korea, Ukraine, NATO, and the Kurds. These actions make both the US and our allies less defended and less safe. The treatment of the Kurds is especially troubling. The Kurds did the bulk of the work in taking back land controlled by ISIS; the US withdrawal that the president declared after talking with the autocratic leader of Turkey left the Kurds with no protection from the Turks and the Russians who have taken over the Kurdish towns and driven the residents into exile. Meanwhile, ISIS, continues as a terrorist organization, which is a continuing threat to the US and our allies.
promote the general welfare – This is the phrase from the Preamble that I quote most often. The Constitution is calling us to care for one another. This is also sometimes called in our modern American English working for the common good. This is one of the purposes of our government, but too often government acts in the interests of those individuals, families, businesses, and organizations that are wealthy. This tiny fraction receives a lot of benefits that ordinary folks don’t. Case in point: the tax reform that gave permanent tax cuts to businesses and large tax cuts to the wealthy, while giving some short-term tax relief to some non-wealthy people and higher taxes to others.
Too often our elected officials ignore promoting the general welfare, instead focusing on their campaign donors, businesses in their district or state, and wealthy folks rather than what is good for the general population, both in their district/state and throughout the country. Votes are cast not in the interest of the whole populace but with an eye to what the voters in their party’s primary wants. Even worse, some officeholders feel that they only represent people of their party or those that voted for them. That is not the framework laid out by the Constitution. We the People expect our government officials to cooperate in passing, executing, and adjudicating laws that promote the general welfare and protect our rights, not to block a proposal because it originated in the other party or was passed by the other house of Congress. Examples of this are the hundreds of (mostly bipartisan) House-passed bills this session that Leader McConnell has blocked in the Senate and the comprehensive immigration reform passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate in 2013 but not brought up for a vote in the House because it would have passed without a majority of the Republican members voting in favor.
and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity – While I feel fortunate to have these blessings, so many others do not. They face discrimination, poverty, abuse, hunger and other problems every day. I mourn the country and world we are leaving to the younger generations and those to come. We are leaving them with division and peril, with our world damaged so much that some of the ecological systems will not be able to recover fully even over centuries. Recognizing this, many young people have taken action to demand change. The Sunrise movement works on issues of climate change and environmental degradation. After a mass shooting at their school, the students of Parkland High mobilized young people across the country to demand protection from gun violence. It is incumbent on all of us to support our younger generations, already part of We the People, and future generations who one day will be.
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – We the People established our government. It belongs to all of us, not just to a few of us. We need to hold government accountable for the purposes for which we established it. We need Congress to take responsibility for passing laws that are fair to everyone. We need them to exercise their Constitutional duty to declare war when necessary, rather than ceding that power to the commander-in-chief or military leaders. We need everyone to realize that Article II does not give presidents the power to do whatever they want. They are subject to Congressional oversight and judicial proceedings. The courts have to realize that they exist to interpret the Constitution and laws, not write them.
It is troubling that a large percentage of people in this country today tell pollsters that they believe Congress and the courts should get out of the president’s way so that he can do what he wants quickly. This is incredibly dangerous to our democratic republic. We the People must be informed on what the Constitution dictates and hold officeholders and other public servants to it. Those who commit serious breaches of the Constitution should resign. If they don’t, they should be removed by legal means or, at the very least, not re-elected or re-appointed.
I have not been silent on these issues but, given the troubling events of the last few weeks, I felt the need to write this lengthy post to be among those sounding the alarm that our country is in danger. Like me, most of us do not have a large megaphone to broadcast our voices far and wide, but if enough of us speak up in defense of our Constitution, our government will hear the voices of We the People.