What seems to be creeping into our conflicting social and political ideals we hold as being American is that somehow these ideals are written inside the Constitution. In actuality our ideals have been formed by our collective spirit represented by the Constitution. While Americans in general hold the Constitution dearly to our hearts, the traditions, ideals, our determination to achieve as a nation, our firm beliefs in our Bill of Rights and promoting them beyond our borders, and all that welcoming of the melting pot diversity… is less about a guarantee by our Constitution and more a spirit of the nation that was spawned by the success of our Constitution. For example, the Constitution allows Congress to make laws regarding immigration.. but it’s the spirit of America that determines the extent… and even compassion… of the content and intensity of those laws. Good or bad.. how we create those laws, or any laws, is largely a matter of timing. Many times historical timing, as events of the day unfold, can affect the outcome of legislation. The Constitution assures our government reflects the will of the people, but there is no guarantee how the will of the people can or will translate to legislation favored by all… or even does the job it was anticipated to do. As a democracy we are good and great and all-powerful, and all those wonderful things… but we are still a democracy made up of human beings who can and do screw up… and collectively… if it’s the will of the people.
Back when the Founding Fathers wrote the document and the states ratified it and it became our nation’s organizational template for a government.. no one in our entire history has had a greater faith in the hope that the crazy grand experiment in democracy would work than the people who were there when it all started. With each passing year a greater confidence and allegiance was earned from those who had faith and trust and hope in that process. Likely we can define the Civil War as our coming-of-age.. and all of us late comers to the American democratic process in subsequent generations now have an allegiance that far outweighs the original faith in the hope that it actually works… because after nearly 240 years the system has surely demonstrated itself. Now the faith that we have is not a hope that it works, like the original Americans hoped for, but we have a faith and trust that the Constitution WILL work… if we continue our allegiance to it.
There are a lot of people in the new here-&-now of American politics that tend to use the Constitution as a shield. A justification. A waving of it like they are sole standard bearers to present their own version of self-righteousness. Even using it as some extended quasi-religious icon to impose some perceived righteous morality… or as a political bible reflecting the wisdom of 18th century political sages who by their nature of being exalted visionaries, are never to be questioned (yet somehow they were only human as well). Many imply the use of the “We the people…” phrase to somehow pass a cautionary warning to emphasize the limitations of government in spite of what the Constitution is meant to establish. And, of course, reading into its intentions by the Framers of its 18th century words rather than what the words themselves mean in the 21st century.
SideNote: From my vantage point, the preamble, from which everyone likes to highlight the “We the people..” to define our American form of democracy.. is simply “just” a preamble. When you read it…
“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
…it is essentially the intro paragraph of what is so follow that the states were to ratify. A kind of proclamation that what is to follow as agreed upon by all the signatories representing the people of America at the time. In spite of the fact that we had to memorize it as school children, it is neither a pledge, an oath, a promise, or even a declaration. The preamble has no substantive meaning by itself other than to define the reason for what was to follow.. which is the true importance of the document that sets the rules for a representative government… a republic.. being presented by the “we the people” of that day and age. The representation that “We the people..” in the preamble as having some patriotic meaning in itself simply evolved from the concept of a representative government.. in the words of Lincoln.. “of the people, by the people, and for the people…”. One might even see in the exaggerated high font penmanship that those three words are also a bit of leftover defiance to the King of England and a snob-nose to other European monarchs of the day. Since then the phrase has been assigned to a more nationalistic application as a kind of political defiance when government, or political opposition, appears to be deviating from a preferred Constitutional interpretation. It’s come to be a kind of politically weaponized extrapolation that “We, the people…” is a culmination of what our American form of democracy means to Americans. In contemporary terms of today, “Liberals want to destroy anything related to ‘We the people..’,” according to Conservatives.
Perhaps we should be pledging our allegiance to the Constitution, each time affirming that which the Founding Fathers and the citizens of that day, affirmed in the ratification process.
Having Faith And Current Events
These are indeed troubling social and political times, much of it being led and fed by a controversial President who won an election set up within the confines of the Constitutionally defined electoral college, although this time only represented by a minority of voters.. a fortunately rare occurrence in our history. That in itself poses a Constitutional dilemma and subsequent debate.. but will likely never change. The President’s arbitrary defiance of certain Constitutional authority, a defiance to presidential traditions and behaviors, and inappropriate rhetoric to fit any occasion, is making most Americans wonder about the future. Now his impeachment is adding to the national stress.
The thing to remember in all this is that is that these are all simply events within a democratic framework and not the end of America or American democracy. I have mentioned often in past posts that my faith rests with the Constitution, hence I don’t see some inevitable downfall of American society after all this. I place my faith and trust in a Constitution that has weathered a lot in the last 240+ years. If we hold true to the institutions that the Constitution created and with the “sub-institutions” that have traditionally served us for the last nearly 100 years, the nation will stay the course because Americans do believe in it. There is no question that the success of our government depends entirely on the people who live within its framework and those who participate in its institutions as elected or appointed leaders.
Keep in mind the Constitution itself is no guarantee that events one way or another will or will not happen that won’t challenge our moral fiber or make us question our own democratic process. The Constitution is a tool… and because we are human we will sometimes not use that tool as wisely as we could, or should… but our ways to solve our problems and excesses are inside that document. Also, there is also no guarantee that everything that emanates from this country, be it our patriotism, our national spirit, our American culture, ideology.. use of force, striving for peace, or our use of technology, is always correct or successful. We are not a perfect people with perfect form of government. But that doesn’t keep us from trying… and our Constitution allows us to try. Our ideals, our “American way”, evolved from our living within the confines, the borders, the limitations, dictated by the Constitution in order for everyone to contribute collectively as the will of the people… one person, one vote… free speech.
Yet We Can Screw Up… Collectively
Now, there’s absolutely no question that American history is filled with our past where we have had significant trouble living up to those ideals, from oppression of native Americans, slavery, women’s suffrage, Japanese internment, to name just a few. The current political mood of the country partially underscores the not-so-hidden sub-culture that the Constitution is a white man’s document, written by white men, for white men. To some measure I tend to agree with that context that our Founding Fathers indeed lived in a far different cultural and political age of what was accepted as daily norms that we certainly do not want to be perceived as being accepted in our current definition of American democracy. Our Constitution was created inside a world of white male Christian dominance in all facets of daily living, but not created intentionally to overtly promote racism or gender exclusion, yet rather to define a way all white men could govern themselves equally and fairly within an accepted society of white entitlement. It is oft debated in this day and age that the “all men are created equal” back in 1776 meant exactly that and not that “men” was some extended definition of “all humankind”. Yet we have evolved to believe that indeed all mankind is created equal under the law.
…is that as we begin what is likely going to be one of the most difficult years in the last 50 years, we remember that the events that might unfold do not necessarily threaten the Constitution. We are sure to hear “Constitutional crisis” more than once but that’s not the Constitution losing its effectiveness, rather the inverse; something is challenging the Constitutional process in some form. Now.. this is not to suggest that unfolding events couldn’t deeply affect the country in some way… threats of war, political turmoil, national crisis, domestic violence. Judging from what I witnessed in the country in 1968-69-70 things could very much look like the world coming to an end. But the Constitution will remain intact as long as we have faith that it will, with our allegiance to it. More than anything this means we hold true toward the institutions that enforce the application of Constitutional rule of law.
Just a suggestion… if in the coming year you feel things are going to hell step outside and find the American flag flying somewhere; over the local post office, the school down the block, city hall. Don’t do this on a windless day.. make sure a breeze is actually making the flag wave. Pause for a moment and look up at it. That feeling you are getting is the Constitution in action and the culture that grew from it. Don’t fail it… and it won’t fail us. That worked for me back during the 60’s Days of Rage. Our ideals will get back into focus. It’s less about your personal perception of how America should be, and more about our collective experience on how we got here… together.