Saturday, February 8, 2020


Week 37: Constitutionalism

On Tuesday night, an action of historical insignificance took place. It was, however, a tremendously significant action in terms of the philosophy it represented. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up President Trump’s State of the Union speech, she made a spectacle of herself that will be forgotten within a few news cycles. Nevertheless, she spoke volumes about a matter of existential import: the role that the Constitution of the United States of America should play in our nation’s life.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires the President to provide a State of the Union to Congress, stating that the President, “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Consequently, the document that Speaker Pelosi methodically formed into four piles and tore up was a document that creators of our Republic recognized as important.

Notwithstanding documentation associated with bills and laws, the Constitution requires only four other forms of documentation for the business of our nation. Article I, Section 2 requires a census every 10 years. Article I, Section 5 requires the House of Representatives and the Senate to keep a Journal of Proceedings. Article II, Section 3 has been discussed above. Article III, Section 3 requires the testimony of two first-hand witnesses when trying someone for treason. That’s it. Those are the things that the Framers deemed important enough to memorialize through formal documentation by requiring them in our fundamental governing law.

Speaker Pelosi’s behavior was not a bold statement, as some have said. It was childish and petty. She said it was a speech that was full of lies. While I have not gone back and fact-checked every claim in the speech, I did spot check it and found evidence to support his claims. Regarding the employment and unemployment information the President related to Congress – a significant focus of the speech – I found ample proof supporting his claims by conducting a quick and simple review of data on the Web site of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This search also revealed the highest levels of education among African Americans, which is germane to his discussion of education generally and to the funding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities specifically.

As I think most people would acknowledge, the President is oft given to hyperbole. Achievements are regularly described as being the “biggest” or the “best” in the history of our nation. I would tend to argue with this, considering the historical context of the achievements made by our elected and appointed officials, particularly those in the first century of our nation. It is, however, President Trump’s penchant for hyperbole that some citizens find endearing and that other citizens find offensive. That is why it is so important to seek out data for ourselves, because at the end of the day, pretty much every politician, the Speaker of the House most certainly included, is given to hyperbole and even outright lies. With the so-called fact checkers being equally partisan and corrupt, the responsibility for finding the truth rests with us, the citizens.

As I mentioned above, the political importance of the tearing of the speech shall pass, as shall Trump’s tweets, Schumer’s bloviating, Bolton’s book leaks and Paul’s revelation of the identity of the so-called whistleblower. Their moment in the spotlight will be short-lived, perhaps with the exception of the President, as we tend to remember presidents and what they accomplish in our collective memory.

What does Speaker Pelosi’s action reveal about the political philosophies at play in our nation, and what does it mean for our future and for the generations to come?

To me, the tearing of the speech is an apropos metaphor for how the left and right conceptualize the Constitution. Generally, the left views the Constitution as a “living” document, subject to broad interpretation that is responsive to the changes in cultural norms of the time. In other words, it should be informed and modified by the day and age in which it is being applied. Generally, the right views the Constitution with a sense of permanence, subject to interpretation that endeavors to effect an understanding of the intent of the Framers. In other words, it should inform our culture, not be changed by it, unless such change is so momentous that it calls for an amendment to the Constitution. For example, the end of slavery, the process for selecting those who represent us, and the greater recognition of suffrage rights were important enough to amend the Constitution. Interestingly, these and other amendments all advance the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

What makes a nation? Generally speaking, in the Old World and in the nations of the indigenous peoples of America, the unifying force in nationhood was an allegiance to a monarch, chief, sultan or some other supreme individual or family, as well as things like a common language, forms of dress, religious beliefs, and other customs.

As a nation of immigrants, mindful of the unique role that Native Americans play in our nation’s history, Americans have not had those common things described above. People came to our shores, voluntarily and involuntarily, with differences as numerous at the nations and times from whence they came. But for our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, we would be little more than a random collection of random peoples. It is the Declaration that sets forth our shared principles, regardless of any individual principles we hold as members of some group, such as those of faith, culture, etc. It is the Constitution that codifies our agreement for how we, as citizens, interact with our government and one another.

Many people came to our shores to escape the whimsical rule of despots. In earlier times, people were subjects who were at the will of sovereigns, individuals prone to the same faults and foibles as the rest of us. (And because of inbreeding among the royal houses of the world, some were prone to additional conditions that affected their sanity and judgment. But that’s a topic for another day.) In socialist regimes, such as the former USSR, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela, to name a few, the same lack of fidelity to the law that was true for medieval despots has proven true for the politburos and dictators of these regimes.

Our system of government, as designed by the Framers, was intended to protect the citizens from abuses by the government, principally in Articles I, II and IV. It was also designed to assure equality under the law, to protect one citizen from abuse at the hands of another, principally in Article III.

One of the many alluring draws of America is the Constitution and the predictable and consistent government it assures its citizens. A “living” Constitution, as conceived by the left, opens the door, as cultural norms happen to change with changing times, to removing predictability and consistency in terms of how we interact with our government and with one another. The promise of America becomes a sort of bait-and-switch.

As conceived by the right, the Constitution also “lives.” It does so through the Amendment process, which was designed to be somewhat laborious, because changing the underlying manner in which we govern ourselves is a matter of import and gravity. It harkens back to the Declaration, which admonishes us to avoid changing forms of government for light and transient causes.

In 1776, just prior to signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This statement conveyed two important points. First, it conveyed the grave nature associated with signing the Declaration. They were committing treason against Great Britain. They were in a real sense committing their very lives to the propositions contained therein. Second, it recognized the fact that, to be a nation, the Declaration was shared set of beliefs that made all people of the American continent one. The Declaration, and later the Constitution, would form the unifying framework for what it means to be American.

Are these beliefs not sacred? If they are not, short of one’s faith in God, I do not know what might be sacred. If they are not, it seems the sacrifices that the signers made – and indeed they made serious sacrifices – were thus made in vain.

That is why Pelosi’s act was so repugnant and so revealing. Not only did it dishonor the heroic Americans called out in the speech, it served as a clear metaphor for the political left’s view and opinion of the Constitution and what it mandates. The inspired and ingenious system of government that the Framers devised is, to the political left, a relic of the Enlightenment, a vestige of a corrupt Western civilization, filled with bias – conscious and unconscious. The requirements contained in the Constitution are not – as Pelosi demonstrated – worth the paper on which they are printed.

I reject such views and opinions. But for the Constitution and its Amendment process, it is quite possible that slavery and repression of women may have persisted much longer than they did. Of course, it would have been so much better had those sinful conditions been remedied in 1789. The Framers knew these conditions were a blight on the people of this nation. That is why they included an end to the importation of slaves in the Constitution, and that is why they put in place the Amendment process – to enable future generations to cure the ills they could not cure in their time. Through the lens of history, one can readily understand that, if the Constitution were to be successfully ratified, some tragic concessions had to be made, but they were – at the time – necessary to establish a path that would lead to a more perfect union, and the Amendment process enabled future generations to walk that path.

Again, I call special attention to those words, “a more perfect union.” The Framers knew that they and we are imperfect creatures. Perfection is unattainable. That is why utopian promises of any politician are nothing more than dangerous lies. The Constitution, however, provides a process for righting wrongs and curing ills. It does, indeed, live and thrive as designed.

As debates take place and ads are run, let us ask ourselves which candidates will preserve the guarantees of the Declaration and the Constitution. If any among us are inclined to be one-issue voters, let the preservation of the Constitution be that issue. Actually, every other issue is encompassed in this one all-important issue. Will we vote based on a reverence for and protection of the Declaration and Constitution or will we vote based on the ever-changing, numerous and distinct, and sometimes divisive social norms of the times? It appears clear to me which choice leads to the promotion of happiness, which is, according to the Framers, a key function of government, and is, according to Aristotle, the preeminent purpose of life.

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