Text from my remarks on Constitution Day
by Rob Roper
There are a couple of things we hear a lot today in political speeches, on the Sunday morning talk shows, and in letters to the editor in our local papers. One is that we are in danger of losing our democracy!… And another is that “authoritarianism” or some version of it — fascism is an equally popular term — is just around the corner.
I won’t say that either of these warnings isn’t a valid concern given that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson instructed us. But I will say, if you are worried about either or both of these predictions coming to fruition, the best thing you can do is understand, celebrate, embrace, and enforce the letter and the spirit of the most amazing, timeless, governing document in human history, the United States Constitution.
Now, about losing our democracy. The democratic republic we as a nation have and built over the last two and half-ish centuries – one that has done more to advance the causes human freedom, human rights, human prosperity than any other in the history of human civilization — is the result of fidelity to to our Constitution and the principles that make up its foundation – limited government, separation and decentralization of political powers, individual rights, and equality of all citizens before the law. Where and when we are in fact in danger of “losing our democracy,” it is because we are more and more straying from those principles set forth in our Declaration of Independence and abandoning the safeguards put in place to preserve them in our Constitution.
So, if you want to save “our democracy” – and by that I mean our unique and exceptional republic that Benjamin Franklin warned us we would need to work to keep. If we want to save these blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, the best thing you can do is to protect and preserve our Constitution. Insist that its boundaries, checks and balances be enforced by the people we elect. They all swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. But it’s our job as citizens to make sure they live up to that oath. There’s a reason the document starts out with “We the people.” That’s where the buck starts, and that’s where the buck ultimately stops.
Now, about authoritarianism. If you’re really worried about the possibility of living under an increasingly authoritarian government, well, The US Constitution is probably the most anti-authoritarian document ever produced to govern a nation. Be grateful for it!
After all, what is authoritarianism? It is a system of government in which the government – not the individual citizens, the government – has the ultimate authority to make decisions about how we act and allocate resources. But look at Bill of Rights in our Constitution. It’s basically a very long and comprehensive list of everything the government does NOT have the authority to do.
The First Amendment could just as easily read, “Congress does not have the authority to make laws abridging freedom of speech or of the press.” Congress does not have the authority to make laws regarding how citizens worship, or with whom we chose to associate.
Our politicians do not have the authority to prohibit us from keeping and bearing arms.
They do not have the authority to invade the security of our persons, our homes, our papers without just cause. They do not have the authority to deprive us of life, liberty, or property without due process of law…. Or inflict upon us cruel and unusual punishments.
The list goes on. And even beyond the list the 9th Amendment might as well say, just to be safe, anything we left out here by accident, well, Congress doesn’t have the authority to do that either. And thanks to the 14th Amendment, these rules apply to our state lawmakers as well as federal.
So, if you are concerned that authoritarianism – or a government dictatorship or fascism… whatever you want to call it — is a looming threat to our democracy and way of life, the US Constitution is your shield and your sword. Pick it up and use it!
However, if you’re in favor of the government being the ultimate decider… of, say, what kind of car people can drive… how you’re allowed to heat your home in winter… what your kids learn in school… What speech is allowed to be published and distributed in public forums, and what speech should be punished… even down to what kind of bag you’re allowed to use at the grocery store and what kind of light bulbs you’re allowed to buy…. Well then, be careful, because you just might be the very authoritarian — or fascist or dictatorial — threat we’ve all been hearing so much about, and the US Constitution is not your friend. Because, I’ll say it again, the most anti-authoritarian governing document for a nation the world has ever seen is US Constitution – as it is written.
But what is the US Constitution but words on a page. So fragile, in fact, that it has to be kept in a special high tech container in the National Archives or else it would just turn to just dust and blow away in the wind.
That ink and parchment has no power of its own. The rights and principles that our constitution speaks to only exist to the extent that we as a people and a culture want and are willing to hold those values in our hearts, live those values in our lives, infuse those values into our communities, and teach these values to the next generation.
Clearly we need to do a better job of this. And doing that job is up to us. We the people.
So, I will end my thoughts today with a proposal. It’s not my own, and I don’t remember where I originally heard it, but I think it’s a good one. And it is this: When school children stand up first thing in the morning, look at our flag, and put their hands on their hearts – instead of the Pledge of Allegiance, let’s have them recite the Preamble to our Constitution.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish [our] Constitution for the United States of America.
Because before we should ask anyone to pledge loyalty to a flag – what is a flag? — we need to do our job of teaching and explaining what they are really pledging loyalty to. The United States is unique in that we were founded upon an idea – that we are all created equal with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. What we are pledging allegiance to is those principles – not our government, regardless of what it does. Or politicians regardless of what they do. Or a particular political party or political leader – but those principles and that idea.
Our constitution is the mechanism through which we attempt to live up to that idea – “more perfectly.” We’ll never be perfect, as the document itself in its wisdom recognizes, but its promise is that we can be a more perfect nation today than we were yesterday, and more perfect nation tomorrow than we are today. That has been the true history – the observable path — of our nation from its birth to the present, and this is precisely because of our great Constitution, not in spite of it. It can be our future too if, as Ben Franklin challenged us, we can keep it.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience in Vermont politics including three years service as chair of the Vermont Republican Party and nine years as President of the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont’s free market think tank.