Saturday, September 21, 2019
September 21-22, 2019: Constitution Week: 21st Century Threats
[September 17th is Constitution Day, so to celebrate this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of contexts for that foundational American document. Leading up to this special weekend post on threats to the Constitution in 2019!]
On three distinct types of contemporary threats to our founding documents and ideals.
1) Evolution: No, not the frustratingly-still-controversial scientific theory, but rather the Constitution’s status as a living document about which I’ve written in most of the week’s posts. That status, which began immediately with the Bill of Rights and has been part of our government, laws, and civic society ever since, means that every aspect of the Constitution can and should be examined, debated, and potentially (if not at all lightly or quickly) changed in every era. Which also means that some challenges that might appear to be threats to Constitutional rights should be better understand as part of that natural and necessary process of evolution. I would put the continuing debates about the 2nd Amendment in that category—as much as I personally hate guns, I recognize that the “right to bear arms” is a phrase in that foundational document; but how to read that amendment (in full), and how to apply it to both modern technologies and 21st century society, are questions that we can and should continue debating.
2) Emoluments: Many aspects of the Constitution are far more straightforward and unambiguous than the 2nd Amendment, however, and in that category I would put both the Foreign and Domestic emoluments clauses in Articles I and II. So seriously have these prohibitions on presidents profiting from the office or having conflicts of interest been taken over the years that (to cite one famous example) Jimmy Carter sold his modest peanut farm before taking office in 1977. And yet each and every day of the last three years, Donald Trump and his family and friends have profited immeasurably from such emoluments—as I write this in early September, Vice President Pence and his entourage are staying at a Trump hotel in Ireland, hours away from their meetings in that country; and just a couple weeks ago Trump discussed hosting next year’s G7 meetings at another Trump resort in Florida. Those are only two of the countless ways that this president threatens this core Constitutional concept and limitation.
3) Essential: There are very serious potential consequences to those emoluments threats, particularly when it comes to foreign influences on, I dunno, small matters like election security. But I believe an even more essential element of our Constitutional rights and shared civic society is under threat in 2019: the promise of the Constitution’s opening phrase, “We the people.” As I argue in that hyperlinked book, and as this week’s posts have I hope made clear, both the Constitution itself and much of American history have failed to live up to our expressed national ideals. But the ideals remain, from that founding moment down to our present one, and at their core is a vision of a government, to quote one of our best presidents, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” To name just two examples from the couple of weeks before this writing, however, our federal government has both expressed an interest in doing away with birthright citizenship and submitted a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that employers should be able to fire employees due to their sexual orientation. The fundamental vision of both our laws and our people are under constant threat in 2019, threats that require from all of us both historical engagement and contemporary resistance.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?