Today is Constitution Day, celebrated annually on the anniversary of our founding document’s final adoption at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (it was finally ratified two years later).
It’s worth talking about this year in particular. The importance of our national charter has been on my mind constantly during this election season. The enormous, bewildering success of Donald Trump’s campaign has brought an appalling reality to the surface, a state of affairs I never would have dreamed existed as recently as a few months ago, but one that has plainly been brewing for decades, at least. That is, there are plainly tens of millions of voting age Americans, maybe as many as half of us, with no knowledge of, let alone reverence for, the ONLY THING IN THIS WORLD THAT KEEPS THEM FREE. (Or relatively free, if you care to qualify it.)
One of the few things that usually can unite even widely disparate politicians in American public life is a deep respect for the Constitution (and if not that, at least a working knowledge of it, or the need to pay political lip service to it). Conservatives and Liberals can differ widely about their interpretation of it, but if one side proposed a toast to the document, the other side would join in, even if they were drinking to different ideas of what it is and stands for. The beauty of the system is that they can argue about it, and work within it, and accomplish things (or sometimes, be prevented from doing them, and that’s not always a bad thing.) They can argue about it, and we can argue about it. Until we can’t.
The pre-Constitutional, or extra-Constitutional mentality can best be described as “tribal”. Prior to recent times, that was what most governments frankly were, and many still are. The idea behind it, if you can dignify it with the word “idea” , is basically “might is right”. Government exists to vanquish enemies to the state through violence, both home and abroad. The definition of what constitutes an enemy can be extremely broad as articulated by the political leadership. The individual has no rights, and there are no checks on government. The Constitution changed that, and remains the only protector against arbitrary rule by fiat.
Back in the day we all learned that in school. At quite a YOUNG age. And it got reinforced and reinforced and reinforced. And it’s a good thing it did, because it’s an important lesson. The history of mankind has been painted in oceans of blood. And if America has occasionally shed blood unjustly, only think how much more would have been shed without the Constitution in place.
Of course, not every one has always held the national document sacred. There have remained millions whose mentality remains the old tribal one, a mentality that predates the caveman, which indeed goes back to the beginning of time. It consists of “me and mine first, at whatever cost”. Terrifyingly, it is this mindset which recently seems to have gotten the upper hand. There seems to be millions of Americans who have either never heard of the Constitution, or don’t know what those words mean, or they don’t believe them, or they don’t care. And this ignorance is dangerous not only to others, but to themselves. And somehow this isn’t being articulated loudly and clearly enough on the political stage. We are in danger of losing all of our freedoms, of electing a leader who will ignore the Bill of Rights, who has promised to prosecute or jail journalists, who has promised harm to entire classes of human beings in our midst, and much else. And millions of people, clearly not perceiving that they too would be harmed by all this, are along for the ride.
My terror stems from this reality: it’s not just about this election cycle. If Trumps loses, whew! But guess what? Those millions of ignorant souls are still out there. If our free society is to survive, a MASSIVE education effort is going to need to be made by EVERYBODY who understands what’s at stake. Because going forward it looks like every election is going to start being a referendum on whether the Constitution will even exist any more. Do you think there aren’t other Trumps waiting in the wings?