“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” –Benjamin Franklin
This past week, two seemingly unrelated events occurred that brought the 18th century to life in our modern age. Unless you are completely unaware (and if you are, I doubt you would bother to read this), Saturday was the “March for Our Lives,” the highly contrived display of juveniles calling for an end to an essential freedom. But earlier in the week, an Uber autonomous taxi struck and killed a pedestrian. Later reports laid the blame on the pedestrian, but that didn’t stop government from forcing every company testing autonomous driving technology to pull their vehicles off public roads.
What Franklin and the other Founder’s understood is there is a dynamic tension between safety and liberty. The reality is that they cannot perfectly coexist, and so the question is about how to set the dynamic to serve the most good. Think on it for a moment, and you’ll realize the two are polar opposites. Any society that promises absolute safety for it’s citizens offers no liberties, not even within the confines of the home. Conversely, the society that offers unlimited freedom has nothing in the way of societal protections.
What those wise old men created was a system that separated a subset of freedoms from everything else, and referred to them as “essential liberties.” They considered them essential for the simple reason that these freedoms guarantee every other human liberty. Among those considered absolutely necessary are the freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into an individual’s life and incarceration without first being tried by one’s peers, the right to peaceably assemble and address the government’s representatives, the right to worship and the right to defend oneself against the government, by force of arms if necessary. They packaged the essential liberties into the Bill of Rights – something the anti-federalists* demanded in order to secure their votes for ratification of the new Constitution.
What wasn’t mentioned, in the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation or the Declaration of Independence was the idea of a personal safety. Personal safety was generally accepted as an individual responsibility in the new republic.
Generally, but not universally. There have always been those who believe the duty of government is not the assurance of liberty, but dedication to protection from danger. While the nation was founded by, and throughout our history has rewarded risk takers, those who are risk averse have also made their homes among us. As the nation has aged, our society has reached agreement that certain personal liberties could be exchanged for government assurances of a sort of communal safety. Big Brother might not be watching your every move, but he’ll watch enough to make certain that some actions are prevented (or at least punished).
This brings me back to Franklin, Uber and the “#MarchForOurLives.” While Poor Richard might have been bemused at the idea of the government regulating transportation companies to this extent, he would have been willing to go along. After all, transportation is not an essential liberty. The government could ban all mechanized modes of getting about tomorrow as being inherently unsafe (and a glance at NTSB statistics will tell you just how unsafe they remain, despite government’s best attempts at making them safe), but you could still figure out a way to get from point A to B.
However, Ben would have taken umbrage at Saturday’s connived attempt to toss away one of those essential liberties, the right (and to many of the founders, the responsibility** of all citizens) to own firearms. I understand this concept is alien to the children who participated who, with the surety only born from the ignorance of youth, believe any idea older than they is ancient and outdated. It certainly is not alien to the people of Think Progress and the other left wing organizations that organized the protest. Indeed, removing it from the pantheon of essential liberties has been a goal of theirs from the beginning of the progressive movement, because they understand it is that which undergirds the individual’s ability to ensure his ability to exercise any of the others.
Think Progress has the right to assemble, and the even the right to dissemble on the nature of the Constitution. But the children whose unnatural fears they’re preying upon should also take note of the last part of the Franklin quote above. When he said those who desired safety over liberty deserved neither the safety they seek, nor the protections of liberty, he was referring to this other passage he had a part in crafting:
-That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
This was the American Declaration of Independence, which stated the case that government does not exist to provide for personal safety, and that the duty of all people when confronted with a government that places benevolent tyranny ahead of individual liberty is to overthrow that government – by force, if necessary. That is the Pandora’s box they are toying with. Beware opening the lid. You won’t like what you find inside.
*For those of you not well versed in US history, the anti-federalists were Americans who opposed the adoption of the Constitution. Indeed, they opposed the idea of any strong government that could bind the individual states into a permanent union. Among their number were such notables as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and James Monroe.
**The various Founding Fathers have numerous dissertations on a citizen’s duty to maintain a firearm and remain proficient in its use, but this quote from Thomas Jefferson sums up the prevailing sentiment: “The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”
There’s been some furor over NBC political news director Chuck Todd’s description of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore the other day. You can watch the segment below:
The flak Todd is catching is legitimate: he is expressing the very liberal (and very wrong) concept of government and liberty; to wit, that individual rights and freedoms are granted by the government. The fact is that the Founding Fathers established the Constitution to limit the powers of the government, even going so far as including the 10th Amendment (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited it by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people“) in the Bill of Rights. It also fits with the very declaration that created the nation to begin with (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed“).
If what Chuck Todd was saying – that our rights come from government, and so therefore government can remove those rights as it chooses – was actually considered radical by the media establishment, the outrage be deafening. Sadly, the media establishment is overrun with liberals. Liberal dogma, which depends on the idea that people are subservient to government, fully accepts Todd’s characterization. Indeed, it lionizes it. The outrage response is not to Todd’s remarks, but to articles like this one.
I wasn’t going to bother to commenting on the entire thing. After all, it’s just another illustration of the fundamental divide between conservatives and liberals. You can’t reconcile that basic difference – conservatives know that rights do not come from government and liberals feel that they should. But then, something happened in my own life that brought this problem to the fore.
My brother-in-law works long, hard hours at his job and to help him out, my wife and I have been watching my 13 year old nephew from the time he gets done with school until her brother gets home from work. This also means I get to help him with his homework. The subjects he usually asks for help with are the three I’ve always been comfortable with: math, science and history (or in the modern vernacular, social studies). Yesterday, he asked if he could quiz me on the stuff he learned in history that day. It’s a little game we play – he’s a bright kid and he tries to catch me with trick questions. To my surprise he broke out a pocket Constitution and asked, “What are the rights given by the First Amendment?”.
I told him none. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, religion, the press and assembly – but it doesn’t give them to anyone.
Now, ordinarily I would be ecstatic that the very basics of our government are being taught in our schools. Civics is a subject that is not given nearly enough study by our youth. But his reaction to my answer might have me rethinking that position. You see, he was shocked – astonished, even – by it. Then he said, “But my teacher said our rights come from the Constitution.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been angered by that. I mean, textbooks are written by liberals, curriculum are designed by liberals, and most of our educators are liberals. But that such drivel is being taught had me seething. To my nephew’s credit, he was able to follow along as I outlined how the Constitution does not grant rights, but was written to ensure the government protects rights. But the fact that I spent 90 minutes deleting the programming the liberal establishment was implanting in one impressionable 13 year old not only angered me, it frightened me.
This is the problem with liberal academics today. Rather than an exploration of ideas, it has become a process of indoctrination into the liberal world view. Even though my nephew’s pocket Constitution included the Declaration of Independence, his class hadn’t covered it. They hadn’t even read it – and in fact, had been told not to. Educators have figured a novel way of turning the Constitution in on itself, in a version of double-speak that would leave even Orwell breathless.
If we are not having our kids explore the very foundations of the government they’ll soon be entrusted with guiding, what are we inviting? The answer to that is also self-evident: a subversion of the very country our forebears worked so hard to create and preserve. The liberal dream realized: the fairest, most equal society in history, with the rights you deserve provided by a benevolent government.
Of course, we’ve seen that movie before, thousands of times. It was the underpinning of the French Revolution, complete with guillotines for those who would not accept the government’s benevolence. It girded the Soviet Union’s gulags, the reeducation camps in Maoist China, the chaos in the streets of Venezuela. It was the result our founders feared – and from what I’m see happening today, the one I’m afraid we’re fast headed towards.
This morning, our President-elect took to Twitter with this:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Immediately, the world became unhinged.
“Flag burning is reprehensible, but it’s protected by the Constitution” is the general refrain I’m hearing. But does that statement hold water?
The supposed Constitutional protection for flag burning isn’t actually written anywhere into the Constitution. In fact, 48 states and the federal government have explicit statutes proscribing a penalty for burning, or otherwise desecrating, the United States flag. The federal statute is 18 US Code 700 and in part reads,
Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
I realize I’ve probably just sent your heads spinning, so I’ll give you a moment to recover. Go ahead, grab a glass of water (or whatever) and I’ll wait.
(Oh, good. You made it back. Had me worried there, for a minute. I know this is pretty shocking stuff and I’d hate to think I just gave someone a heart attack.)
Chances are, anyone under the age of 45 has been indoctrinated that flag burning is a Constitutional right. Indoctrinated by the media, indoctrinated by schools, indoctrinated by every institution controlled by the socialist (and treasonous) left in America. Sadly, that’s most of them. Actually, liberals have been trying the “Constitutionally protected” approach to flag burning going all the way back to 1907. That was the year the Supreme Court decided in Halter v. Nebraska that flag desecration was not a fundamental right.
What most people point to now in their zeal defend flag burning is the 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson, in which the court invalidated the conviction of Gregory Lee Johnson. In 1984, Johnson decided to make his displeasure with President Reagan’s policies known by burning a flag during the Republican National Convention. He was convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and fined $2,000. He appealed, claiming his First Amendment right to political speech was violated.
What’s interesting is that the court did not overturn his conviction on First Amendment grounds. That narrative springs forth from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence, in which he wrote:
For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself. But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution. So I agree with the Court that he must go free
Kennedy felt the need to mention the speech issue in his concurrence because that is not the grounds the Court used for issuing it’s 5-4 reversal. Instead, the court based the majority opinion on the basis that the Texas statute was designed to prevent rioting. Since both the state and defendant agreed that there was no riot, or even an incitement to riot, the statute violated the defendant’s 8th and 14th Amendment rights.
Not his 1st Amendment rights.
Why does this matter, you might ask? Isn’t a violation of a citizen’s rights still egregious, regardless of which right was violated? That’s rhetorical, of course. Any time the justice system violates Constitutionally protected rights is a perversion of justice. That’s precisely what the Court upheld.
However, buried in the Court’s decision was an affirmation of the 1907 decision in Halter v. Nebraska. That was the first Supreme Court case that upheld flag desecration as not protected by the Constitution. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Brennan dances around the subject of 1st Amendment protection of flag burning. He states that while the Court cannot find reason to grant a special class to speech involving the flag, it is within Congress’ purview to do just that, concluding:
Congress has, for example, enacted precatory regulations describing the proper treatment of the flag, see36 U.S.C. §§ 173-177, and we cast no doubt on the legitimacy of its interest in making such recommendations.
So, if you set aside what you’ve been told and what you’ve been taught, all of a sudden the President-elect’s statement is no longer quite so outlandish as at first seems. I cannot say I agree with his idea of stripping citizenship. After all, there is no crime for which we strip citizenship, not even treason. But jail and a fine? That seems perfectly acceptable. And as it turns out, Constitutional, as well.
Ever since getting blown out in Wisconsin, Donald Trump has been hollering about the way we select presidential candidates, calling it unfair, or deriding it as a “rigged system.” Sure enough, the left-of-center pundits and writers who support him, and most of the misguided people who’ve pledged their allegiance to the “Trump Train,” have suddenly decided that a system that’s been around almost as long as the United States is fundamentally flawed. I shouldn’t be surprised. The typical Trumpster also tends to think the US Constitution is terribly flawed and no longer relevant.
The delegate system is based on the same idea that fueled the adoption of our Constitution. That is, the best system of governance is a representative republic, with semi-autonomous states sharing power with a centralized national government. As conceived by the men who gave us our Constitution, the office of President was not to be directly entrusted to the general populace. Rather, they conceived the idea of electors being chosen by the people. The electors would then choose the President. They had two reasons for this, both outlined in Federalist 68. The first is that the general populace can be easily swayed by emotional appeals to our baser instincts. As Alexander Hamilton noted, “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.” The second was they understood the vast majority of citizens are not active politically, nor are they as attuned to the issues and policies as their brethren who are politically active. Their decision was that by entrusting the selection of Chief Executive to a group of people who were politically active, they were ensuring that the gravitas of the position was honored. Yet at the same time, because the electors were selected by the citizenry, the people’s voice would be heard. Hamilton, again: “… the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
I realize this conception of how our political system was created will confound most of you. After all, you’ve heard since childhood that the United States is a democracy. Every politician declares it during every speech. Most sadly, we’re taught in school that because we vote, we’re a democracy. Some people are taught that we’re a representative democracy; that our votes go to elect representatives who are supposed to vote the way we want them to. That’s also incorrect! We are a representative republic. We elect representatives. The representatives we elect are then to debate and vote on the issues and policies as best they see fit. The decisions they reach are not bound by any measure to popular will. We then can decide if we approve of those decisions at re-election time. There have been occasions – quite a few, actually – when a representative has defied popular will in the votes they cast. One of the most celebrated books of the 20th century, Profiles in Courage, highlights eight such occasions that profoundly changed the history of our nation.
Our founders were against the idea of political parties, but their creation is a natural outgrowth of politics. It’s only natural that people who share similar views and goals would coalesce into groups working towards implementing those ideas into law and policy. Even in our nascent stages, the republic soon found itself being divided into political parties. The very men who were opposed to the idea of political parties were creating them. As those parties formed, they began to decide on which candidates for office would receive the backing of the party – including candidates for President. Should it be a surprise that they adopted a similar system for choosing their candidates as the one outlined in the Constitution?
Of course not. Many of you seem surprised at the notion that the popular vote doesn’t decide who a party’s nominee for political office. In order to understand why this is, you need to realize that prior to 1972, most states didn’t even have primary elections. Those that did, did not “bind” their delegates to vote for any particular candidate. The delegates, in most cases, were selected at state conventions. In the remainder, delegates were directly chosen during a caucus. In either case, the general public was barred from attending: only members of the party could choose their delegates. And quite often, the national party conventions did not resolve the issue of who the Presidential nominee would be on the first ballot of delegates. It seems to me that the system worked rather well. In the case of the Republicans, the convention chaos resulted in some pretty momentous choices; men who went on to become some of our most consequential Presidents. Lincoln (3rd ballot), Harding (10th), and Eisenhower (2nd) were all the products of contested/brokered conventions. In fact, during the 1952 convention Robert Taft accused Eisenhower of “stealing” delegates that were supposedly his. That led to the adoption of the “Fair Play” rule. In an ironic twist, it is that rule which Trump is using to accuse Cruz and Kasich of “stealing” delegates this year.
The liberalization of the nomination process began in 1972, in the aftermath of the riots at the Chicago and Miami party conventions in 1968. Most states adopted primaries, many opened those primaries up to the general public (no party affiliation required) and states bound the delegates chosen to reflect the popular vote at the convention for at least the first ballot. Only a few states opted to remain with caucuses or conventions selecting their delegates. And only one state does not bind any of their delegates, while several have a mix of bound and unbound delegates. The desired effect, the nominee being chosen by popular affirmation, has been achieved. Indeed, only the 1976 Republican and 1980 Democratic conventions have offered any drama, although in both cases the insurgent candidate was defeated between the end of the primaries and the convention.
Since the liberalization of the nomination process, consider the men nominated by the popular vote: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Dole, George W. Bush, and Romney. Only one of those men could be considered consequential in a positive manner. Only 3 of them have managed to win the Presidency, and two of those left office with the country in far worse shape than when they entered. If we were to change anything as regards candidate selection, I would prefer we return to closed caucuses and conventions without general public input. You may call it “undemocratic,” but the objective is to find the best candidate; to find people who can represent the values of the party and lead the nation. The general public has demonstrated exactly what the founders feared: an incredible ability to choose the very worst people for the most important job in the world.
Consider the roll call of Presidents since 1972 and see if you can actually dispute that. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama have been elected as President. One was forced from office, another was impeached. Both Bushes left the nation economically in tatters. Carter is best remembered for his failures, while Obama is ending his Presidency with his signature achievement about to go belly up and the nation slipping back towards recession. Only Reagan managed to accomplish anything of note, but even his accomplishments have proven to be short-lived. Even ending the Cold War hasn’t lasted; today we’re faced with a resurgent and belligerent Russia and China.
You might also argue that by returning a system by which party insiders, we would be disenfranchising you. I don’t think so. Remember, the nominee is supposed to represent the party, not the general populace. I know many people who call themselves Republican or Democrat, but the reality is, they only are on election day, and often only on Presidential Election day. The other 1,460 days of the election cycle they do absolutely nothing to support the party. It’s kind of like telling people you’re a member of the cast of your favorite TV show, because you can quote some dialogue and know all the characters. In other words, if you want a say in who a party nominates, it would mean actually getting involved in the political system. Simply voting is a privilege of being a citizen. Performing the actual duties of citizenship – canvassing for candidates, raising funds, perhaps serving in local government, attending party meetings – these are also ways of becoming involved with a party at the local level. Not incidentally, it’s also how you become more acquainted with the political system.
In this year when so many of you seem more interested in blowing up the system, rather than putting in the individual effort to make it “work,” it’s also the best way to change the things about the system you don’t like. And who knows? Maybe, instead of whiners-in-chief, we can actually get back to commanders-in-chief, to Senators who worry more about representing their states than the national party committee and Representatives with more than graft on their minds.
About two months ago, I addressed Sen. Ted Cruz’ eligibility to assume the Presidency.Apparently, based on my Twitter feed over the past 18 hours or so, people are still confused. So here’s a quick synopsis, for those of you still insisting that Cruz’ is somehow ineligible.
- Article 1, Section 8 clearly defines that all matters relating to citizenship are defined by Congress.
- Congress defined natural citizenship in 1952, under 8 US Code 1401.
- Under paragraph D of that statute, Senator Cruz is a “natural born citizen.” Further, if you really wanted to say his mother had taken residence in Canada more than a year prior to his birth, he would still be eligible under paragraph G.
So, sorry birthers. This is Civics 101 stuff, and about as uncomplicated as it gets.
I recently got into a bit of a Facebook kerfluffle. The reason is, I re-posted the following statement from a fellow veteran:
“This is how I feel when a civilian thanks me for my service and protecting our “freedom”. I do my best not to go high and right as I kindly explain to them “You’re welcome, however no one in the military is protecting your freedom. If they were, they would have cleaned out Washington DC years ago. How many “terrorists” have limited, restricted or taken away your Constitutional rights? The military may at times temporarily provide for your safety and security, but they don’t do shit to protect your freedom… Get my point”
I realize this POV is probably more than a little unsettling to most of you, so allow me to explain why there are quite a few of vets who feel this way.
Let me start at the very beginning. Every person who enlists in any military service is required to take the following oath:
“I,<state your name>, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
The bit about defending the Constitution, and bearing true faith and allegiance to it, would certainly make it seem like the enlistee was fired up about defending our liberties and freedoms. And most are. Yes, during my tour of duty I met plenty of people who initially enlisted for a variety of reasons, and those weren’t always the most altruistic. But it becomes nearly impossible to survive basic training without believing you’re putting yourself through hell for a damned good cause.
But you’ll also notice that the enlistee also swears to take orders from the President and the officers the President appoints over the enlistee. That makes virtually every military order also a political order. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s worked out well for most of our history. After all, there are plenty of republics that devolved into military dictatorship precisely because the military was not under control of the political institutions, or became factionalized under different political elements. The Founders were well aware of the dangers a politically isolated military would pose to a republic, and ensuring the military remained subservient to the political machinery was another genius stroke they had.
But the downside to this arrangement is what we’ve experienced over the past 15 years or so. The military has always been used by US Presidents as a foreign policy political tool (what exactly do you think Teddy Roosevelt was referring to as the “Big Stick”?). Throughout our history, though, most Presidents have used military action to either (a) defend or evacuate American citizens abroad or (b) prosecute actions against declared enemies of the US, which would also make them enemies of the US Constitution. But beginning with the Presidency of George W. Bush, America’s military was tasked with a new role: prosecuting military actions against…well, they still aren’t sure, really.
The ambiguity came after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Prior to that date, terrorists were considered criminals, regardless of where they hailed from. Even those sponsored by foreign governments, such as the group that went around bombing German discos in the mid-80’s. The response was unerring, and consistent: hunt and prosecute the terrorists legally while holding the foreign government militarily responsible. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush made a tenuous argument that the government of Iraq was responsible and invaded. But rather than hunt down the remaining members of Al-Qaeda for legal prosecution, we also invaded Afghanistan, also on the tenuous precept that their lack of a stable government allowed the terrorists to establish a de facto government.
At the same, a series of civil liberty circumventing statutes were passed and signed into law: everything from the Patriot Act and “enhanced interrogations” to warrantless wiretapping and travel restrictions were enacted. These were political decisions, which have not had political consequences for the enactors. Indeed, President Obama has actually curtailed civil liberties even further and set the table for his successor to all but abolish the Bill of Rights, should he choose.
The military, being under the control of the body politic, has had virtually no choice but to snap to and salute as these abuses take place. Their only alternatives are to either raise concerns about the political situation or mutiny. The first option, historically, has never been met by the public with much sympathy. Not that there haven’t been quite a few courageous officers who’ve tried to question under what authority the President and Congress are deriving their extra-constitutional powers, but these men and women were quietly shown the door. These people understand the military is no longer defending the Constitution, but instead defending the political process that is allowing the Constitution to be shredded bit by bit.
As for a mutiny, that remains highly unlikely. The idea of armed soldiers marching on Capitol Hill and the White House remains unfathomable to not only most Americans but most of the Americans in uniform. Again, it would be bucking nearly 240 years of history and tradition. Of course, the Romans couldn’t imagine a military leader crossing the Rubicon with an armed legion – until they clamored for Julius Caesar to do just that.
I wonder: how close are we to an armored division crossing the Potomac?
“In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.” -Mark Twain
This is going to be a long post, so I’ll beg forgiveness now. But what needs to be said is far too important to attempt to keep this brief, or under 750 words – for if it were that simple, then it wouldn’t need to be said.
Our nation is at a crossroads of our history. Down one path lay the glory and honor bestowed on us by the men whose names we learn to cherish as children: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln. Down the other lay one paved in darkness and guarded by men we’ve learned to revile: Stalin, Hitler, Napolean, Caesar. We haven’t arrived at this juncture by accident, but it wasn’t pre-ordained, either. We came to this point willingly and of our own accord.
How did we arrive here? Because when times call for the greatest fortitude, people clamor for illusory safety and willingly allow government to abscond with what we once described as inalienable liberties. While our nation followed this course during the 18th and 19th centuries, we never forgot – or allowed our elected representatives – to forget the meaning of the word “inalienable.” Even the most egregious violations of the Bill of Rights and examples of executive overreach were quickly repealed. Or failing that, the third leg of our government – the courts – would invalidate the law in question. During the Civil War, the government violated the Third Amendment (prohibiting quartering soldiers in private homes), the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment), and Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution (the nation’s first military draft was enacted by executive order, not an act of Congress). By the war’s end, troops were no longer quartered in private homes, the Army commanders who had inflicted the most horrible deprivations the mind can create were themselves jailed and the Supreme Court invalidated the draft.
By the time the Great Depression had plunged the world into chaos, the citizenry was panicked. Governments around the world responded by instituting varying levels of socialism. In nations with a history of repressive governments, the repression reached new levels of inhumanity. Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan and China all gave rise to governments that (as a matter of policy) established mass executions and detentions while squelching all opposition. Spain erupted into a civil war between two equally brutal and repressive regimes.
In the US we instituted the “New Deal,” a series of programs that increased the government’s role in the economic and business life of the nation to unprecedented levels. This intrusion into previously private affairs didn’t infringe on the basic freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence. But it did set an important milestone in the affairs of the nation. It marked the firs time the nation willingly exchanged freedom of action for the illusion of security. (Let’s face facts: the national economy in 1939 was only marginally better than in 1929).
However, with the outbreak of World War II, Americans accepted not only having their inalienable rights curtailed, but in several case outright removed. Japanese-Americans by the tens of thousands were jailed, their citizenship nullified by executive order, in violation of the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. First Amendment protections were stripped away, as a compliant press and population acquiesced to censorship on a grandiose scale. Defendants were not allowed to exercise their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in “national security” trials. J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI routinely searched homes and businesses for saboteurs – without warrants, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
After the war ended, these Constitutional violations ended. But 44 months of war and deprivation, after 12 years of government intrusion during the Great Depression, had inoculated the American public from the idea that government needed to be guarded against. An entire generation had now grown up knowing only a federal bureaucracy that claimed it could solve the problems of mankind.
“If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy” -James Madison
Thanks to the relentless indoctrination our nation has endured for almost 80 years, both from popular culture and the way we teach (or more accurately, fail to teach) history and civics, the United States of America is no longer the home of the brave. This is not to say that there are not courageous individuals among us. Obviously there are, or else things like this wouldn’t happen. But our society no longer expects bravery as the norm, which is why we celebrate those willing to run into collapsing towers.
This transformation of the American from rugged individual to fearful member of the collective gave rise to egregious abuses of power over the last six decades. Some we still remember: McCarthyism, Watergate, Iran-Contra. Others have slipped the collective conscience and disappeared in to mists of time. The common thread between all, though, is an underlying belief that government should have more power than the people it serves – all in the name of safety. It’s how we’ve wound up with massive programs. It’s how lawmakers and executives of both major parties can say with a straight face programs like PRISM are necessary to keep Americans safe.
This brings us to the 21st century, a century that began with the downing of the World Trade Center. The American populace screamed for vengeance, yelled for justice – but more importantly, demanded the government make them safe. And the government responded to those demands; not with a measured voice reassuring the populace that the terrorists would be caught and punished. Instead, two major wars were launched by executive fiat. Yes, the Congress technically voted to invade those foreign countries, but the vote was actually to cede the power vested in them by the Constitution to the Executive branch. Seemingly overnight, we were a nation at war.
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” -Edward R. Murrow
In the same way the United States has ceased being collectively valorous, we have sullied the definition of patriotism. Being a patriot requires more than waving a flag on Independence Day, singing “God Bless America” during a baseball game; it is more than putting a lapel pin on your suit jacket or cheering returning soldiers. These are nothing more than outward displays of nationalism. Regardless of a nation’s ideals, such actions are performed by supposed patriots of every nation. Britons stand when a band strikes up “God Save the Queen,” Saudi’s bow when the King’s limo passes by.
On the other hand, the patriot understands and defends the ideals which separate his nation from all others. The original American patriots pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Many gave their lives, more sacrificed their fortunes. None, however, were forced to give up their honor. Rather, their honor was restored by fighting for the ideals in the document they signed in 1776. In our modern era, the rights they enshrined as being inalienable, rights that laid the foundation for our nation, are being eroded by the misnamed Patriot Act, by secret courts and warrants, by an executive branch that sees little value in life or liberty. Where are the modern patriots?
The reality is patriotism is a vanishing character from our nation. More than half of our citizens are perfectly happy to be spied on by their government, not caring this can only occur as an abrogation of the Fourth Amendment. Over the past week, I continuously hear statements like “If the government wants to watch me watch porn, I don’t care.” Nobody much cares if the Nazi’s can’t march in Washington, so long as they can watch Honey Boo-Boo. After all, freedom of speech isn’t for people who might have offensive views but only those with whom we can commiserate. Abridging the Second Amendment, redefining it if necessary, is fine. The public doesn’t care, so long as it can be made to feel safer. Seventh and Eighth Amendment protections for suspected terrorists need not apply – especially if the hapless citizen accused of terrorism is overseas. Why bother with a trial, when a missile tipped robot can eliminate the problem? If a bunch of kids in Brooklyn get stopped and frisked by the NYPD for the awful crime of walking around, who cares about their rights to due process? The cops might find a gun on one of them.
All of this is now acceptable to an American people conditioned towards cowardice. Our forefathers abandoned personal safety and financial security in the pursuit of liberty. They did this at the founding of the nation and as they expanded the national boundaries westward. They did this as they boarded creaky ships to cross the Atlantic in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. These people were patriots. They did not fear their government, they stood for their rights and took it to task when government dared infringe upon them.
“When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty.”― Thomas Jefferson
Despite the platitudes from the elected, our modern government is no longer “of the people, by the people and for the people.” The modern American constantly lives in fear of what the government may do to them, rather than holding government to account for its actions. They often don’t even realize how afraid of government they’ve become. They live in fear of being audited by the IRS, of having their driving privileges revoked, of having their property seized by “eminent domain.” They live in fear that their employer will lose a government contract, of being denied a government loan, of being denied admission to college.
So, my question to you is: what are you willing to give up for liberty, those of you who call yourselves patriots? Are you willing to sacrifice your life? Your house? Your bank account? Your Social Security check? How about the big screen television or cell phone? Because our reality is that very few are willing to sacrifice anything. It’s why we’ve become a nation of nationalists, not patriots. We cower when we should fight. If you want to know why you are no longer safe in your cities, America, look no further than the rot that infects your citizenry’s soul. Your complacency as the nation’s values were stolen is the reason our foreign enemies are emboldened.
“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and perceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and last some crisis shows what we have become. ” ― Brooke Foss Westcott
America is now the nation of cowards. As such, we’ve become the patriotism optional society.
May God help us all.
“Trust me government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what’s best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs–in the people. The responsibility to live up to that trust is where it belongs, in their elected leaders. That kind of relationship, between the people and their elected leaders, is a special kind of compact. Three hundred and sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact”; an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws. The single act–the voluntary binding together of free people to live under the law–set the pattern for what was to come. A century and a half later, the descendants of those people pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to found this nation. Some forfeited their fortunes and their lives; none sacrificed honor. Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln called upon the people of all America to renew their dedication and their commitment to a government of, for and by the people. Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them–for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?”
The words above were spoken by Ronald Reagan, during his acceptance of the Republican nomination for President in 1980. He was not prescient regarding today’s headlines – he was very much speaking about how the triple whammy of Vietnam, Watergate and Carter had ruined American trust in government.
You have to wonder what he would say about events 9 years after his death.
The scandals rolling out of the White House over the past month seem to cascade, gaining in severity as each new revelation makes the headlines. First there was the attempted cover-up over what happened at the Benghazi consulate on September 11, 2012. That quickly was pushed aside by the revelations that the Department of Justice was wiretapping reporters, going so far as to name one a criminal co-conspirator, and using the secret FISA courts to obtain the warrants. A few days after that came news the IRS was targeting conservative, religious and civil libertarian groups – which despite repeated administration attempts to at turns sweep the investigations away or stonewall them, continue to amaze in their revelations of government run amok. Then last week, we learned that the National Security Agency (perhaps better called the National Paranoia Agency) is actively spying on, well, on EVERYONE.
Of course, to hear the usual suspects, the spying is neither intrusive (hey, it’s only every piece of communication you’ve taken part in over the past 6 years) nor targeted at people who’ve done nothing wrong. But for that argument to have any merit, you need to believe that the government can be trusted. And since late April, the only thing the government has successfully demonstrated is that it cannot be trusted to make a ham sandwich, much less not abuse power.
As I wrote about earlier, there is a common thread that binds all of these revealed actions together: the belief that government knows best. While I welcome that traditional liberals have joined with conservatives in decrying over all of this (you can read some excellent opinion articles here, here and here), the fact is that those traditional liberals are primarily responsible for the way this administration continues to circumvent the Constitution. They have spent 70 years pushing an agenda that calls for greater and farther reaching government “solutions.” It is the progressive tradition that claims the Constitution is an outdated document. It is their current tribune and the man currently occupying the Oval Office, who has publicly lamented that the supreme law of the land fails to define what the “government can do for you” and that he is “constrained by the system the Founders put in place.”
The abuses of power we’re now witness to, are the direct results of that philosophy. After all, were the government limited in authority and power as originally planned by the Founding Fathers, then such things could not have come to pass. Hopefully, America is starting to awaken to this reality. If Barack Obama is the last President to wield such immense power, if this is the last Congress to pass sweeping laws that (at best) skirt Constitutional limitations, then this period of our history will serve to have forever discredited liberalism as a political theory.
We can only hope.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.
One of those arcane topics that makes its way into political conversation is the Electoral College. Despite the fact that it should be treated as a pretty technical subject, it is usually given the same bumper-sticker treatment that serves as political discussion these days. Popular sentiment boils down to, the will of the people is ignored by the Electoral College and it should be reformed or replaced to more directly represent the popular vote.
Hey, great idea, right? Who could possibly be against the will of the people and the popular vote? And besides, isn’t the Electoral College some arcane leftover from the 18th century? Wasn’t it devised by a bunch of fuddy-duddies who were after maintaining power for the privileged few? Like most bumper sticker ideas, these are all exploded rather easily once you actually examine things.
First of all, the founders created the Electoral College expressly to prevent the type of insane power brokering that happens when somebody is incapable of winning the popular vote. Having experienced the shortcomings of parliamentary elections first-hand as British subjects, they were determined that Presidential elections should have a clear winner. Further, they were determined that each state would have a fair say in determining the winner. As odd as it may seem to people without a solid grounding in American history, our nation has always had regional differences in culture, along with the attendant political differences that arise from them. Although we love to dismiss many of their ideas as outdated and irrelevant in modern society, the Founders understood that direct elections bring with them tremendous peril for functioning government.
Were they right in their assumptions and fears? That anyone of voting age could think otherwise demonstrates either the inability to comprehend civics – or do some basic math. Currently, there is a proposal going around calling for each state to amend their constitutions to allow for direct apportionment of their Electors. The Republican Party is similarly apportioning their votes in the 2012 primary process. The result, based on the fact no candidate can seem to muster more than 40% of the vote and the front runners routinely poll in the mid-20’s, is likely to be a brokered convention. For those of you wondering what one of those looks like, I refer you to the 1968 Democratic Convention. Most people only know it for the chaos in the streets of Chicago – forgetting the chaos inside the convention itself. Before finally settling on Eugene McCarthy as the party’s candidate, the convention floor was raucous while party leaders haggled behind closed doors for days.
But could such an outcome be the result of states directly apportioning Electors? Consider three elections in our recent history:
2000: This is the election most cite in wanting to do away with the Electoral College. Neither major party candidate achieved 50% of the popular vote, but thanks to the Constitution George W. Bush garnered 279 electoral votes, 9 more than needed for victory, despite trailing Al Gore 48.4% to 47.9% in the popular vote. But had the electors been decided by the direct apportionment method, the electoral votes would have tallied as Bush 259, Gore 258, Ralph Nader 17, Pat Buchanan 4. Nader would have been a kingmaker in that scenario, as he could have pledged his votes to either major party candidate. The result would be what we witness in countries with otherwise weak minor parties – a leader forced to try and hold a coalition together, held at whim by the minor party’s demands.
1996: Bill Clinton swept to re-election with 379 electoral votes (despite only garnering 49.2% of the popular vote), but direct apportionment would have yielded a much different outcome. The tally would have been Clinton 263, Bob Dole 222, Ross Perot 53. Perot’s nascent Reform Party would have had the power to change history, but that possibility is dwarfed by the results from…
1992: This is the granddaddy of all examples as to why the Electoral College works. Perot garnered nearly 20 million votes nationwide, finishing second in Utah and Vermont (and falling short of winning Utah by less than 12,000 votes). It was the most successful third party candidacy in history, with Perot capturing 18.9% of the total popular vote. Yet, he won no electoral votes since he didn’t carry a single state. Bill Clinton won the electoral vote, 379-159 over George H.W. Bush, despite only capturing 43% of the popular vote. Under direct apportionment, the result would have been grim, indeed. Clinton would have managed only 229 electoral votes, Bush 201 – and Perot 108. Try to imagine the type of havoc Perot could – and would – have created had electors been directly apportioned. Constitutional crisis only begins to describe it.
That’s three elections within the past 20 years that would have been turned upside down, without a clear winner or any semblance of legitimacy for the eventual President. Except that the Electoral College was there to sort through the debris and declare a new President. So, before signing on to do away with the Electoral College or make dramatic changes to its structure, remember that those aging fuddy-duddies who wrote the Constitution knew a thing or two. As usual, we would be well advised to stop and think about the how and why they created the structures of our government before casting them aside.