What is a constitution?
A constitution is made up of words and sentences, explaining how a government should and should not operate, and declaring which people — and what values — a government should protect.
A democratic constitution, however, means little on its own, no matter how broadly and fairly it’s written. Words cannot enforce themselves. Words, under glass in a museum, cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do, or prevent them from doing something they’re determined to do.
No, what makes a constitution work in a democratic society are the people — people in the corridors of power and in the street, from presidents to the general public — who agree to follow and respect its text, history and values without being forced. For a constitution to last, that respect must flow from the generation of those who drafted it, through all the generations that follow, even through vigorous disagreements about what words should be in our national charter and what those already there mean. Every generation must agree to renew that founding commitment and, when necessary, reconstruct it — even fundamentally remake it.
No greater example of this constitutional patriotism exists than the tireless resistance of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who refused to let his fellow Americans turn their eyes away from the colossal chasm between our professed founding ideals of freedom and the fact that the nation allowed the brutal enslavement of human beings. Knowing our Constitution, even with its flaws, could be wielded for emancipation, Douglass and subsequent movements of the people ended the nation’s original sin of chattel slavery, and continued to fix founding mistakes, bringing more people under the Constitution’s protection and expanded our democratic society.
We owe gratitude to those who ensured the full promises of liberty and equality were actually written into our national charter, and now we must breathe life into these words. We do this by investing them with meaning and power, striving to wring from them every drop of hypocrisy, and holding the faithless among us accountable to them. We do this by telling one another, every day — both as individuals and through our institutions — how our Constitution’s words are supposed to settle disputes about who has power in our society, who in our society may get key resources and, ultimately, what course our nation will take into the future.
What happens, though, when enough people stop caring about the commitments promised by our Constitution? What happens when they become tired of its protections being denied to them; when they see the faithless among them in charge of government, going unpunished after routinely violating our Constitution’s rules; when they see those who sought power by professing fealty to the Constitution’s text and values, toss that fealty aside when commanded by a charismatic political leader?
What are we doing about the fact that the words of our Constitution guarantee equal protection of the law for all, speak of equal citizenship for all, yet police violence against Black people continues, unaccountable to justice? Have we stopped caring about enforcing our Constitution’s manifold protections of the right to vote against discrimination based on race, sex, age or ability to pay any kind of tax? Or its powerful stand against religious tests, or its monument to the rule of law? Are the words of the framers in Philadelphia — and of the framers of critical amendments adopted after the Civil War, the progressive movement and the civil rights movement — gradually reverting to being merely words on parchment under glass at the National Archives?
From Kenosha and Minneapolis to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — and countless cities and towns in between — people in America are taking to the streets, taking to the ballot box and taking our leaders to task. They are demanding, in the final analysis, that our nation live up to promises made in our amended Constitution: Equality. Justice. The right to vote free from discrimination. Leaders accountable to the rule of law.
We have seen all too often of late that political leaders and institutions will fail us. But our Constitution doesn’t begin with “We the Leaders.” It begins with “We the People.” We are the source of its strength and the wellspring of its meaning. Only we can do the hard work of giving it life, and of protecting it for the generations who follow us. I believe we will.
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