Threats to our Constitution abound.
Some come from the government itself—the result of officials who shirk their constitutional duties and responsibilities and betray legal limits on their authority. Others reflect the effects of a citizenry that is indifferent to the virtues and values of American Constitutionalism and is untutored in the necessity of holding governmental officials accountable for their words, action and silence. Recent polls indicate that only 25 percent of the public can identify the three branches of government.
On Sept. 17, 1787, the Framers of the Constitution put the finishing touches on a document which, despite its imperfections, would become the law of the land in the United States and the envy of the world. William Gladstone, elected prime minister of England four times, famously characterized it as “the most wonderful work ever struck off by the brain and purpose of man.”
The Framers had embarked on a grand historical experiment. Alexander Hamilton, whose destiny had a rendezvous with Broadway, wrote in Federalist No. 1, that the Constitutional Convention hoped to establish a republic that would be governed through “reasoned discussion and deliberation.” The genius of the system lay in a citizenry engaged in discussions of great public affairs, and the doctrines of separation of powers, checks and balances and enumeration of powers.
The Framers were not particularly confident that their experiment would succeed. Nothing in history suggested success. Previous republics had failed, for a variety of reasons, but typically because of governmental abuse of power and the public’s indifference to the abuse of power and its duty to hold governmental officials accountable. Would things be any different in the United States?
At various junctures, our constitutional system has been sorely tested—and pushed to the brink. The Civil War represented an existential threat both to the Union and the premises of constitutional government. Governmental assaults on Americans’ civil rights and liberties in the first and second world wars posed serious threats to the Bill of Rights, an attack that occurred again, in the dark years of McCarthyism. The historic—and ongoing-- indifference to the rights of women and people of color, raise doubts about the sincerity of those majestic, if unfulfilled aspirational words enshrined in the 14th Amendment: “the equal protection of the law.”
At present, we face profound structural threats arising from the failure of officials and citizens alike. President Donald Trump exhibits little interest in constitutional limitations and duties. He continually flouts the Emoluments Clause and ethics disclosures, as well as the War Clause and the constitutional traditions of the Pardon Clause and respect for an independent judiciary. He still fails to understand the rationale behind the separation of White House politics and the principles of an independent Department of Justice.
Executive threats to our Constitution are exacerbated by a Congress as yet unwilling to engage in vigorous investigation of the Trump Administration’s violations of the Emoluments Clause and its arrogant disregard of ethics laws, as well as its disinterest in holding hearings on Trump’s assertions of unbridled unilateral power in the critical areas of war-making and national security. A Congress unwilling to perform its constitutional responsibilities becomes complicit in executive aggrandizement of power.
In the end, we are reminded of the responsibility of the people, as Benjamin Franklin declared upon adjournment of the Convention, to maintain the republic. That requires, at a minimum, a complete accountability of the government to the law and the citizenry. The interest—and duty-- of the public in maintaining governmental accountability, and the rule of law, must not be abandoned or understated. Disinterest in that responsibility paved the road to Auschwitz and Stalingrad.
David Adler is President of the Alturas Institute, headquartered in Idaho Falls, dedicated to advancing the Constitution, civic education and gender equality.