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The Forgotten Meaning of ‘We the People’

Our democratic experiment in self-governing is on trial. In government at all levels, we need to get back to the place envisioned by our Constitution's fathers, however flawed they might have been.

The deaths of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, Congressman John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg have robbed the nation of courageous and moral leaders at a time when we need them the most. Losing them is like losing a compass in an unfamiliar forest when no one knows the way out.

Many perceive that the problems we face in America — the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism, generational poverty and economic uncertainty — can be fixed by smarter governing. But we have a more serious and immediate problem: Too many citizens and public officials have forgotten the meaning of "We the People." This has profound implications for democracy.

Our understanding of democracy, despite the fact that many of the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution were slave owners and did not consider women as equal or worthy of the full benefits of citizenship, is captured in the phrase "We the People." The framers went on to place values including justice, domestic tranquility and the general welfare at the core of a self-governing experiment called democracy.

But today, more than anytime during my life, I believe democracy is on trial. The verdict hangs in the balance of who will comprise the jury. Obviously the mood of the majority of the American people has changed since the last national election. Black, brown and young people are demanding more inclusive government at all levels, government that doesn't sanction the police killings of its citizens or the degradation of women. Justice Ginsberg's death will no doubt ignite vast numbers of women to fight even harder to ensure that they, and they alone, have the right to make the most private and intimate decisions concerning their bodies.

On the national level, there are clear signs of a weakening democracy, among them the forceful removal of peaceful protesters in Washington's Lafayette Square by federal forces to enable a presidential photo op, the consistent attacks by the Trump administration on the media as purveyors of "fake news," a U.S. attorney general who believes in a chief executive with limitless power, the stonewalling and contempt for the oversight role of Congress, and the stacking of the federal courts with judges whose extreme conservatism is out of step with the views of a majority of the public. Any one of these developments would be reason for concern, but taken together they paint a bleak picture of where we might be headed.

It would be all too easy to view federal policies as having the most negative impact upon our democratic institutions and principles, but state and local policies and practices have deleterious impacts as well.

For one, it's state and local governments that maintain administrative control over the machinery of voting. Vivian and Lewis risked their lives for the sacred right for all citizens to be able to vote, and Ginsburg dissented in the Supreme Court's devastating 2013 decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. When public officials, in an effort to gain partisan advantage, resort to tactics such as unreasonably purging voter lists before elections or establishing draconian laws dictating who can and can't vote, they are chipping away at a key component of democracy.

And then there's redistricting. Every 10 years, states redraw congressional and legislative political boundaries. In most states this process is controlled by the party in power, resulting in skewed districts due to gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating political lines to box out competition and maximize the power of one political party. Last year the Center for American Progress published a report documenting that in the three congressional elections between 2012 and 2016, 59 seats in the House were won because of districts whose representation was biased in their favor. Democracy works best when the will of a majority of voters, not partisan manipulation, determines the outcome of elections.

This leads to my final point: Every time officials deny public input, they undermine democracy. At the local government level, increasingly I have witnessed public officials undermining the right of voters to make their views known at official public meetings by either eliminating the right altogether or so severely restricting the process that the public's voices are muted. Political participation by the public is key to democracy. Public officials must find ways to encourage it, not make it more difficult.

We have much work to do to arrive at the place envisioned by the flawed fathers of the Constitution. When public officials forget about "We the People," they fail to "promote the general Welfare" of the nation, "insure domestic Tranquility" or "establish Justice" — all preconditions for securing what the framers described as the blessings of liberty.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


Government and education columnist
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