I’ve been reading The Words That Made Us, a magisterial history of the origins of the Constitution, written by Yale Constitutional Law professor Akil Amar. Amar’s previous books include The Bill of Rights and America’s Constitution: A Biography, both of which I read and found enlightening. (For example, in the latter book, Amar documents the extent to which the Amendments passed after the Civil War–especially the 14th–represented a significant reconstruction of the nation’s legal framework.)
This new book is also copiously and carefully documented, and as a consequence, it can be a bit of a slog; on the other hand, I’m encountering a number of heretofore unknown (by me, at least) details about the process that produced our Constitution, and the personal characteristics of the men who fought over it, theorized about it, and negotiated it.
Which brings me to a point on which most of those Founders apparently agreed–sovereignty in the U.S. rests with “We the People.” Not with the individual states, certainly not with Kings or Presidents–but with the people. We can now be critical of the worldview that confined definition of “the people” to free White males, and we should celebrate the later expansion of “the people” to include women and people of color–but we shouldn’t minimize the importance of what was then a truly revolutionary concept of sovereignty.
Interestingly, Amar points out that after the “constitutional conversation” over ratification took place, most colonies eliminated property ownership requirements for voting on the new charter. (Something else I’d previously not known.)
“The people” was–for that time–an inclusive concept.
America today faces a very dangerous tipping point–brought to us by a party, really a cult or cabal–that wants to change the concept of sovereignty and the definition of “people.”
We talk and write a lot about democracy, but what we mean by that term varies. As a number of pundits have pointed out, autocrats around the globe often claim to be “democratically” empowered, because their countries hold “elections.” (Note quotation marks.)
The men who crafted America’s Constitution broadened the then-definition of People, and saw democracy as the authority of those people. Today, faux patriots are engaged in narrowing it.
Gerrymandering carves out particular “people,” whose votes will outnumber and void the voices of others. The Electoral College–which Amar reminds us was an unwise concession to the slave states–operates to nullify the votes of a majority of the people who cast Presidential ballots. And as the Committee investigating the January 6th insurrection is discovering, a not-insignificant number of elected and appointed Republicans–including Trump– fully intended to mount a coup and overturn an election decided by the people that numerous investigations (and Trump’s own dishonorable Attorney General) confirmed was free and fair.
The introduction to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say “We (some of) the People.” It doesn’t say–as far too many of today’s faux patriots evidently believe– “We the (White Christian) People.” It says “We the People.”
If sovereignty is to be vested in We the People, all people’s votes must be counted and all people’s voices must be heard. That isn’t happening. (Okay, it’s never really happened, but we have previously moved in that direction.) To the contrary, we’re moving backward, thanks to a well-organized effort to subvert democratic equality and the very idea of “one person, one vote.”
As Barton Gellman reports in the linked article,
For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.
It is past time to reassert the sovereignty of ALL of We the People, and take back the country we thought we inhabited.