Commentary

‘We the people’ are in dangerous territory

It is only through acting together, not individually, that liberty can be secured

March 4, 2022 11:20 am

A view of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and signed, on Feb. 11, 2016. (NPS photo/Public domain)

This commentary originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder.

The state of our union is precarious.

It is precarious not because of some outside threat — outside threats we can still handle. It is precarious because we have forgotten our way, because we find ourselves increasingly seduced by a perverted, stunted and selfish notion of freedom. It is precarious because some of us have lost faith in democracy and have begun to flirt with other means to achieve political goals, other means to obtain and keep power, means based more on brute force and intimidation than on persuasion and compromise.

We are in dangerous territory.

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And it’s not just us of course. All around the world, we’re witnessing a rebirth of the notion of letting the strong feed upon the weak, as if it is their natural right and government should not attempt to intercede. What makes it worse is that in many cases that notion is being advanced in the name of what they call “freedom.”

“We the People …,” it begins. We Americans acting together, striving to perfect the union among ourselves. The founders are summoning us to action as a nation, as a community, to help ourselves and each other, and this government is the tool they provide for achieving it.

We saw that on Jan. 6, 2021, when insurgents claimed to be defending the Constitution they were actually shredding. We see it today, in the admiration and support for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin in Russia or Viktor Orban in Hungary. In the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine we saw influential voices on the American right — Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Steve Bannon and former President Donald Trump — suggest that by virtue of the power that Putin wielded in the region, he had the understood right to invade lesser countries, that we had no cause to intervene on behalf of democratic Ukraine because it is the natural order of things for the small to be consumed by the large.

We see it in the rise of militia groups and politically minded street gangs. We see it in the threats directed at election officials, school board members, governors, senators, even lowly bureaucrats, in assaults on flight attendants. In the cesspools of social media, we’re told, platforms have no right to enforce basic norms of decency, rationality, factuality, responsibility, an attitude that has crossed over into what we call real life as well.

We see it in less obvious ways as well. If the wealthy want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to influence government in their favor, we are told that laws and government are helpless to prevent it. Let the strong feed upon the weak. If a pandemic breaks out that kills almost a million of our fellow citizens, many of them immune-compromised, we are told that government cannot mandate masks or vaccinations, not even for soldiers and health-care workers, increasingly not even for children. A conservative Supreme Court is also moving to restrict government’s right to protect the environment, to monitor labor conditions, food and drug quality, and financial institutions, all to make the powerful more powerful still.

The idea that government exists to protect the weak from the strong, that it is the vehicle through which a people protects itself, is slipping from our collective memory.

In the developed Western world, the United States is a uniquely violent country, with a uniquely romanticized relationship with firearms. So at a time when murder rates are rising, when road-rage shootings and mass shootings and school shootings are rampant, we are told that government is helpless to intervene. Instead, “leaders” respond by passing legislation that would abandon even the small protection of requiring permits to carry concealed weapons in public. By doing so, they remove regulations that attempt to keep weapons out of the hands of those with a history of violent crime.

It is madness.

And down in Florida this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a big show of rejecting President Biden’s request for National Guard troops to protect the Capitol during the State of the Union address.

“Last week, the Biden Administration requested the assistance of State National Guards to deploy to Washington D.C.,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter. “I have rejected this request. There will be no @FLGuard sent to D.C. for Biden’s State of the Union.”

It was not “Biden’s State of the Union,” just as it is not Biden’s Capitol. It was our State of the Union, our tradition, our Capitol and that one tweet says more about where we stand as a country than any thousand words.

Too many of us have forgotten that it is an appropriate, legitimate and necessary role for government to stand up to all that nonsense, to confront it. The idea that government exists to protect the weak from the strong, that it is the vehicle through which a people protects itself, is slipping from our collective memory. And if you are among those who doubt that government should play that role, please don’t take my word for it.

Back in 1789, the founders threw away the weak form of federal government created by the Articles of Confederation and replaced it with something much stronger, and in the preamble to the new Constitution they explained why.

That preamble reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… ”

Let’s look again at those words; they reward close reading because they were chosen carefully by intelligent people.

“We the People …,” it begins. We Americans acting together, striving to perfect the union among ourselves. The founders are summoning us to action as a nation, as a community, to help ourselves and each other, and this government is the tool they provide for achieving it.

“… establish Justice,” they tell us, because the pursuit of justice, for all of us, is a legitimate government function, something that we need government to provide. We join in “the common defense,” together, defending each other because trying to do it individually cannot succeed. We, as a union, as a people, “promote the general welfare,” the welfare of all of us. We join to “secure the blessings of liberty,” because it is only through acting together, not individually, that such liberty can be secured.

But if we believe that it’s none of my business what happens to you, and none of your business what happens to me, then we have thrown upon the doors to chaos and we are lost. That is a grotesque perversion of the American concept of freedom and liberty. Some of the same people who drafted that Constitution of 1789 were also among those who had signed the Declaration of Independence some 13 years earlier, a document which laid out the American cause, and which closed by saying that “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

That’s what it took to create this great country. That’s what it will take to save it

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.

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