The Constitution that protects us from ourselves
As it turned out, Obama never became the ecumenical post-partisan president so many hoped he would. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” Obama said during his most recent State of the Union address, “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
He didn’t destroy America either.
Republicans held the U.S. House in 2012 and ultimately took control of the U.S. Senate in 2014. While recovery from the Great Recession hasn’t been as fast as many would have liked, we’ve moved in a positive economic direction. The Affordable Care Act stands, but Obama’s immigration actions and carbon regulations face an uncertain future.
It’s been a mixed bag, especially for more conservative Americans who didn’t win the White House in 2012. At the same time, I remain free in ways many around the world are not. I critique my elected officials without fear for my life. My family worships as we see fit without government intrusion. I’m not afraid of federal agents crashing into my home without cause. I can own private property, seek out the employment of my choice and even carry a gun if I’d like.
Our nation’s wise founders knew we’d trade our birthright liberties for some alluring government program or the perception of more security. It’s not a flattering assumption, but it turned out to be accurate. To protect against that, they crafted a government with such a fractured power structure that it remains remarkably difficult to alter for “light and transient causes.”
With Donald Trump’s ascendancy and Hillary Clinton’s likely nomination on the Democratic side, the doomsayers are again out in force. Liberty will die. Principled leadership is out the window. Our future is bleak.
We REALLY need to learn how to treat each other better and expect more out of our leaders, but we shouldn’t throw in the towel on America quite yet.
In our political comedy of errors and bad ideas, we have a remarkable Constitution that protects us. If you think a presidential candidate is an existential threat to freedom, you’re probably wrong.
If he or she is bothering to go through the electoral process rather than inciting an armed rebellion, it’s a good indication they plan to operate within the confines of the Constitution. Sure, they’ll test its limits, but we have a process to deal with that. Like President Obama and most presidents before him who want to be as powerful as possible, the next president will win some of the constitutional fights and lose others.
The president, vice president, nine Supreme Court justices, 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators ensure that power can’t be consolidated easily. Ambition counteracts ambition. If we reach a point where they all get along, it means we’re at war, fighting aliens from outer space or facing some other situation where our liberties truly are in jeopardy.
The Constitution takes a sober perspective on human nature. We don’t want our leaders to “do something” in Washington. We truly want them to do what WE want, to the exclusion of those who disagree with us.
That gridlock we rail against in Washington is undeniably a constitutionally intended feature of our federal government. If our leaders can’t arrive at a national consensus, nothing happens. That’s not a flaw; it’s the point.
It’s also the reason our founders reserved so much power to the states, where consensus is easier. Even in our nation’s infancy, our founders recognized the distinct and divergent interests between the states.
The structure also insulates us from really bad political choices. Let’s just say we elect a psychopath bent on world domination. He or she still needs roughly 218 members of the House of Representatives and 51 senators (60, for most procedural orders) to make a new law. From there, he or she must convince five Supreme Court justices to uphold it against legal challenges.
Executive actions still need a majority of the Supreme Court to stand and Congress can always restrict the executive branch’s use of legislatively delegated power by passing legislation with veto-proof majorities.
Some of our current options for president are flat-out scary, but our nation will survive even the worst of them. Our Constitution creates a beautiful dysfunction that protects our liberties even when we’re too passionate, fearful or disagreeable to protect them ourselves.