The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: First Do No Harm

Our Constitution allows elected officials to follow principled beliefs while limiting the power of demagoguery

By Louis Black, February 13, 2009, Columns

The goals for this column overall have always been very modest, especially given my very low expectations. The way people read it varies, but some of those who resent it the most seem to think that I'm trying to articulate an absolute truth – or to challenge a truth of which they are certain and in which they strongly believe. The former is just not accurate, but the latter has some validity. The marketplace of ideas does not find them all equal, but often the concern is not the specifics of a position but the absolute certainty with which it is held.

Frankly, at best, I have always hoped that what this column might do is make a case that most political, ideological, and policy conflicts are not conflicts between good and evil but that most people have come to their beliefs earnestly and with conviction. Consequently, most people, including ex-President George W. Bush and ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, act in what they believe are the best interests of the country. This doesn't make them right, but it also doesn't make them wrong. It just argues – without equating the validity of all beliefs – against the idea that they are willingly and maliciously doing evil: Rather than being an evil warlord, Cheney is just very elitist and distrusting of the public.

Another thing the column can do is float ideas and offer questions. There is something arbitrary to this process. Still, whether people find them right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, well-thought-out or absolutely poorly conceived, they are genuinely offered with no inclination toward evil or out of a desire to do harm.

Obviously, as Americans and as humans, we face any number of deeply complicated issues for which the solutions are almost never clear-cut. The most basic are the rights of the individual in the context of his or her role in society. In many ways, broaching that subject leads to arguments in which the positions are so predictable they could earn names like chess strategies.

As dismissive as some might be in argument, or as one-dimensional as their positions might seem solely because of the way they express them, in most cases there is a quite legitimate and wide range of ways that major social problems can be approached. The best solution is most often through working together, even when basic ideologies are different and in conflict. Often a solution arrived at by debate and compromise leads to the most effective way to move forward on an issue, even if everyone involved feels from somewhat to extremely dissatisfied with the decision. It's not just that the structure that the Constitution lays out for our government is designed to facilitate even a questionable compromise more than a one-sided, dogmatic solution. Equally important is the idea found in that document's and the country's basic conceit: that all people are created equal and democratically empowered to participate in their/our own governing. Unfortunately, regardless of personal ideology, many on all sides find compromise nauseating and inadequate.

Frequently, politicians who are the most championed for their courage and convictions are those who most dishonestly pander to the electorate. Those considered sellouts or compromised, consequently, are often the bravest, because they are advocating principled but unpopular positions. Now, just because a politician panders doesn't mean he or she is wrong, and just because one evidences the courage of his or her convictions doesn't make them right. Still, when listening to the public discourse on politics, one feels lost in a world where the meanings of words are transposed or are entirely made up.

The last Immigration Reform Bill, the product of intense compromise, was pretty much unworkable because it tried to appease so many different groups. Those who view illegal immigration as a major threat hailed the courage of some conservative politicians who declared that they would never support a bill that included any kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants already living here. This convoluted and hopeless bill couldn't even be conceived as offering much in the way of easily accessible amnesty, but even the hint of it made it impossible for some to support the bill. The reality, as this column has frequently argued, is that this country can't dislodge 10 million to 15 million people. It is not only that it can't be done without doing severe harm to the nation's economy; it is that it really can't be done at all. Rounding up and deporting millions and millions of people would be a nearly impossible mission to accomplish. Even a sustained, widespread effort would not only be doomed to failure but also would almost undoubtedly profoundly and irreparably scar this country.

Those who insist it is possible are letting their passions and beliefs trump any kind of realistic vision. Hailing politicians who endorse their views is not saluting heroes, but rather demagogues who are quite happy to leave the problem unsolved because their positions are so unreasonable. The handful who have pushed for genuine and possibly long-lasting solutions to this situation, including Sen. John McCain and ex-President George W. Bush, have been accused of corruption and deceit. This opposite-world view of American politics just makes it harder for certain issues to be addressed.

You will hear pundits of every political stripe declaring that the overwhelming majority of the public would like to see legislation on one issue or another, then go on to blaming our elected officials for acting in an unconstitutional manner by ignoring the will of the people. In most cases, they are wrong across the board.

Let's start with the notion that there is a silent majority in this country, who may not speak out or even vote, but whose thus-unarticulated beliefs are nevertheless absolutely obvious to many. The casual arrogance with which many – not just pundits, politicians, and civic leaders but citizens as well – are certain that their beliefs are shared by most of the population can be astonishing. The idea of the Constitution is to empower all citizens, but if they choose not to engage in the process, it designates no one to speak for them. If they are silent, their silence should not be taken as evidencing assent or dissent, but just and only silence.

The Constitution was directly structured with safeguards to guarantee that, whereas the country's elected leadership should understand and always consider the will of the people, it should not be in thrall to their whims or temporary passions. The core idea is that people elected to office should be free to do what they think is best for the country without routinely taking the public's temperature on every issue. Specifically, this country is a constitutional republic rather than a straight-out democracy, which means the rule of the majority is leavened by the rights and the beliefs of minorities. In this context, rather than race, this has more to do with those who hold political and/or social beliefs that are different from the dominating majority – although protecting the rights of racial and/or religious minorities certainly fits as well.

Keep in mind that when the Constitution was written, travel and communication on land depended on horses and the wind when on water. When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, steamships were just beginning to be built, and intrastate stagecoach routes began to open only a few years earlier. Steamship travel would evolve over the next three decades. It wasn't until the early 1830s that trains began to carry passengers. Only late in the same decade did the telegraph emerge. In many cases, the northern- and southernmost states would not get news from Washington until weeks later.

Whereas congressional House members are elected for terms of two years, making them more immediately responsible to the public, the president's term is four years; senators' terms are six years. The Constitution clearly was structured on the belief that those long terms would insulate elected officials from the vagaries of public whim. This structure was created to allow elected officials to follow their own principled beliefs about what was in the best interest of the country, while at the same time limiting the power of demagoguery.

In this age of instant communication and convenient, fast, and efficient forms of transportation, news is obviously conveyed instantaneously. Those who denigrate modern media and long for the good old days of honest journalism not only want their fantasies but to eat them as well. Ironically, these vast changes in access and communication have worked against compromise and in favor of the rigidly dogmatic, regardless of the specific beliefs involved.

An aside: The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." If one is to argue for a strict and literal reading of the Constitution, then this amendment does not give the people the absolute right to weapons, because basically militias no longer exist.

There is an online clip of Alex Jones berating me for my extreme pro-gun-control position because the Chronicle printed a story with those sympathies. This simply evidences the great Jones' intolerance of any point of view other than his own. I strongly support gun rights – although, as with any social guarantee, there has to be an allowance for reasonable restrictions (I dare not venture into specifics here, as I'm such a novice on this topic that I don't even fully understand the scope of the debate). The Chronicle encourages and presents a wide range of opinions that do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the writer.

The Second Amendment as written offers no absolute guarantee of the right to bear arms. My reading of this amendment is broader. In general, a significant part of the genius of the Constitution is that it expresses certain very strong principles but also describes a legislative process designed to allow this country and its laws to adapt and change to match an ever-evolving world. Arguing for an absolutely conservative, original-intention, literal reading of the Constitution is to argue against the Second Amendment granting the right of all citizens to bear arms. The amendment allows this right for the purpose of supporting militias that were once military units in service to the state. With official militias gone, so is the right to bear arms. Arguing that the founders intended this differently, as I do, is to argue for this document as a living and evolving work. Arguing, as many of our all-conspiracy, all-the-time friends do, that this amendment allows for citizens to bear arms in case they are needed to resist a tyrannical government is a fanciful reading. It is not an illegitimate interpretation, but it represents a personal sense of what is being said. Even under the most reasonable of circumstances, acting as though this is an absolute and specific right invites discussion.

The only point to be made here is that many read the Constitution as though it were refracted through their personal ideologies and are firm in their convictions that their beliefs absolutely match those of its authors and this country's founders, so they perfectly understand what was intended. In general, this is an example of many of the communities of lip-service constitutional loyalists who constantly cite the document but really don't care much about it. What they do support is their own Dungeons & Dragons-rules, reimagined-by-the-players Constitution, tailored to fit their own beliefs.

If the Constitution is not bigger than any one of us, while sensitive toward all, then almost by definition it is a too-limited document. If most people are dissatisfied with the government most of the time, it could mean the government is lousy. But it could also mean the Constitution is functioning exactly as was envisioned.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this column. As modest as its ambitions may be, I think they are rarely fulfilled. As much as I have faith in dialogue, I think we too often end up in mazes where knife fights are much more common than shared information. I am not removing myself from the negative part of that equation; too often I feel as though emotion bullied reason in my decisions about what to write.  

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.