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A Civics Lesson

Every once in a while I am dumb enough to listen to some Rush Limbaugh type explain how the Constitution forbids government provided medical care for poor folks or gives individual states absolute control over the voting process. Then, even though I know I might as well be talking to a sack of hair, I so want to tell them what the Constitution really says. Obviously unenlightened Trumpists wouldn’t listen, and likely wouldn’t understand if they did listen. But you, my esteemed readers, might find this look at the Constitution interesting and even useful in conversations this election season. So see if this mini-refresher course in U. S. Government and Civics makes sense and could be useful for you.

First, let’s get clear on what the Constitution is. It is the operating manual for running the United States. The manual has three parts. The first is the Preamble or the introduction, usually ignored after it is memorized in some middle schools where memorizing is not regarded as unnecessary in this day of the smart phone. The second part contains the seven articles that describe how the three branches of government will operate and how the states and federal government will get along. The third part contains the amendments, the results of the fine tuning that the Constitution undergoes as we, the people, make progress in understanding the implications of democracy.

The part of the Constitution that gets the most press is the Bill of Rights, the first ten of the amendments. For example, the freedoms of religion, speech and assembly that the first amendment guarantees have generated tens of thousands of court cases. Currently the second amendment has millions of Americans arguing about “gun control.” But I hold that all the 27 amendments and the seven articles that explain the nuts and bolts of our system are no where near as important as the 52 words of the Preamble.

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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble is more important than the seven articles or the 27 amendments because it states why we have our form of government in the first place. It tells us the purposes of our form of government. The rest of the Constitution tells us how we are going to work out the purposes of government described in this very first paragraph of the document. Why is more important than how because why is the foundation upon which action, the how, is based. (Go here to see how why works in industry and even in personal affairs.)

According to the Preamble, the first concern of the founders of our nation was the formation of a more perfect union. The United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was falling apart even as it got started. So the Constitution was adopted to remedy that situation. But more than just an historical fix, the Constitution was written in an effort to permanently eliminate divisions and conflicts among citizens, classes, regions, and eventually races and genders. (See, for example, the 13th, 15th and 19th amendments, and yes, we have not arrived at anything like perfect union yet.)

And then the Framers saw the need to insist on justice, the fair and equal treatment of all citizens under the law. The results of that insistence are the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth amendments. That’s half the Bill of Rights.

The Framers knew also that a country not at peace within its own borders would tear itself apart, hence the necessity to insure domestic tranquility. Riots and civil disorder confound the search for the more perfect union. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said more than once, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” Without justice, there can be no unity or domestic tranquility. (Amazing how this all comes together?)

I am going to skip over “common defense” (since that clause primarily looks out at other nations) and proceed directly to “promote the general welfare.” This is one of the boldest catch-all phrases in political writing, but there it stands. A purpose of our government is not to see to the welfare of the nobility, the landowners, the rich or the otherwise privileged. The Preamble insists that a goal of government must be the welfare of all the people.

The final descriptive phrase, “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” provides us a wonderful paradox. Liberty means, of course, freedom for each individual citizen, and a free nation is a community of free individuals. But individuals, the Prologue states, will only be free when the community is united, at peace, operating justly, and the general welfare takes precedence over that of selected individuals.

So in the real world, what does this look like? How does a nation whose Constitution sees unity, justice, peace and the establishment of general welfare as reasons for its existence implement these purposes? What laws does such a nation enact, and what practices does such a nation support? I would suggest the following as a representative sample.

1. Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and other measures for protection from poverty caused by old age, ill health, accident and unemployment.

2. Union membership rights, minimum wage laws, safe working conditions, legislation to insure earning enough to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter and recreation.

3. The Interstate Highway System, railroads, alternative energy sources, and infrastructure which promote robust commerce and safe, efficient travel.

4. All efforts to provide an education for every citizen in quality schools with college available for those who desire to attend.

5. Regulations designed to halt marketplace abuses, and the prevention of excessive concentration of wealth through progressive taxes. (And we can argue about where excess starts.)

6. Guaranteed voting rights such as those named in the Voting Rights Act, including convenient, unimpeded access to polling places, a variety of voting methods, and reasonable registration requirements.

7. Legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and regulations which forbid discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or handicapping conditions in housing, employment, education, access to transportation, and other areasin which discrimination would undermine the unity, peace, and the general welfare of the nation through impeding the liberty of individuals.

Obviously this list is not exhaustive. In sixty seconds most people could come up with at least two more areas where law and government have stepped in to implement the conditions of the Preamble.

No item in this list is new, untried or radical. On the other hand, every item in this list has been attacked within the last thirty years by white “conservatives” who accuse nonwhite minorities of stealing the taxpayers’ money, taking unfair advantage of white citizens, and destroying the economy of the nation. And they make these attacks behind the smoke screen of, “Constitutionally guaranteed individual rights.” What these people do not or will not see is that the Framers of the Constitution were aware that individual rights could be secure only when the government looks after the welfare of the community first. If individuals come first, the nation rips itself apart (as it was doing under the Articles of Confederation) like a gang of children shouting, “Me, me, me!” fighting for the biggest piece of cake, and destroying the cake in the process. The Founders of the United States saw that we, not me, was the right pronoun, as in, “We, the people of the United States.”

I believe that our Founding Fathers, for all their limited, culture-bound ideas on class, race and gender, had this insight: that a strong community is the best guarantee that the rights of its individual members will be honored. So let’s quit yelling about “my rights,” and let’s get together building “our nation.”