America’s greatest promise lies in the bold idea that each citizen in every generation is Founder of the country. Though the promise remains unachieved, the idea is worth celebrating this Fourth of July.
Authors of the U.S. Constitution, which arrived some years after the day we celebrate as our nation’s birthday, considered their document a living one, one that would safeguard freedom while providing plenty of room for change in future circumstances.
In other words, the citizens of every generation would carry the heavy responsibility of founding America anew. Let that sink in.
This Fourth of July there are a good many tea partiers out there demanding a return to some kind of Constitutional straightjacket that never existed in the first place. While we can support their political engagement, we are justified in our dismay at their ignorance of America’s greatest promise. The Constitution was written to guard against those who would turn it into authoritarian doctrine. They would undo a Constitution they claim to worship.
We have one vehicle through which our founding must be enacted: government. Let that sink in, too, because when it does it becomes clear why America’s current conservative movement is to democracy what a chop shop is to our cars. Trash government and you leave authority in the hands of an ungoverned economic elite, a danger that scared the baggy breeches off the 18th Century versions of us.
During her Senate confirmation hearing this weak, Elena Kagan was attacked by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl for proudly writing of her one-time boss, Thurgood Marshall, that he had “an unshakable determination to protect the underdog.”
Kyl is an apparent underdog hater from Arizona, a Kennel Club of a state where one risks harassment, arrest and deportation if one’s overdog papers are not in order. Woof woof.
Under the Constitution, we are equal in our standing as Founders of America. That is why so much energy must be used to do precisely what Justice Marshall did: lift up the underdogs to full Founder status. It’s about fulfilling the promise of America.
Right-wing demagogues have long tried to subvert this by selling the idea that one citizen’s achievement is another’s loss. In this view, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act handed political and economic power to underdogs at the expense of the overdogs. This is rhetorical dogshit, of course, but once we get to barking at one another, the demagogues run out the back gate with all the money.
I think there is magic is considering one another fellow Founders. As in human thought itself, that doesn’t mean we are unconstrained by the past, but we are free to think and act creatively in ways that benefit all.
It also doesn’t mean that we are going to agree on everything. But we ought to be able to agree that, regardless of how far we must yet travel, no nation in history has ever committed itself to an idea so powerful in pursuit of a promise so glorious.
I’m as skeptical of authority as Tom Paine. When I identify government as the vehicle of American founding and re-founding, I mean to bring it down to earth not exalt it as an unapproachable authority. The best safeguards against the abuses of authority are open, transparent and fair pathways for individual citizen engagement and engagement itself.
Neither yesterday’s constitution nor tomorrow’s will complete the job. It’s up to us, always has been, always will be.
On the Fourth of July we are celebrating a birth that has not yet happened, but is always, with fireworks, happening.