America is in the midst of an election season, nearing an Election Day with what likely will be far-reaching consequences. Public interest is extraordinarily high, and candidates are debating many critical issues. Yet we have heard little or nothing about the Constitution and its Bill of Rights – the touchstone of our individual freedoms.
The most significant words of the U.S. Constitution may be the first three: “We the people.” Not “I the King,” not “I the Grand Religious Leader,” not even “I the elected President.” Our governing structure was created by the people, and ensuring that it works for the people is a continuing legal, moral, and political journey.
All through the centuries, arguments about the Constitution’s meaning have persisted: What does it mean that only Congress can declare war? (Article I) What constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors?” (Article II) Is taking an oath of office with your hand on the Bible a “religious test?” (Article VI) Under which conditions, if any, should explicit sexual language not be considered free speech? (Amendment 1) Is a urine test for drugs an “unreasonable search?” (Amendment 4)
The remarkable characteristic of the Constitution is that it offers bedrock principles-checks and balances, procedures, freedoms, responsibilities, protections-while at the same time responding to the needs of contemporary society. It’s not an accident; the founders wrote it that way on purpose. The Constitution is our civic compass. It points the way for courts, legislatures, and executive administrations. It guides us in times of war and of peace, of boom and of bust, and of everything in-between. It keeps us on the path of fair play, equal treatment, liberty, and security.
Or it does if we’re constantly vigilant.
Over the last two centuries, through activism, dissent, and dedication, citizens have expanded the scope and depth of our liberty. And today, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” than at any time in history.
Yet, in recent years, our federal government has grown more powerful and secretive, assuming powers it does not rightfully have. Our government has:
—spied on Americans without the approval of Congress or the courts;
—allowed the CIA to torture and abuse hundreds of people, including Americans, in secret prisons throughout the world;
—held prisoners indefinitely without charge;
—placed hundreds of thousands of Americans on terrorist watch lists without an explanation or opportunity to appeal; and
—restricted the free flow of scientific information and set up barriers to the use of scientific materials.
No matter who wins the election, we must remember that the Constitution applies to everyone. It applies to the least desirable among us and to those with whom we vehemently disagree on matters of politics, religion, or ethics. That’s the tough part. We need to be vigilant for all people, not merely the ones whom society favors.
This election season is an opportunity to think about what the Constitution has given us, as well as what we ourselves can do to make sure it survives — not just in letter, but in spirit. We can consider whether what’s been going on is consistent with the Constitution. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of “Well, it’s not me; it’s that awful other person who’s being tortured/spied upon/denied an attorney/discriminated against/harassed.” Any of us could be that person in the future.
Kathleen Taylor is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.