Constitution Day is one of our country’s most overlooked holidays, but Sept. 17 should not go unnoticed. The foundational principle of our governing charter is at risk of being forgotten, with disastrous consequences for the American experiment. Recalling it is essential to our national future.
With the distance of 234 years, it’s easy to forget the revolutionary nature of the Constitution. Like every country that came before, America’s Founders asked themselves a simple question: Where does power come from? Unlike every country that came before, they gave a radical answer, summed up in the Constitution’s first three words: “We the people.”
This principle — that you and I and all our fellow citizens should control the country’s future — turned history on its head. It recognized the truth that people, not the government, are the ultimate authority. In that sense, the Constitution sets forth a standard for Americans to meet.
It’s been a long slog. From the moment those words were written, it was obvious: America fell short of its national ideals. From the beginning, our country allowed and encouraged terrible wrongs, most notably slavery. As long as it did, and as long as so many other injustices lived on, “We the people” was more of a hope than a fact. Power was concentrated in the hands of a few, despite the moral mandate to empower the many.
The generations that followed strived and sacrificed to uphold that promise. The abolitionists helped end slavery after the Civil War, the suffragettes won the right to vote for women, the civil rights movement moved us closer to equal protection under the law, and so many others have written the story of American empowerment. With each barrier that was broken, the country moved closer to “We the people.”
But somewhere along the way, that progress stalled and power began to concentrate again.
Not in every respect. The quest to empower all our fellow citizens is alive and well in movements for equality under the law, criminal justice reform, a better education system, and economic opportunity for all, among others. Yet, in other ways, the recent trend has been to disempower people. Power has been — and is being — taken from the many and given to a select few. It runs counter to the principle at the core of the Constitution and America itself.
This trend takes many forms, and it defies a simplistic left-versus-right framework. Leaders on both sides of the aisle are responsible for taking power out of the American people’s hands.
To start, our elected officials have asserted control over ever more of daily life.
Across both parties, there is a growing sense that nothing is beyond the government’s purview — that all questions can be resolved by federal legislation and executive orders handed down from on high. Yet, the more power that’s wielded by Washington, the less that’s left for Americans everywhere else. A government capable of doing everything will leave the people with the freedom to do nothing.
By the same token, elected officials have delegated their power to the judicial branch.
Rather than take hard votes on tough issues, our leaders have asked the Supreme Court to decide some of the most divisive and consequential issues of our time. It’s a win-win for presidents, senators, and representatives alike: If the court goes the way they want, they can praise it; if it goes against them, they can attack it. But the American people gave our elected leaders the power to legislate, and by giving that power away to unelected judges, they’re merely trying to avoid accountability. “We the people” are less able to shift the policies that govern our lives.
Finally, our leaders have created an entirely new kind of government, insulated from people’s control.
It’s called the “administrative state,” and it’s so large, even Washington doesn’t know how many departments, agencies and commissions it has created. This vast bureaucracy has authority to control the economy and even create federal crimes — 300,000 and counting. No American ever voted for it, and none of us can vote against it. Do we really want power to reside with the unelected and unaccountable?
All three issues have gotten worse in recent decades — and they’re getting harder to ignore. If you’re on the left, you’ve probably worried about D.C.’s decisions in recent years; if you’re on the right, you likely feel the same way when the left is in power. Americans of all political stripes are wondering why so much power has been granted to so few people, with so few limitations on how they can wield it and so few consequences when they overstep their bounds.
There’s no better day to think about these challenges than Constitution Day. And there’s no better time to ask the question that animates that document: Where does power come from? The answer is “We the people” — all of us, not merely some of us. It’s as radical now as it was on Sept. 17, 1787. And it’s just as important to return and keep that power where it belongs.