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America’s crisis of compassion is a Constitutional crisis, too

The country is in crisis. Or more accurately, the country is mired in multiple crises. Among them are a crisis of compassion and a crisis of constitutional literacy — and they’re related.

There’s a crisis of compassion because individual rights and humanitarian norms have given way to politics in America. When it comes to young children detained by U.S. authorities at the southern border, for example, compassion should be front-and-center in the American consciousness. Not so.

The New York Times reported last week that the Trump administration hit a new low with migrant kids: Four months old is now the age of the youngest child ever separated from his parents by U.S. authorities. We also learned that a migrant teen mother and her four-week old baby were allegedly ignored by Customs and Border Patrol agents for a week, leaving the infant weak and listless, wrapped in a dirty towel. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced that the approximately 13,000 migrant children currently in U.S. custody are losing access to English classes, playground time, and legal aid due to budget concerns.

According to expert analysis, mind you, “the rich received the lion’s share of the tax cut” Trump shepherded through a Republican Congress, to the tune of an estimated $17 billion in tax savings for millionaires in 2018, and a projected federal deficit surging to $1 trillion this year. The corporate tax rate plunged from 35 to 21 percent.

This is what a crisis of compassion looks like. 

Now, let’s recall the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which set forth the rationale for the blueprint of our federal government: “We the People of the United States” sought “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Thousands died in the Revolutionary War — not to protect and enhance the powers of the executive branch (which seems to be the objective of the president and Republicans in Congress these days, among others), but to secure individual freedoms for future generations.

What, then, are individual freedoms under the Constitution? An individual freedom — or right — means that if the government does something to bully or degrade an everyday person, the Constitution can authorize courts to stop the bad behavior and protect the individual.

We have a crisis of constitutional literacy in this country because people don’t understand that there’s a direct link between individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and a government of limited powers that’s constrained by laws on the other hand.

An overbearing government cares more about shoring up its own unfettered power than protecting individuals. This includes being told by the government how to pray, how to speak, how to think, and whether and how to form a family — among many other things. Such a government also knows that simple answers to complex problems is intoxicating for busy Americans. If that kind of government’s simple answers amount to lies, so be it. Power doesn’t care.

Our crisis of compassion thus puts individual rights at risk. The epic constitutional question becomes, what can a regular person do about it? A few thoughts:

1. Know your constitutional basics. Know what each of the three branches of the federal government is empowered to do, and why the founders of the Constitution structured things this way.

2. Set aside politics and ideology, black-and-white thinking, and the pervasive win-at-all-costs mentality and recall why this country was founded in the first place. Among other reasons, it was created so that elected officials can be held accountable by the voters for crossing legal rules and norm-based boundaries.

Some of us reject accountability for elected officials because we like who is currently in power. But even so, we must realize enhancing the power of one president enhances the power of the Executive Office of the President. That enhanced power will pass on to the next president.

Under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, presidents can only serve a total of eight years in office. There are other presidents to come, and if history repeats itself, not every president will make every person happy.

3. Vote any chance you get. Encourage your friends, family, and co-workers to vote too. It’s the only way to make sure that the Constitution will continue to have heft and meaning. Without enforcement, after all, it’s just a piece of paper. 

In the 2018 U.S. midterms elections, 49 percent of eligible voters participated — a record number. In Australia, where voting is mandatory (and non-voters face fines), nearly 90 percent of voting-age people vote. If 41 percent more Americans voted for their members of Congress, things would change. You don’t need a mandate, get yourself to the polls.

4. In an age of Internet scams — think the Russia-induced election lies on social media in the 2016 presidential election — it’s important to know how and where to get the real facts.

For this, imagine hopping into a DeLorean time machine like actor Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future.” What were the trusted news sources back in 1985? Those organizations comply with a code of ethical journalism not because some law requires it — but because it’s the responsible and professional thing to do. Seek out and prioritize those kinds of media outlets today.

Better yet, find the primary sources of news for yourself, and read them. Wondering what Special Counsel Robert Mueller really found in his investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election? Don’t take Attorney General William Barr’s summarized word for it. Read the thing yourself (or at least read the handy summaries Mueller provided). 

The same goes for things like the president’s executive orders, indictments from the Department of Justice, and even Supreme Court decisions. We are moving toward a world where fact will be indistinguishable from fiction unless we vigilantly train ourselves to know the difference. 

Take this in: The Constitution — and the freedoms it protects — are not our birthright. It’s no hyperbole to say that we could lose them in our lifetimes. So, let’s not darken the American stage of democracy for our children and grandchildren. The alternatives are ugly. 

Kim Wehle is a former assistant U.S. attorney and a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Her book, “How to Read the Constitution and—Why,” will be published June 25. Follow her on Twitter @kim_wehle.

This is the third piece in a series by Wehle on constitutional literacy. Read her analysis on constitutional literacy and constitutional rights.

Tags Constitution Government Kim Wehle Kimberly Wehle Rights Robert Mueller White House William Barr

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