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Finding the truth in core constitutional principles

In my last three posts, I’ve argued myself into a trap, and now I’m seeking to argue my way out.

I began by contending that the divisions in American society are due in part to an Constitution written for another time period, and I shared some ideas for changing the foundations of our government. I then looked at the precipice of what changing the Constitution might mean and said, in effect, “Hold up, let’s not go too far with this.” If aspects of our system are outdated and are holding us back, if there might be some ways to rethink this system, but if changing our system is worse than keeping it, when then do we do?

My specific point was that there is disagreement on the core constitutional principles of rights, responsibilities, and consent of the governed. However, pointing out a lack of consensus is not the same as saying there is no objective truth on these matters. In fact, there can and should be a certitude to these precepts, or at least a truth that a majority of citizens can support. In seeking this truth, I choose to interpret these principles in the broadest way possible, so as to confer the most benefits on the most people.

The current Republican administration and Congress are on record as seeking to be tough on crime; for example, the Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions is seeking to be strict on criminal prosecution and sentencing. In the realm of criminal justice, there is a valid argument to be made in support of victims’ rights, but this argument does not abrogate the rights of the accused. The fourth amendment (right against unreasonable searches), fifth amendment (right against self-incrimination, among other things), and sixth amendment (right to a speedy, public, and impartial trial) are in place for a reason. These key constitutional provisions protecting criminal defendants, in their plain language and as interpreted by key Supreme Court precedents such as Miranda and Gideon, protect all people in our justice system, because we are all presumed innocent. They protect citizens from aggressive policing and prosecution, and history reminds us that when police power has been abused, it has often been at the expense of African Americans and other people of color. On this basis, I would conclude that the truth is clear: the actions of the Justice Department go exactly in the wrong direction and will lead to increased incarceration, contentious relations between police and urban communities, and a less effective criminal justice system. This is an issue that deserves our attention and advocacy.

And consider this news on voting rights. US News & World Reports posted a story on August 8 that President Trump’s voter fraud commission is continuing its work despite lawsuits from several states. This commission consists of state officials, hand-picked by the Trump Administration, seeking to study allegations, mainly from the political right, that illegal voting was prevalent in the 2016 presidential election. I seek to cite valid arguments on the left and the right where possible in my blog, but it is hard to find it in this situation. 44 states have challenged the commission’s request for data, and the commission has been called “illegal” (Salon), “chilling” (NPR), and a “fraud” (Slate). It is worth reading an article from PJ Media, a right-of-center news source, defending the commission’s work (“The goal of the committee is to affirm that the bedrock of our republic, that we are led by ‘the consent of the governed,’ is secured.”) But PJ stands out as one of very few press sources defending the commission’s work.

If you are Black and trying to vote in North Carolina, Texas, Alabama, even Ohio, you are looking at the federal Justice Department and wondering if they’ve read the 13th (abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude), 14th (guarantee of rights), and 15th (right to vote) amendments, and subsequent court decisions.

Moreover, given the populist strategies being actively pursued by the White House, as well as the likelihood that Republicans could potentially gain by purging voter rolls and restricting voting, it is not hard to imagine that the commission has decided on its outcome and will push restrictive voting policies to its advantage. This could not only restrict individuals’ voting opportunities, but may also have a significant effect on our elections in 2018, 2020, and beyond. This echoes decades of concerted, forceful, and even violent strategies to disenfranchise minority voters. Given this history, the potential for more biased elections under the administration’s strategy, and the basic virtue of maximizing voting privileges for citizens, it is only correct that we interpret voting rights in the most expansive way possible.

So that’s my argument. The Constitution’s basic principles are contentious, but we need to find the objective truth in them, by seeking out, advocating for, and defending what benefits most people and for society in general.

A coda

This is an unrelated point, but I make this plea to anyone who advises President Trump: Please tell him that he is not the president of his own world and of his own family. He is no longer running a business either. He is the president representing all of us--a country of almost 300 million people, many of whom (yes, I know it may be hard to believe) did not vote for him. As such, he cannot afford the short-term rush of having a personal spat with the leader of a nuclear-armed country, even one as unbalanced as Kim Jung-Un. In the worst case scenario, we will end up with a war on our hands. And even if war does not break out, this is not a measure of success, because all that will mean is that the president's word means nothing.

I’m not saying that there are easy answers; North Korea has confounded at least the three most recent administrations. However, the president has advisors, as well as experienced people in and out of government who might help on this issue. Promising “fire and fury” may sound good and tough in a playground, but this is not the sandbox. This is the world, and millions of lives are at stake. If ever there was a time for the president to grow into his responsibilities and oath of office, this is it. And if he is not willing to do so, then those of you who advise him need to remove him from this position from which he can do grave damage to our world.

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