EssaysFeaturePurple Wednesday

We, the People, Must Vote

However imperfectly, the framers of the Constitution imagined the vote, not guns, as our most powerful right

We the People of the United States…

 I have always been stirred by this phrase that begins the preamble of the United States Constitution: we, the people. What it meant was that this new chapter in politics would not be an extension of divine will and ruled by hereditary office holders, as European monarchies were. The United States would be a nation ruled by its people, however fraught that concept was in the late 19th century. And littered throughout the Constitution is the word “vote.” Office holders are appointed by voting; when legislative bodies met, they too would make decisions by voting. The legitimacy of every branch of government, at the national and the state level, would be determined by the casting of ballots by we, the people.

This revolutionary notion was also, initially, a very conservative notion of governance. Written in 1789,“we the people” represented a very narrow concept of who counted as a “person.” It described in lofty terms a society in North America that was more stratified, and where power was more closely held by an elite, than it would ever be again. Yet, these “united states” that laid exclusive claim to the word “America,” also hinted at forms of community never before experienced. Forged in a painful and costly separation from England that, among other things, left my own city of New York a charred ruin, the Constitutional convention that produced this document imagined itself as creating a democratic society unlike any other.

Seems crazy, I know. But stay with me.

…in Order to form a more perfect Union…

OK, it wasn’t a perfect union. Not by a long shot. On the other hand, the founding fathers, and a founding mother or two (“Remember the ladies, John!” “Later for that, Abigail! ”) saw some possibilities in this “we, the people” business. But many of those possibilities were . deferred indefinitely. The men who had fought for, financed, and written the justifications for a rebellion that was either treasonous or patriotic, depending on your point of view, took immediate steps to prevent democracy from being activated. Restricting economic rights by race and gender was one decision that would determine the future: another was that some Americans would be owners, others would be owned.

Most importantly, only a few Americans would vote for at least thirty years. This wasn’t a default position: it was a plan. Yet over the course of the next two centuries the phrase “We, the people,” would keep calling insistently to those who had been not granted the vote.

It still does. We, the people, are of color; we are Jews; we are transgender, gender non-binary and queer; we are immigrants, documented and undocumented; we are women; we are disabled; we are students. We are many things. In our more perfect union, we would all be granted the power to make collective decisions about how we wish to be governed. We would not only vote, but we would aspire to casting our ballots without fear of violence and intimidation.

I am willing to grant you that Americans live in a more perfect union than we did in 1789. But we, the people, seem as far away from that perfect union today as we ever have since the 1960s. The last two years of Republican misrule have made it evident that these united states are not only vulnerable to the illiberalism that has consumed democracies across the globe, but that we are now a primary engine of that illiberalism.

…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…

There is really nothing clearer than that the United States, under the Trump administration, is not only willing to tolerate domestic terror, but also committed to pursuing isolationist policies, as well as alliances with authoritarian rulers and illiberal heads of state that make both this country and the globe a more unstable, violent, and unjust place.

What the Trump administration, and the Republican Party more generally, seems to be ignorant of is that, while domestic tranquility was a preoccupation for eighteenth century men whose prosperity rested on extermination, enslavement, and suppressing the occasional tax rebellion, peace at home can no longer be separated from violence abroad.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders can declare all she wants that the White House “deplores” antisemitism, even with little tears running down her face. Maybe they do, but they don’t care about actual Jews out here in the world if they continue to mobilize, appease and offer comfort to white supremacists and nativists. That is just a fact. The White House can trot out the skinny little Kushners all they want, but I will never believe that the Trump administration does not understand that their so-called “base” understands antisemitism and the expulsion of immigrants of color as exactly the same thing.

And speaking of domestic tranquility, following the pipe bombs sent to Democrats last week by Donald Trump’s Biggest Fan,  I noticed this morning that it is impossible to mail a letter along the route of New York City’s Halloween Parade. The mailboxes have all been locked shut, to prevent someone putting explosives in them.

There could really be no better visual metaphor for the collapse of governance and public order over the last two years. This is what we mean by domestic tranquility in the age of Trump: locking things down, shutting down the federal services, and distributing more guns to the “right” people so that they can kill the “wrong” people. This is, in a nutshell, the Republican theory of public safety.

Is this really what makes you feel safe? Because if not, you need to do everything you can to cast a vote next week for the Democrats.

…provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare…

 Last week, after the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, I sent out this tweet:

What I meant by this is that, well, people are dying. Lots of people. There have been 297 mass shootings in the United States this year (that’s nearly one a day), shootings that were almost exclusively committed by so-called native, white Americans who share the values of Trumpism (the Tree of Life shooter took matters into his own hands because of his belief that Trump was not extreme enough.) Over 12,000 people have been killed in these incidents, and almost twice as many have been injured, many permanently maimed. You can see a list here, compiled by that politically radical news outlet, Business Insider.

We, the people, need to remember that we live in a country that was forged as much in violence as in the aspirational tone of our founding document. This violence took the form of chattel slavery, of settler colonialism, of union busting, and of police violence against workers and communities of color.

The violence of the Republican party in the Age of Trump occurs on both the fringes and in the core. The policies that this party has advocated presumes that people will not only die from gunfire, but that they will die from treatable diseases, from suicide, from addiction, from lack of access to ordinary pharmaceuticals, from illegal abortions, from fleeing political violence supported by U.S. dollars, from racism and from poverty. This is an acceptable cost for GOP.

We, the people have no choice but to provide for our common defense and the general welfare. Let me repeat myself: this means voting for every Democratic candidate you can vote for next week.

Please help. We, the people, are dying out here.

…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is the nub, isn’t it? The blessings of liberty? But to be free does not mean being free from our obligations to others. That the Tree of Life congregation understood this, and supported refugee asylum, was why, according to the assassin, they had to die. But perhaps the greatest mistake liberals and leftists have made up to now has been to leave the idea of “liberty” up to the right to define. For them , our rights flow from our willingness to arm ourselves, and to defend ourselves from “foreigners.”

But I would argue that the preservation of our rights begins with that one, precious right to vote: it is our shield and our sword. Voting can be as much an act of consensus as it is an expression of enmity, even in our divided, partisan present.  In fact, those who see votes as weapons do not fundamentally understand what a vote is: it is an expression of care, of community, and of citizenship. It is as much about the other as the self.

No one is coming to save us from the Trump administration, but in six days, we, the people, have the chance to save ourselves. No, no – don’t inflate your expectations. The madness will not be over. The powers that be in the Democratic party will continue to enrage you and make you want to vote for socialists and Greens sometime in the near future, or even go back to voting Republican.  We may still be playing whack-a-mole with the Clintons and their allies. I don’t know. I can’t look past next Tuesday yet. But at last, after all our marching, organizing, Facebooking and tweeting, we, the people, have an opportunity to put a dent in Trumpism, to slow it down, and to re-activate the checks and balances that the Constitution promised, however imperfectly.

What does democracy look like? It looks like you, casting your vote: for yourself, for your neighbors, and for we, the people.

God bless us and save us on election day, and bring us a Democratic majority in the House.

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