Responding to Popular Fears: The Constitution is What Makes Us Great

Responding to Popular Fears: The Constitution is What Makes Us Great

I wrote Friday about my discovery of my own personal grief coming out of the 2016 election. I made clear then that my grief was less about the specific outcome than about the way both campaigns got us here.

What will matter most going forward won’t be what Hillary Clinton’s advisors said about evangelical Christians and Catholics, nor what Secretary Clinton herself said about Trump supporters.  It won’t matter as much (though it still matters), because they didn’t win.

It is President-elect Trump and his advisors whose comments will continue to make a difference. At least some of what was said on the way to victory will become the foundation for a Trump administration’s priorities. Not knowing which statements will be poured into that foundation, various groups of Americans are concerned about the next four years.

Not least of these groups are two rather different groups whose concerns are ones all of us should share. Those two groups are journalists and Muslims.

A president who, as a candidate, threatened to sue journalists and news outlets because of negative coverage may have a chilling effect upon the freedom of the press. And a president who, as a candidate, suggested loyalty tests for Muslims raises understandable concerns about the future of religious freedom.

Let me draw a clear distinction here. Promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington lobbyists certainly threatens lobbyists’ livelihoods, but it does not threaten their fundamental freedoms. Promising to punish Republican leaders who criticized candidate Trump may cast a pall on their political futures, but it does not imply that key elements of the American Dream that all Americans have a right to pursue will be denied them.

In part, this is what the post-election demonstrations have been about. They are about more than a dislike for an election outcome and a disdain for the incoming president, though these also have been drivers. At least some demonstrators were expressing an in part reasonable fear that the America many of us have taken for granted will be replaced by an America of the past in which many people found that the Bill of Rights did not protect their rights.

I’ve heard these fears. My Muslim neighbors are sincerely afraid and working hard to show that, rather than being a threat to American values and traditions, they are an asset. And I know that they are right to be afraid, because some of my Christian neighbors have assured me that these other neighbors are all terrorists.

President-elect Trump is not solely responsible for the fear my Muslim neighbors feel and the judgment expressed by some of my Christian neighbors. Similarly, our current popular disdain, in some quarters, for the press has been growing for decades, with and without the insults and threats candidate Trump uttered and tweeted.

It is worth remembering that what makes this nation great is its commitment to two sets of values that are at once necessary for each other and in tension with each other. We are committed to a form of representative democracy that, while not granting unbridled power to popular majorities, insists that the will of a sustained popular majority must be respected. We also are committed to fundamental human rights that protect minorities against that majority no matter how much the majority may dislike what the minority says or believes.

The mainstream media are making much of the seeming resurgence of white supremacist and bigoted movements and expressions. I’m not certain, at this point, whether the surge is statistically significant, or simply receiving greater-than-normal attention because it fits a media narrative. Suffice it to say that what we are hearing and seeing includes a larger volume of such expressions than most of us are used to.

Such expressions are not what makes America great. They are a tragic part of our history, to be sure, and of our present. But they fly in the face of the single document that authoritatively describes what America believes: The Constitution.

I often write about political realities and difficult leadership challenges faced by public officials. I’m far from ignorant of the limitations of political leadership that must depend (as all leaders in the U.S. ultimately must depend) on the support of voters.

Even so, I believe it is critically necessary for our public leaders at all levels to strike a common theme when it comes to the rights to which all Americans are entitled. Whatever the campaign rhetoric may have been, the governing mantra must be government for all the people. Vice-President-elect Mike Pence’s response to what happened when he went to see Hamilton is, in my opinion, a good example of how leaders can strike that theme in the midst of personally difficult circumstances.

Good public leaders are not prohibited from criticizing actions they consider wrong, even if they are committed by representatives of groups that are threatened minorities at present.

However, we should refuse to speak in ways that undermine the fundamental tenets of our system and our national creed, the things that make America great. We should refuse to throw unpopular groups to the popular wolves. We should defend the values and principles that define our political system and the best of our national heritage.

In other words, we should uphold the Constitution . . . all of it, for all people.