Making Democracy Work: Constitutional Principles in an Age of Uncertainty
On Tues., Jan. 30, a lecture on the core principles of the United States Constitution was hosted by Dr. Katie Zuber, Assistant Director for Policy and Research at the Rockefeller Institute and visiting professor in Skidmore’s Political Science department. This lecture is the first of three programs on the core principles of the United States Constitution, and is sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Saratoga County.
The lecture opened with a speech from the President of the Saratoga chapter of the LWV, who describes the League as non-partisan, yet political. The League encourages informed and active participation in government and influences public policy through advocacy and education. While the League does not support or oppose any candidates or political parties, it focuses on modernizing and streamlining the voting process, promoting transparent and accountable government, and making it easier for all eligible citizens to participate in elections.
Calling the lecture on the United States Constitution a “timely topic,” Zuber focused on the three myths surrounding it and why they are important. She began the lecture by focusing on former President Barack Obama’s farewell address, which brought up the growing economy, persistent democracy, weakening trust in government institutions, and rule of law as challenges in the years to come.
The first myth Zuber mentioned was that the framers of the United States Constitution trusted the people to make decisions for themselves. She debunks this by citing a series of historical events starting with the failure of Shays Rebellion in 1787, an event that alarmed the framers and highlighted the inability of the Articles of Confederation to govern the American people.
The Preamble of the United States Constitution is often cited as proof that there was popular sovereignty in the country, but according to Zuber, it should be remembered that the original Constitution did not allow all United States citizens to vote. Over the years, various voting amendments had to be added to the Constitution. However, there are still barriers that prevent democratic participation in government, such as voter ID laws. Zuber cites the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder as the case that opened the floodgate of requirements such as voter ID laws and proof of citizenship, and early voter cuts, showing that the Supreme Court may not be the best solution to expanding participation in government.
The next myth, according to Zuber, is that the Constitution lacks fixed meaning. This, she says, is because the framers intended to be vague. What was left out of the Constitution is just as important as what was included, and she states that the Constitution should set the parameters of debate. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This statement could explain why the United States government is divided into three branches intended to serve as checks and balances for each other.
As a counterargument, Zuber presented Article II of the United States Constitution, which gives the US President the position of Commander in Chief without guidelines — as the framers intended to divide military control. Unfortunately, since World War II, many armed conflicts the country was involved in had no input from Congress, which was supposed to be responsible for declaring war, showing that it was unwilling to assert its authority. These types of situations prompt citizens to ask who should decide these issues and whether the government should assert its authority.
The third myth Zuber presented was that it is un-American to question or critique the Constitution. It should be remembered that the original document was written in a vastly different time where the standards of what was acceptable differ significantly from our standards today. In 1987, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, called the original Constitution defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the current system of constitutional government and the rights and freedoms that are fundamental today. As a result, it should be remembered that the Constitution is a living document that is constantly adjusted to accommodate for the different political and social challenges of each era.
In presenting three myths to understanding the United States Constitution, Zuber highlighted that the government is the result of constant questioning and challenges to the standards that are upheld today. In this day and age, it should be remembered that we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the Constitution in order to uphold the freedoms and rights we value.