Barack Obama: The Audacity Of Hope. Chapter Three: Our Constitution. ( Majority Rule With Minority Rights.)

January 12, 2012 by
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Barack Obama Taking Oath of Office On January 20,2009

I, Barack Obama, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Obama in this chapter discusses the Constitution and the ways of interpreting it.  Looking to the intent of the Founders is difficult because the Framers of the Constitution were often divided on the way the Constitution should be interpreted. A strict interpretation of the Constitution dismisses two hundred years of experience, history and change in applying the Constitution. We are a technological society of over 300 million people and no longer an agrarian based society of three or four million people.  Obama believes the Constitution is a guide as to how to think rather than a document telling us what to think in a modern society undreamed of at the time it was adopted.

Despite this some would interpret the document literally. If it doesn’t clearly say it then it can’t be implied although reason and experience tells us the Framers probably would.  Obama states that the Framers knew at the time the Constitution was adopted it was not a finished document. The first ten amendments, The Bill Of Rights, applied to white property owners only. It took later amendments and cases to apply these rights to rich or poor, black or white, male or female and eliminate any racial limitations. The Fourteenth Amendment made them binding on the States. Other amendments were needed for things like income tax, term limits on the Presidency or the abolition of alcohol, ratified and then repealed.

Recently however Constitutional rights have been weakened by anti-terrorist legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the Chief Executive. (After writing this book Obama himself became President and one wonders how he would write this chapter now. What about using a drone to summarily kill an American citizen in a foreign country for expressing beliefs alleged to cause others to commit acts of terrorism? War and other emergencies often seem to trump the values expressed in the Constitution.  Lincoln suspended habeas corpus so Northern troops could safely pass through Maryland to protect an undefended Washington D.C.)

The Constitution doesn’t talk about Filibuster but the Senate recognizes the procedure and it was used to perpetuate Jim Crow laws for one hundred years and is often used by a minority to block laws, judicial and other appointments supported by a majority but not a super majority of 60 Senators. This minority rule arising in the Senate, whose membership is based on two Senators from each state, is itself not representative of all the citizens of the United States equally and in that sense also is a minority body.  This is one of many concessions the Framers and others made to make the adjustments necessary for a Federal union to work.  Thus the Framers recognized that there are seeds of anarchy in a pure democracy and so put in measures like a bicameral legislature, one house based on representation by population the other based on representation by state, with different terms, to avoid precipitous change or the tyranny of the majority over the minority. (Sometimes it seems like the tyranny of a skillful minority over the majority.)

Obama sees the Constitution as a body of rules for a rational, deliberative process. With its elaborate machinery, checks and balances, separation of powers, federalist principles and the Bill Of Rights it is   designed to force us into a conversation, testing ideas against external realities , forging alliances and making concessions to make our Democracy work even in trying times.

The Framers did not recognize and absolute truth or an “ism” or dicta from on high and thus the Constitution forces those in power to take all the public’s ideas and interests into account when formulating laws.



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