In general, constitutions are written by people who expect to live and work together for generations to come. It’s when enough people no longer feel this way that Constitutions are weakened or destroyed. One of the reasons they might feel that way is because they have become divided and no longer trust each other.
How divided are Americans today? A new report shows that maybe we aren’t as divided as we think we are. Researchers discovered Democrats and Republicans hold exaggerated ideas about how much they’re disliked by the other side. In particular, it seems many Americans believe their political opponents disagree with them and hate them about twice as much as they actually do.
The illusion is not surprising: our political leaders and media commentators repeatedly tell us how awful our political opponents are. There is quite a bit of fear-mongering going on. That’s a problem because our tendency is to dehumanize the other side, sometimes to the point where some of us begin to want to hurt or even kill folks on the other side. Yet – for what? For an illusion of division?
The truth is that any nation will be full of people with different opinions and ideas. There will always be distrust between at least some people if not many. The framers of our Constitution invented a system of government that directly addresses distrust. They designed a system that relied on (1) constraining political competition to elections and legislation – rather than violence or bribery; (2) thus ensuring that all power is derived from the voters and will remain accountable to the voters; (3) constraining and dividing the powers assigned to election winners; (4) guaranteeing political and civil rights for all citizens, even the losers; and (5) doing all of this in a federal system so that state governments would be close to the people while a national government could provide for the common defense.
The framers were not perfect. They did not guarantee citizenship to all people within the new United States of America. The framers did not use the Constitution to guarantee voting rights to all citizens. Instead, those rights were decided by each state, and the states were selective. They meant the Electoral College to serve as a way to filter out partisanship in the choice of a president. Yet, they failed to anticipate the distortions and frustrations it would create. Finally, they relied on state lawmakers, rather than the Constitution, to make it illegal (or not) for individual people to infringe on the rights of others.
Some of the framers’ omissions have been addressed. The 14th Amendment clarified that everyone born in the United States is a citizen, along with anyone naturalized to the United States. The same Amendment guarantees all citizens equal rights, equal protection of the laws, and requires that all people are counted equally. The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, nor on account of sex, failure to pay any poll tax or other tax, so long as they are 18 years or older. (U.S. Constitution, 15th Amendment, 19th Amendment, 24th Amendment, and 26th Amendment.) The right of indigenous people to vote was handled outside the Constitution, through the 1924 Snyder Act, with New Mexico being the last state to comply with that right in 1962.
More work is needed. Progress in stopping personal abuses of other people’s political and civil rights has been uneven. This is room for improvement on both sides, starting with mutual respect for each other’s rights of assembly and speech. Change happens only when enough people are willing to hear and understand each other.
Problem-solving can’t happen if we keep pushing our politicians to be warriors. Instead, let’s push our elected officials to lower the temperature, find some allies on the other side, hear their ideas, and solve some of our nation’s problems.
We can choose on this Constitution Day not to let the fear-mongers divide us. Instead, let’s uphold the purpose of the Constitution, to channel our conflicts into a constructive competition of ideas by ruling our violence, bribery, and the abuse of our political and civil rights. Let’s work together to keep our Republic.
Want to learn more?
- Here is a short course on fear-mongering, a technique used to divide people.
- Here is a short course on the differences between liberty-loving democracies and autocracies.
- CFFAD has commented on aspects of polarization before. See how polarization drives bad behavior in Congress, read how much we have in common, and learn about our urban/rural split.
- For political scientists and other wonks, the Comparative Constitutions Project looks at the evolution of constitutions over time and across countries.