In his essay The Political Pot Boils Over, Humphrey Institute’s Brian Atwood notes how polarizing political campaigns promise to defend the causes of “The People.” http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/105541253.html
Politicians understand the deep doubt and sense of citizen disempowerment as at the core of populist angst. But candidates’ contrary claims to the cause of the people, begs the question, which specific people do they propose to represent?
What to take back
Presuming the call to “take back our country” is a sincere populist intention, not just the public front for a partisan campaign strategy, a question Atwood asks is critical: What are we trying to take back?
To conceive answers, we first need to consider what “We the People,” means. The phrase, in it’s original context reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Written as the preamble to the US Constitution in 1787, the phrase didn’t then and doesn’t now call for mass revolt or regression to any specific time in our history. Which is not to say the lessons of our history aren’t relevant. Indeed they inform, at least, and scaffold, at best, who we are today. Few argue that “Securing Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” is an immutable ideal that prevails across nearly all partisan and citizen lines–and thus, might be a good thing for us to “take back.”
If we truly seek to reclaim our common right to liberty, or as it is often referred to, freedom, we should be aware that obtaining it demands far more than putting into power appropriately earnest leaders who will take their responsibility as public servants to our “inalienable” rights as their unequivocal job. Certainly we intend to elect politicians to uphold and assert policy with due commitment to our Constitution.
But freedom, nearly by definition, can never be fully realized if it is only distributed through institutional means. The Founders clearly implied that American rights, ideals and freedoms are not intended to be static distributions doled out by government. But rather, the dynamic, human embodiment of our common rights, which must be ever-engaged and enacted by, with and through We: “the People.”
Only when we as citizens, regardless ethnicity, income or idealogy accept and act on what we’ve been given can we obtain Liberty. Among the most critical assets we have been given are the specifically American and collective opportunity to succeed and our specifically human and unique abilities (what Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship refers to as civic agency) to succeed by working together–as We.
Mission “We,” not Me
In other words, our Constitution didn’t intend its interpretations to be expressed by or for any one “Me.” It intended for “We the People” to access and interpret our individual freedoms together and co-constructively. Or, as Atwoods’ essay explains, a shared sense of decidedly American”destiny and mission.”
Thus, only by participating in solving our problems with each other and our government can we take back our country. This requires that we respect how our own and diverse others’ contributions are critical. If we can, we’ll realize our power to attain our inalienable rights rely on focusing on a lot more “We” and much less “Me.”
Freedom, we as Americans should know better than most has never been achieved when individuals are isolated by institutional or interpersonal means or who isolate themselves from collective process.
US is us
Our country tis of thee–translated, that would be us–can only be taken back when we all, from the marginalized to the powerful, see it as just what it is: Us, We, United.
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
Founder, Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue