The Power of Paper: Our Constitution and the Demagogue

The Power of Paper: Our Constitution and the Demagogue August 4, 2016

Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1_optWe have a marvelous, though imperfect, Constitution and unlike most politicians, the Constitution has gotten better with age. This document is so inspired and has worked so well for so long that a few are tempted to give the document superpowers.

The Constitution has a not-so-secret weakness: it has no power not given to it by men.

Someone once said to me that the Constitution was a secular document because it makes no mention of God. While it is signed “in the year of of Our Lord” which is not a reference to King George III, the Constitution is a secular document in the sense that it is designed to govern in the human, broken sphere. It is not a divine document, a product of revelation, and it must be given life by fallible human beings.

The term “secular” is confusing because it has several meanings. I could never support a document dedicated to “secularism,” but am proud that our Constitution is secular. What do I mean? The Constitution is not the product of  “secularism”, the philosophy opposed to theism (the belief in God or gods), but “secular” as opposed to the home, church, or social spheres of a human life. Secularism leaves no room for religion as truth, the secular sphere is not governed by the rules of the church or family. No document dedicated to secularism could have been ratified or continued to be used by an overwhelmingly religious, in fact, Christian people. A secular document was ratified by Christians for everyone.*

The Constitution takes the classical and Christian perspective that people are broken: it is a government for men and not for angels. The checks and balances it sets up, between the states and the central government, between the branches of government, keep bad leadership from harming the nation. We are a republic and both the will of the people and the will of the elites are balanced against each other. The mob can be checked by the Supreme Court or by the Senate and the elites by the people’s House.

However, over time the power of the President has grown. Our chief executive can now create law through the vast federal system. It is no longer necessary to pass a law. In many areas a President can follow Jean Luc Picard and “make it so.” Presidents of both parties have contributed to this growth of power and there is no end in sight.

This is the problem with electing a demagogue, a man who stirs the emotions of the people, but not their reason. The powers of the modern presidency are great. He could literally order the destruction of humankind with our vast nuclear arsenal. He could remake our executive branch and our agencies in his own image if his narcissism was great enough.

I am confident that in the end, a demagogue would fail. The “other” party would oppose him or her and the American people retain enough  love of liberty to awake to their danger. I hope we would awake before it was too late. The damage that would be done, however, in the struggle would be very great. The ruling party would almost surely be corrupted by the desire for “treats” from the powerful and forceful executive. Americans are not immune to a cult of personality around the Leader. Both Presidents Obama and Reagan developed a devoted following that might have proved a danger to liberty if the men had not exercised their power with a fair degree of moderation. Even Franklin Roosevelt, at the height of the Depression and World War II, was as close to a dictator as America has had, withdrew from confrontation and respected, to some extent, Constitutional limits.

We might not be so lucky again.

This precious idea, this document, this Constitution, cannot defend herself. She can only count on “we the people” rising up to keep the demagogue from power. This is why before we vote, the American people must decide: are the candidates unhinged? Are they subject to extreme narcissism? We can survive the merely venal, but the man who looks in the mirror to see the face of God is a present danger to the Constitutional order. There is a reason that we elected Dwight David Eisenhower and not the American Caesar, Doug MacArthur, a man altogether too fond of himself.

Look at the candidates: Clinton, Johnson, Stein, Trump. You may agree with none and dislike all three, but the demagogue, the man for self and not for party, Constitution, or the old ways is the greatest danger to our wonderful Constitution. She cannot protect herself. Will we?




*The Framers were a mixed lot religiously. Some would have been happy (generally) with the beliefs of the Orthodox Church and some would have viewed it as “superstitious.” Some were evangelical, some deists, and some had few religious impulses at all.



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