Constitution Day is an overlooked holiday. Yet Sept. 17 should not go unnoticed. The foundational principle of our governing charter is at risk of being forgotten. Recalling it is essential to our national future.
With the distance of 234 years, it’s easy to forget the revolutionary nature of the Constitution. Like every country, America’s founders asked themselves a simple question: Where does power come from?
Yet unlike every country, they gave a radical answer. It is the Constitution’s first three words: “We the people.”
This principle turned history on its head. It recognized the truth that you and I and all our fellow citizens are the ultimate authority. The Constitution set forth a powerful standard for Americans to meet.
From the moment those words were written, it was obvious: America fell short. Our country has allowed terrible wrongs to exist, most notably slavery. Such injustices made “we the people” more hope than fact. They concentrated power in the hands of a few, despite the moral mandate to empower the many.
Previous generations strived to uphold that promise. The abolitionists helped end slavery after the Civil War, the suffragettes won the right to vote for women, the civil rights movement moved us closer to equal protection under the law, and so many others have written the story of American empowerment. With each barrier that was broken, the country moved closer to “we the people.”
But somewhere along the way, that progress stalled, and even reversed.
Not in every respect. The quest to empower all our fellow citizens is alive and well in movements for equality under the law, criminal justice reform, a better education system, and economic opportunity for all, among others. Yet in other ways, the recent trend has been to disempower people. Power is being taken from the many and given to a select few.
This trend takes many forms, and it defies a simplistic left-versus-right framework.
To start, our elected officials have asserted control over ever more of daily life.
Across both parties, there is a growing sense that nothing is beyond the government’s purview — that all questions can be resolved by federal legislation and executive orders handed down from on high. Yet the more power that’s wielded by Washington, D.C., the less that’s left for Americans everywhere else. A government capable of doing everything will leave the people with the freedom to do nothing.
Elected officials also have delegated their power to the judicial branch.
Rather than take hard votes on tough issues, they’ve asked the Supreme Court to decide some of the most divisive and consequential issues. Yet the American people gave lawmakers the power to legislate, and by giving that power away to unelected judges, we the people are less able to hold our leaders accountable and shift the policies that govern our lives.
Finally, our elected officials have created a government insulated from the people’s control.
It’s called the “administrative state,” and it’s so large, even Washington, D.C. doesn’t know how many departments, agencies and commissions it has created. This vast bureaucracy has authority to control the economy and even create federal crimes — 300,000 and counting. Yet no American ever voted for it, and none of us can vote against it. Do we really want power to reside with the unelected and unaccountable?
All three problems are getting harder to ignore. If you’re on the left, you’ve probably worried about D.C.’s decisions in recent years; if you’re on the right, you may feel the same way right now. Americans of all political stripes are wondering why so much power has been granted to so few people, with so few limitations on how they can wield it, and so few consequences when they overstep their bounds.
There’s no better day to think about these challenges than Constitution Day. And there’s no better time to ask the question that animates that document: Where does power come from?
The answer is “we the people” — all of us, not merely some of us. It’s as radical now as it was on Sept. 17, 1787. And it’s just as important to return and keep that power where it belongs.
Doug DeVos is co-chairman of Amway and chairman of the National Constitution Center.