For more than two years, the tea party and its allies have lectured the American people about the need to return to our Founding principles, peddling, among other things, a series of constitutional fairy tales about the radical limits allegedly imposed by the Founders on the ability of the federal government to solve national problems. Most recently, in their 2012 party platform, Republicans declare themselves “the party of the Constitution,” and, on Sunday, Governor Mitt Romney asserted he was “as conservative as the Constitution.” But no amount of Constitution-waving or tricorn-hat-wearing can change one basic fact: this election season, conservative Governors, election officials, and state legislators nationwide are working hard to deny Americans one of their most cherished constitutional rights — the right to vote.
There’s no better moment to highlight this conservative assault on constitutional voting rights than in the coming weeks, as the Nation celebrates the Constitution’s 225th Anniversary. Officially, Constitution Day is September 17th, but over the next several weeks celebrations and related events will occur in D.C., Philadelphia and around the country, including an important hearing convened by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy titled “The Citizens United Court and the Continuing Importance of the Voting Rights Act.” Every one of these events is a perfect opportunity for progressives to speak powerfully against the ongoing efforts by conservatives to suppress the vote.
Perhaps more so than any other constitutional guarantee, the right to vote is deeply embedded in the Constitution’s text and history. And yet conservatives are trying to change election rules to disenfranchise eligible voters — passing restrictive voter I.D. laws, shortening early voting hours, and making it more difficult to register to vote. Some tea party candidates are even advocating repeal of the 17th Amendment, which would strip Americans of their right to vote for U.S. Senators. At the same time, conservatives have embraced rulings by the Supreme Court that allow corporations and the rich to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans in the electoral process.
That’s some 225th Anniversary gift for the tea party’s beloved Constitution. But it does give progressives the opportunity on Constitution Day 2012 to recapture the constitutional high ground and put the tea party and its allies on the defensive.
We must begin by embracing our constitutional heritage, rather than effectively ceding it to conservatives. Don’t believe this is happening? Then spend some time comparing the relative treatment of the Constitution in the Republican and Democratic Party Platforms. The Republican Platform has an entire chapter entitled “Restoration of Constitutional Principles,” and the document is infused throughout with claims about our Nation’s charter. The Democratic Platform is entirely devoid of anything resembling a constitutional vision. It’s no wonder, then, that many Americans assume that conservatives are right about the Constitution. They’re the only ones routinely talking about it.
Progressives need to turn this around, and we should start on Constitution Day by reminding the American people of the story of constitutional voting rights. This story begins with our democratic Founding. Never before in world history had a government charter been ratified by the people themselves. Furthermore, rather than keep voters from the polls — as conservatives are trying to do in 2012 — the Founding generation took important steps to increase the number of eligible voters in the ratification process, with many states waiving voting restrictions (such as property requirements) and some allowing African Americans to vote for convention delegates.
Although wildly restrictive through a modern lens, the ratification process was inclusive for its time. And the patriots who gathered in Philadelphia did not intend for the document to be complete. Article V, authorizing Amendments, made it clear that the 1787 Constitution was not an end, but a beginning.
Over the past two centuries America has moved ever closer to the full promise of what President Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” “We the People” have poured precious blood and treasure into a series of reform efforts that produced the six Voting Rights Amendments. These Amendments fundamentally changed our system of government — outlawing poll taxes in federal elections, giving ordinary Americans the right to elect U.S. Senators, allowing the citizens of our Nation’s capital to vote for President, and guaranteeing African Americans, women and 18-year-olds the right to vote.
These Amendments are just as much a part of the Constitution as is the original text, and they call into question state efforts to impose unreasonable, arbitrary restrictions on the right to vote. On Constitution Day 2012, progressives should share this story with our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers — anyone who is willing to listen.
But the fight must not end there. As long as conservatives believe they can win elections by changing the ground rules, the battle over voting rights will continue. And as long as conservatives are weaponizing the Constitution for political purposes — as the Republican Party Platform most certainly does — progressives must aggressively tell our own story about the Constitution. This story starts in 1787, but it also prominently includes the 27 Amendments ratified over the last 225 years which improved our Constitution by ending slavery, enshrining guarantees of equality and citizenship, expanding the right to vote, and ensuring that the national government has the power and resources necessary to protect the nation, address national challenges and secure civil rights.
Only by telling this story of the whole Constitution, including the Amendments, can progressives truly seize the Constitution from the tea party and its allies and expose their selective ancestor worship for the sham that it is.
It’s hard to imagine a better birthday present for the Constitution.
(This piece was written with Tom Donnelly, Constitutional Accountability Center’s Counsel and Message Director. It will be cross-posted on www.textandhistory.org).
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