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The Constitution versus America: On Immigration


A majority of Americans want reform of US immigration policy. House Speaker John Boehner said in September that immigration reform would be good for the economy. President Obama’s plan to change US policy is arguably the will of the people and arguably good for the country. As soon as the president announced his plan, some declared he was doing too little and others that he was doing too much. But there is a very different argument being made that worried me most.

Political cartoonist Gary Varvel (Indianapolis Star and Creator’s Syndicate) depicts President Obama driving over the Constitution: disrespecting and even harming it. Varvel isn’t very good at his job, and here he fails to show the reader what Obama has done to harm the Constitution. We have to infer from tha timing that he refers to Obama’s November 20, 2014 executive action on immigration.


Rick Mekee of the Augusta Chronicle is clearer about the issue with his cartoon. Mekee shows Obama laying down the Constitution across a gap in the US border fence, inviting people to step on the Constitutional “welcome mat.”


Both cartoons stress the dignity of the Constitution over the details of the immigration question. Neither cartoonist is a Constitutional authority. But each knows his own values and priorities. Neither implies in his comic that Obama’s action is bad in itself – but bad because something something the Constitution.

They imply that the dignity of the Constitution is an important goal – even that it is more important that the immigration question. Are they right? What matters most when the will of the people conflicts with Constitutional considerations? When the good of the country requires action that can’t or just won’t happen under the Constitution, must the good of the country yield?

I want to insist on something conservative. I want to assert that the Constitution is the foundational document of the US government and society. Whatever the United States is, the Constitution makes it so. The strongest supporters of the Constitution agree with that. But they often fail to take the next step and recognize that whatever failings we have as a nation are Constitutional failures. The defects in our political process are Constitutional defects. The flaws in our collective national character are flaws the Constitution allows.

If my cows jump the fence and get into your cornfield, you’ll call me and demand two things. You’ll demand that I get the cows back onto my property and you’ll also insist I fix the fence. If I say the fence is OK as it is, you can quite reasonably insist that it isn’t. The purpose of fences is to contain cows. The fact the cows escaped proves the fence isn’t good enough.

The purpose of the Constitution is to provide good government enabling citizens to be pursue happiness. (I don’t say the purpose of the Constitution is to guarantee happiness for all. Its purpose is to give good government, which should be measured by the mood of citizens.) If the government isn’t good (as America’s isn’t), or the people are not happy (as Americans aren’t), the Constitution isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. It isn’t helpful to say the Constitution is fine if only the people would behave. If cows didn’t wander into cornfields every chance they get, fences wouldn’t be necessary.

A major theme of this blog will be that great changes to the national character and governing compact are needed. Good government and happy citizens are important. I’m not hostile to the Constitution. The changes I think are needed would retain much of the old language and nearly all of the original principles and values. But the existing document mustn’t stand in the way of good government, a thriving society, or happy people. We mustn’t allow foggy thinkers to force a choice between the current imperfect implementation of the Constitution and the kind of polity and society we want and are capable of implementing.

On the subject of immigration, I agree with most Americans that US policy needs to be fixed and the illegal status of millions of people needs to get normalized. A few of the illegal immigrants ought to be expelled from the country (as the new Obama policy allows). Most of them are decent people who just want to work and support their family.

As both President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have said recently, America is a nation of immigrants. Many Americans have got an interesting and inspiring immigrant story to tell. But I have one thing they haven’t got: a heroic ballad about my first ancestor. Folk musician Marji Hazen performs the Ballad of Adam Zehner at the link Or if you want to do the song yourself, here’s the lyrics and music.

My ancestor came to American as something very like an illegal alien. He spent the first three years here as an indentured servant, and I’m sure the neighbors felt he was driving down their wage rate. But he fought in the American Revolution, raised a big family and by the end of his life was counted a good American. For this reason, I incline to be soft-hearted and sympathetic toward later immigrants. Their reason for leaving home is similar to my ancestor Adam’s reason for leaving Germany. Their status here in the US is at present about as nebulous as his status was. And for the most part, I think they make good workmen and good neighbors, just as Adam Zehner did.

Don’t be an idiot!

The word idiot comes into the English language from French, and before that from Greek  (ἰδιώτης) where the word carried a different meaning. To the Greeks of Athens, an “idiot” was someone who minded their own business. A person with high intelligence was still an idiot if they spent their time only on their own business and never on the concerns of the community. An idiot took, but did not give back.

The best source for information about how meanings of words evolve over time is the Oxford English Dictionary. I checked it. But if you don’t have an OED, the Wikipedia entry is very good

“An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs. Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education. In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary). . . Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state), was considered dishonorable. “

In old Athens, every citizen was expected to get involved. Of course, most people weren’t citizens. The Greeks kept women, foreigners, slaves and others outside the circle of true power. In modern America, almost everyone is  a citizen, but our chances to participate in democracy are as much curtailed as if we were an outsider.

Outside of the New England town meeting, Americans have no chance at all to participate as citizens in governance. (I use governance to mean the actual decision-making and operations of public affairs: deciding which road will be paved, who will be arrested or bombed or sent back to Mexico. Or who will be awarded a multi-billion dollar bailout reward for their criminal malfeasance. The people who make those decisions are either elected to office or hired for an administrative job. They came from the citizenry, but they govern because of special status.)

Ordinary citizens can only vote, write letters and attend public meetings. Those things at best exert a loose and indirect influence on public affairs. At worst they are meaningless.

Yes, I said voting is meaningless. And I mean that the single vote of an individual voter is never going to determine any outcome of any public election or referendum. I’m not suggesting that anyone not vote. I vote myself in most general elections. I get a nice thrill out of flipping the levers, out of all proportion to the significance of my votes or the probable conduct of the people I’m voting for. But I never for a moment imagine my votes will mean anything. Mental Floss offers this fun list of instances where one vote supposedly determined an election. But every case on their list either happened long ago, in another country, or was actually settled in court or by some other means than the vote tally. The Bush/Gore election in 2000 is proof enough for me that our electoral system can’t be relied on to settle a close election. Not every jurisdiction is as messed up as Florida, admittedly.

Americans have plenty of opportunities to volunteer for community service projects. They can clean up trash along a highway, or cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. When disasters occur, they can volunteer time or money – especially money – to help the victims. What they can’t do is determine that public needs will be met in a thorough, fair and proactive way. They can only watch while those in political control leave affairs in a mess and then volunteer to mitigate the damage afterwards with their own time and money.

It isn’t easy to play a meaningful part in civic affairs. Even for people who don’t wish to be idiots.