Explain why study of the history and principles of the Constitution is critical in sustaining American democracy.
One of the first units in my US Government classes is a crash course in early American history. In a post-revolutionary war world especially looking at many of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, we primarily analyze the struggles our nation faced. My students love to ask me why we spend so much time talking about a document branded by historians as a colossal failure. My answer is simple. Without the failure of the Articles of Confederation, we would not see the enduring successes of the Constitution. I believe the Constitution has been and is an enduring success because of its promises of: free speech and expression, a freedom from tyranny, and equal justice under the law. Without a continued study of these three principles, American democracy may be breathing its last bit of fresh air.
Democracies fail when citizens do not participate in their political system. However, citizens will refuse to participate if they can be persecuted for being in opposition to their government or its policies. A fundamental understanding of first amendment protections, especially free speech and the right to petition, are essential in protecting citizens who choose to be politically active. Therefore, it is necessary to not only have an understanding of the protections in the first amendment and what exactly "free speech" entails. But, I believe that there is an obligation to inspire our citizens to use their free speech to participate in the system. In the United States, we do not lack political opinions; however, we do face a deficit in terms of citizen participation. Focusing on the history of speech, assembly, and petition should be used to inspire citizens to not only make their voices heard, but also be willing to make demands to create the style of government, types of policies, and vision of America.
The second crucial Constitutional concept to study is protection from tyranny. Originally, our founding fathers preferred a confederate style of government because they wanted to preserve the sovereignty of individual states, believing states would be better protectors of their citizens than a national government. That was not the case; the states were wrought with cleavages amongst their population. In several states one saw tyranny of the majority, and threatening rebellions were peppering their way throughout the states. The lack of any central authority is what led our nation to the brink of a collapse before the Constitutional Convention. Studying the system of checks and balances and separation of powers can help protect us from tyranny by fostering an understanding of what rights we have, and how a government should limit its powers. Tyranny is only possible when the population is ignorant of their rights or the size and scope of government power. Understanding a government's limits can help citizens assert their strengths, which preserves democracy.
Finally, focusing on equal justice is essential in sustaining democracy. If there are structural barriers to participation, enabling citizens to participate politically or prevent tyranny is meaningless. If the first amendment is the most important part of the Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause has to be the second priority. As citizens, we have a duty to ensure our government is enabling all of its citizens to participate, and is not creating policies to exclude any grouping of its citizens. Again, if citizens are excluded, or a government is not protecting the rights of all, then a democracy will fail.