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The whole of our country is built upon a concept called the rule of law. We have written documents that explain how we have chosen to live and work together, what we agree we should do and what we should not do, and how to best make decisions in the future.
Civic engagement means we all need to understand the basics: we have a Constitution, we have laws that stem from that document, and we all agree that following the laws generally makes things better.
And: we have a way to create, change, and repeal laws that involves everyone. We call it “democracy.”
But the details have gotten muddy.
The biggest challenge we face with the Constitution is that not enough Americans have read it.
The document is just shy of 5,000 words. Add the 27 amendments and it's under 8,000 words. The more we, as modern citizens, work to understand what the framers created, the better we can decide what to do.
What we all need to know about the Constitution is that it has three main parts: the Preamble, the Articles, and the Amendments—and that these work together to establish the foundation for our entire economy and society.
Everything about American life is profoundly influenced by what's on that piece of paper. Everything.
That opening is brief and explains what the country is all about:
|We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.|
That tells you the kinds of actions that the government should be taking, although the details of which ones and how much are certainly up for debate. The men who created the U.S. Constitution believed these ideals were important. That's why they but them up front.
The document continues of seven Articles, each of which cover a specific mechanical component of government, which are organized into Sections. One article describes the scope, size, and rules for Congress. Another covers the Executive branch, including the President and Vice President. A third article covers the court system.
The fourth article handles the relationship between the states, including how to admit new states. Article Five outlines how to amend the Constitution and make changes. Article Six establishes that the U.S. Government and Federal law is the supreme authority, notwithstanding limitations made within the Constitution. And the final article is for signatures, indicating mutual agreement to move forward.
There are 27 of these. Each one is intended to clarify a freedom that Americans have, or to establish sharper, clearer rules. The 14th Amendment explains what it takes to be a citizen. The 22nd Amendment limits a President to two full terms. The 8th Amendment attempts to curtail the governments and the courts from being vindictive.
The reason we have Amendments instead of regular laws is because they require so much more work to put into place. Not only Congress has to approve them, but 3/4ths of state legislatures have to as well. They are, in modern language, a big deal.
There are two problems here: first, not enough people know what the rule of law is, and second, gaps in the rule of law are spreading like cracks in the foundation of society.
This idea, the rule of law, might best be summarized as fairness. Whatever the rules are, they are applied fairly to everyone. Nobody gets an undue exception. Nobody gets a pass solely because they are well-connected. Nobody is able to commit a crime and then bribe their way out of consequences.
And we are all aware that the laws aren't being applied equally. Some people get away with things that they shouldn't. Sometimes this is people who are rich, other times it is because they are famous. At times, it's because society or the media is fixated on the story of “people like them.” But the lack of fairness is eating us alive.
This is why the Constitution and the rule of law is more important than ever. We need to go back to what we all agreed to do, and follow it or change it.
Because without law, we don't have a country. And without a country, we are in serious trouble indeed.