The Constitution is America’s secular Bible. Like the good book, it is cast as an unerring source of authority which, like the oracle at Delphi, we turn to when our mortal efforts have failed.
The catch is that the Constitution, like the Bible, is a silent document whose life and meaning depend on those it serves. It speaks only to those who read and interpret it and declare their answers timeless truths.
As a result, it is less stone tablet than Rorschach test.
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The Constitution and the Bible have endured so long because of this supple paradox: They meet our psychological need for absolute constancy in a changing world while also providing the necessary freedom each generation requires to define things as they please.
Hence our rancorous political parties and myriad religious denominations, all of which espouse different ideas in the name of the same single truth.
Two recent events – the wrangling over electoral maps and voting rights in North Carolina and the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death – have brought this dynamic into sharp relief. They remind us once again that there is little room for principle in our politics.
In North Carolina, the GOP-led legislature, which routinely calls for a return to constitutional principles, has worked overtime to throw sand into the gears of democracy. Whatever their merits, all of the “reforms,” especially limits on early voting days and sites and voter ID requirements, have a single intention: to make it harder for Democrats to beat them at the polls.
The same animus informed the electoral maps they drew in 2011, which they were forced to revisit last week after federal judges ruled that the districts be redrawn.
Senate Redistricting Chairman Bob Rucho left no room for doubt last week when he declared that the goal in drawing the new maps was maintaining the GOP’s 10-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation
In our evenly divided state, such gaming of the system puts power ahead of principle.
Gerrymandering has been common at least since 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew a district that resembled a salamander. It remains common practice today – one of the worst offenders is deep blue Maryland.
North Carolina Democrats who so loudly protest these efforts merrily drew their own serpentine districts to extend their power when they controlled the process. What’s different today is that technology and big data allow politicians to precisely draw districts to maximize their advantage. This is why we must find a better way – perhaps the appointment of a nonpartisan (if that’s possible) body – before maps must be redrawn after the 2020 census.
For their part, Democrats have divisively played the race card to claim the moral high ground in a typical political debate. Although they cast early voting as a sacred principle, eight of the 13 states that do not have early voting went to President Obama in 2012.
While Democrats claim the GOP is trying to reinstitute Jim Crow across the South, the fact is that African-Americans – like much of the nation – have been flocking to the Old Confederacy. How inhospitable can it be?
Black voter turnout has risen sharply since 1996. Tellingly, the greatest percentage increases occurred before President Obama’s election in 2008 – he didn’t create the wave, he rode it. In 2012, African-Americans voted at a higher rate than non-Hispanic whites. Black votes matter like never before.
As African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, GOP reforms are not driven by racism but by bare-knuckle politics. Their efforts are not only wrong but, apart from gerrymandering, ineffective.
That every aspect of our system is more partisan than principled is underscored by the brewing battle over the Supreme Court. Following Justice Scalia’s death, the court is, for the most part, evenly divided at 4-4.
Both sides recognize that the next justice will provide the crucial swing vote on contentious issues. And that, despite the empty promise of almost every nominee to see every issue as a legal rather than political question, the next justice will further the philosophy of the president who nominates him or her.
Obama will invoke constitutional principles as he selects his nominee; the Republicans will do the same when they reject that person.
Then we will have an election to determine who has the power. That’s the principle of democracy.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.