by Danielle Allen published in The Atlantic
Read original on The Atlantic's website
We are all well-aware of the Constitution's three-...Show description
Posted 909 days ago
People can have the chance of self-government through the institutions of constitutional democracy if and only if they prioritize the preservation of those institutions over wins in substantive domains of policy.
Danielle Allen's article is an argument for centrist incrementalism. She interprets the founding of the Republic as a "great compromise" between those of the Northern States and those of the Southern ones. This is a common argument; but what is uncommon is that Allen's great-great-grandfather was a slave whose worth was "three-fifths' that of a free person. That is what makes her argument much more effective: if someone whose family has dealt first hand with systematic oppression, how can I, as a free individual (not entirely, but to an immeasurable degree compared to Allen's ancestors) be not willing to compromise on issues of the modern day.
Through the article, I think that Allen wants to show that democracy is not an emotional exercise: it's a brutally rational system in which we have to displace our hopes and dreams for pragmatism and civility. I'm personally not completely bought into this view, but I will acknowledge that Allen has changed my opinion slightly. She cites Benjamin Franklin:
If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objection he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent [the Constitution] being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity.
The objections that Franklin alludes to are generally those against slavery. On one hand, as American citizens we are taught to believe that our founders were omnipresent, able to create laws and institutions that are applicable to the present day. Internationally, many countries joke at this; their constitutions have been rewritten many, many times. They questions how Americans can believe so foolheartedly in men writing 300 years ago. But here, we believe in the essence of their writing; we believe in the hope and inspiration that they instilled in a people fighting for their freedom. But here's the thing: at the same time they fought for this freedom, they subjugated hundreds of thousands of people to their own system of government. And this is where Allen's voice rings unlike others: her bloodline comes from this very same oppression.
So why, then, do I love the Constitution? I love it for its practical leadership. I love it because it is the world's greatest teaching document for one part [my emphasis] of the story of freedom: the question of how free and equal citizens check and channel power both to protect themselves from domination by one another and to secure their mutual protection from external forces that might seek their domination.
If that is not inspiring, coming from somebody whose ancestors were a slave, I'm not sure what is. But at the same time, I think that incrementalism and compromise may have been what prolonged the institution of slavery and discrimination. The Northern states (and many people in the Southern states), could have forced the hand of those opposed to slavery. But we are often afraid of the fallout, the economic or social consequences that those things will do to the"natural" order of things.
Could a coalition opposed to concessions to slavery have brought the nation to its knees in the early years of the Republic? Certainly. But sometimes, I think that the ethics and morales that we give to following generations are more important than the economic prosperity that we provide. I may be naïve or foolish to think so, but politics, to me, is often about how we want to see the world, and later about how we can make economics work. Many people would argue against this, but I would ask what you prefer: a removal of 100 years of slavery from American history or the smartphone that sits in your pocket?
I personally think the smartphone would have happened even faster, with African Americans being an integral part of the intellectual community earlier we would have discovered things faster and better, but I think that some people believe slavery was a compromise for an economic system (cotton, tabacco, railroads) that grew America into what it is. I think that is a wrong and misguided opinion, but one that exists notheless.