Those still paying attention to such things will hear from President Barack Obama this week for the sixth time on the State of the Union. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but here’s a short version of what we’re likely to hear, based upon the president’s first five performances (unbracketed passages in quotations are from previous speeches):
“I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is [still] a concern that rises above all others. [Five] years ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a Government deeply in debt.” Because of what I did, things are much better now, but for many Americans “change has not come fast enough.” That’s why tonight I’m proposing six “commonsense ideas” that poll tested very well among low-information voters. While we’re recovering from the mistakes of the past, we need to “win the future.” “We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began [more than] a decade ago. . .So tonight, I am proposing that starting [sometime in the indefinite future], we [do things differently].” We should all be able to agree that “if you make more than [the average voter], you should not pay less than [the average voter believes is your fair share]. . .Now you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking [another person] to pay [much more] than [oneself]? Most Americans would call that [a great deal].” “Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you.” “[But] instead of refighting the battles of the last [five] years, let’s fix what needs fixing, and let’s move forward.” … “renewable energy” … “investment” … “right now” … “solve the problem” …. “right now” … “bipartisan solution” … “smarter, more effective government” … “better [stuff]” … “right now” … “it’s about helping people” … “right now” …. “right now”…. “right now”
We can, in short, expect a lot of new initiatives much more certain to expand the powers of the Federal government than to “secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
It is remarkable, in fact, how little the rights of the American people have come up in the president’s five previous addresses. There was no mention of any right until his second speech, in 2010: “Our approach [to healthcare] would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan.” Oops. Of course, even here he’s not really talking about a right: you can’t sue to get your health insurance or doctor back.
The right of homosexuals to serve in the military also comes up in 2010 (you can sue for that one; in fact, the government will help you). We get a vague reference to the “rights enshrined in our Constitution” in 2011. Nothing in 2012. Last year served up the “God-given” right to vote and something about how “our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”
In foreign affairs, there’s the occasional shout out to multilateral intervention to protect the human rights of foreign nationals. But from all available evidence, the natural rights of the American people have nothing to do with the “state of the union,” which, we will be assured, is “strong.”
This should be remarkable in a country where, according to its founding document, the whole purpose of government is to secure natural rights. But it is perhaps appropriate for an age when we speak of rights most often to describe wants–the things we would like someone else to provide for us.
The modern State of the Union Address serves as a annual hour-long opportunity for the American president to inspire the citizenry – understood as homo economicus – on the benefits of Progressive state-centric compassionate political economy. There is a way out of this confusion, but if the founding-era defenders of the Constitution are correct, it may be a long and rocky one, requiring that the American people swear off many of the goodies we’ve become accustomed to receiving.
Near the center of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution was an important dispute over how best to preserve the rights of the American people. On their best days, at least, both sides acknowledged the sincere attachment of their opponents to the cause of liberty and recognized that their division principally concerned means, not ends.
The federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and James Wilson, consistently argued that “parchment barriers”–like careful textual descriptions of the limits of government power and enumerations of particular rights–would not preserve liberty over the long run. In fact, they might even menace it by, ironically, providing a pretext for oppressive government action.
This could happen in at least two ways. If the powers of the national government were too narrowly defined, the necessities of a time of crisis would require even the most responsible leaders to break the Constitution in order to protect people. That precedent, applied by later, less responsible leaders, could be used to justify actions not so necessary and not so protective of the people. Thus, for example, in Federalist essays 23-27, Hamilton argues strenuously against imposing imprudent limits on the power of the national government to raise and supply an army–at least until all America’s present and future enemies agree to do the same.
The other back door to despotism could be opened up through a (necessarily) incomplete list of rights–especially in a document that was supposed to grant only enumerated powers. Rights not listed might by implication be unprotected. Limits on powers not granted might suggest the government had general powers with only specific limitations. Thus, the Federalists argued that a bill of rights would be an unnecessary and potentially dangerous addition to the Constitution–until Madison proposed one (as a conciliatory measure) in the 1st Congress that answered these concerns with the 9th and 10th Amendments.
How, then, can liberty be protected? Hamilton gives the federalist answer in Federalist 28 (anticipating Madison’s more famous formulation in Federalist 51). The heart of the matter is the character of the people. In an extended republic, liberty should be more secure than in a smaller one, “provided the citizens understand their rights and are disposed to defend them.” Why? Because the usurpations of the federal government ought to be opposed by the state governments, if not from a love of liberty, then out of a rivalry for power. The people, by lending their weight to the efforts of the states, should be able resist and overturn all dangerous federal actions. Of course, when the states are the problem, the same formula works in reverse: the people and the federal government combining to resist state oppression.
The challenge in framing the Constitution, then, was not so much in carefully describing and limiting the powers of the government (the anti-federalist emphasis), but in providing the “necessary constitutional means” (as Federalist 51 puts it) to allow a liberty-loving people and one power-hungry government to check the attacks on freedom of another power-hungry government. The founders did that work well: electoral accountability, the system of checks and balances, and the role of the states in choosing senators provided those “necessary constitutional means,” leaving the people with the principal responsibility for protecting their own rights.
Today we have too few Americans who “understand their rights and are disposed to defend them.” State and federal governments are not so much rivals as co-conspirators in expanding their reach into our lives. As we suggested in our last essay, we may have to begin with baby steps if we are to make progress in restoring real self-government in the United States. If you’re still hoping for the president to take the lead on this front, think again: that’s not the type of change he believes in.
Perhaps we would do better to follow the First Lady’s call to the American people: “Let’s move.”
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter orFacebook.