Politics & Policy

Only We the People Can Awaken America from 2016’s Nightmare

(Dreamstime photo: Americanspirit)
It’s been an awful year, but all is not lost.

Like all the worst nightmares, 2016 started off with such promise. The Republican field of 17 was star-studded, including accomplished governors, senators, and business leaders. And it was diverse, unlike the almost monolithic Democratic field, with an accomplished woman, an African-American, two Cuban-Americans, and an Indian-American.

I began the cycle supporting Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, a conservative leader who ushered in an unprecedented era of bold reforms in the most divided of purple states. Once Walker exited the field, I immediately settled on Texas senator Ted Cruz. Throughout, I implored my fellow conservatives to seize the opportunity to elect a once-in-a-generation conservative champion who could usher in a new era of a smaller, more effective, constitutionally limited federal government. In the end, of course, the GOP nominated Donald Trump, instead.

On Friday, the nightmare of 2016 reached its climax: Just as Hillary Clinton seemed to be entering the final stages of her coronation, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter alerting Congress to “the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the [Clinton] investigation.”

Where once there was calm, now there is chaos. Polls have tightened. Alarmists have begun describing the current developments as the beginning of a constitutional crisis. On Sunday, even my typically calm and collected pastor implored the congregation to fervently pray for our nation that it may peacefully make it through the next week.

While these are undoubtedly trying times and our future remains uncertain, our nation has faced existential threats before and managed to rise to the occasion. One hundred and fifty-five years ago, President-elect Abraham Lincoln made his way from Springfield to Washington, D.C. by train. Lincoln was inheriting a nation coming apart at the seams, and he knew it. When he arrived at the Indianapolis station on February 11, 1861, he appealed to those gathered for their help in saving the Union:

While I do not expect, upon this occasion, or on any occasion, till after I get to Washington, to attempt any lengthy speech, I will only say that to the salvation of this Union there needs but one single thing — the hearts of a people like yours. When the people rise in masses in behalf of the Union and the liberties of their country, truly may it be said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against them.”

I, as already intimated, am but an accidental instrument, temporary, and to serve but for a limited time, but I appeal to you again to constantly bear in mind that with you, and not with politicians, not with Presidents, not with office-seekers, but with you, is the question, “Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generation?”

It may seem as though the gates of hell are once again prevailing against us now, but it is useful to remember that the salvation of the union needs but one thing: the hearts of people like you.

This is a difficult sentiment to embrace. Elections are now zero-sum games. With less focus on principles and policy, the electorate almost exclusively turns its attention to the candidates, their profiles, and their teams. This has a profound impact on the way in which the public processes information during each campaign.

Those supporting Trump from the outset have feverishly demanded blind allegiance from the conservative base. Some conservative Trump opponents have resorted to creating black lists of Trump supporters. As my friend and colleague Mario Loyola recently argued, both sides of the conservative civil war must resist the urge to engage in a circular firing squad.

Simply capturing the reins of federal power for short-term gain won’t solve our larger problems.

Simply capturing the reins of federal power for short-term gain won’t solve our larger problems. Conservatives and the nation as a whole must turn back to first principles, including a competitive form of federalism whereby policy solutions emanate from the states. Such a system is the best way to ensure that policy choices can be gauged and assessed, with successful prescriptions being replicated and failing ones shunted aside. Better yet, by decentralizing power, it would make control of the federal government less important, and, in turn, lack of control of the federal government a less apocalyptic prospect.

Even amidst the political chaos, there are signs of hope that we can move in that direction, irrespective of who wins the White House a week from now. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan is relentlessly pushing his bold agenda of reforms, which “takes our timeless principles — liberty, free enterprise, consent of the governed — and applies them to the problems of our time.” Referring to one of the most dangerous developments of the Obama administration, Ryan argues that “after decades of executive overreach, it is time we restore our Constitution. That means we take control away from unelected bureaucrats and give it back to the people and their representatives so we are writing the laws that we live under.”

Others have argued for even bolder systemic changes. In Broken but Unbowed, Texas governor Greg Abbott advocates for several constitutional amendments, which share a deep and abiding trust in the power of the people of this country to reset a constitutional framework that badly needs it. One would correct the executive branch by prohibiting administrative agencies from creating federal law. Another would restore the Tenth Amendment by “clarifying that all powers not ‘expressly’ delegated to the federal government in the Constitution remain with the states and the people” and by allowing a two-thirds majority of the states to override a federal law or regulation. A third would allow a three-fourths majority of the states to override a Supreme Court decision and require a seven-justice supermajority vote “for decisions that amend the Constitution by creating new constitutional rights or obligations or decisions that invalidate a democratically enacted law.”

The Ryan and Abbott proposals are just a few examples of positive policy prescriptions that have otherwise been drowned out by 2016’s endless nastiness. But the reality remains: A week from now, the nastiness will come to a head. Some friends will vote for Trump. In light of just how brazen Hillary Clinton has been with the levers of power, even to the point of selling access to our own State Department, such a decision is rational. Still other friends will conclude a vote for Trump is simply too much to ask. That too is a defensible position, one based on principle and an abiding respect for constitutional prerogatives they fear Trump simply does not share.

Ultimately, whatever the outcome Tuesday, it is worth bearing in mind that the officials we elect are but “accidental instruments, temporary, and to serve for but a limited time.” It is “we the people” who hold the keys to the Republic. It is incumbent upon us to chart a path forward, one that recognizes some of the legitimate concerns raised by Trump’s supporters while holding true to the conservative principles many of us continue to believe in. Too many continue to look for political salvation from politicians, presidents, and office-seekers, when all along, the escape from our political crises has resided much closer to home.

Jake Curtis is a Milwaukee attorney. He previously served as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ chief legal counsel under Governor Scott Walker and as an associate counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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