Our first-grader recently came home excited to enter the school talent show. She surprised us by announcing, “I am going to sing the Preamble of the Constitution.” Against the percussive sounds of her siblings playing with blocks and the back beat of family meal preparation, she practices her a capella Schoolhouse Rock melody. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”
It’s been a good soundtrack for the Jasmine Revolution and the U.S. budget battles. “We the People” of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and neighbors are seeking a “more perfect union” than provided by their corrupt kleptocrats. It is a return to their post-colonial hopes for a more just social order, hopes stolen decades ago by autocrats, who obstruct justice, tranquility, welfare, liberty and concerns for posterity. The outcomes of their struggles are uncertain, as these “Jurassic Park” leaders rage against their own extinction. But the glaring disparities in age and wage, greed and need, opportunities and dignity between the autocrats and the governed will continue to generate resistance. And the revolution’s tipping point of high food prices will continue (thanks to global climate change, rising demand and vulnerable supply).
In a too-rare moment of bipartisan agreement, voices across the U.S. political spectrum urge support for democracy abroad, while ironically doing much to damage democracy at home. Our new Congress made quite a show of starting the session by reading the Constitution aloud. But I wonder if they listened to the words. Forming “a more perfect union” is not an optional commitment. Placed first among government’s core purposes, it is democracy’s key challenge. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. Like our faith’s challenge to seek “communion,” it requires us to seek greater union among people with whom we fervently disagree, people who do not share our viewpoint, class, demographic or ethnic group.
The budget battles reveal a lack of commitment to union, even as a goal. Disunion is seen as a “badge of honor;” seeking union and domestic tranquility are decried as selling out. Justice and promotion of the general welfare are spurned as “Nanny-state socialism.” Securing the blessings of liberty is touted as incompatible with a distorted view of the “requirements” of defense. Posterity is given short shrift by all. Faux fiscal conservatives rightly decry excessive budget deficits while hypocritically leaving military spending, the largest part of the discretionary budget, untamed.
The United States spends more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined. No politician dares suggest a return to anything near spending levels prior to Sept. 11, 2001 (“merely” $277 billion). This spending benefits politicians of both parties and military contractors, while servicemen and servicewomen who serve in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle for their veterans’ benefits and food to the poor is cut. This is entrenched corporate welfare, not promotion of the general welfare. As Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany said, “It is morally unacceptable to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”
This sort of wealth-shifting, while neglecting the economic pain of the unemployed and working classes, is creating revolutions abroad. Our leaders decry extremist ideologues abroad while sanctioning them at home. We denounce the murder of the moderate Pakastani minister Shahbaz Bhatti while easily evading any troubling societal responsibilities for the Arizona murders, which politicians of both parties conveniently dismiss as merely the crime of an isolated madman. How long did the vaunted post-Arizona enhanced civility last in these budget wars? We urge moderation abroad, while we fail to practice it at home. Cheering democracy on from a distance is easy. Building it with political opponents at home is hard.
Upon hearing our daughter singing the preamble, a neighborhood kid said, “Cool. Do you actually know what all those words mean?”
“I’m learning,” she replied. That is something we all need to do.