A new year often brings optimism, but like a bad inversion day, 2024 already seems mired in gloom. Much of that gloom seemingly stems from a presidential election that dominates the news, even infiltrating our personal conversations and relationships.
Undoubtedly, this election year brings grave concerns. One party’s leading candidate faces numerous criminal indictments and has been barred from appearing on the ballot in two states. The other party’s leading candidate is under an impeachment inquiry for his potential involvement as vice president in the business of his criminally indicted son. And majorities of Americans do not want either to become president. Not exactly the stuff of new year good cheer.
But perhaps we should have greater hope for our country than the latest headlines portend. And one reason for faith in the future is found in our founding document — the Constitution.
Specifically, the Constitution’s preamble opens with these majestic words that rejected majesty: “We the People of the United States.” We may now take this idea for granted, but it was quite radical then: placing sovereignty in the people rather than in an individual or a small ruling class. And having the people be sovereign flows from the understanding, observed in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, and thus no one has a right to rule over others without their consent.
These ideas were not only innovative and inspired, they were inspiring, spreading around the globe. This move has some important implications. First, it means that ultimately, we hold the power. And as the nation’s power holder, its destiny is in our hands, not those of some despot or distant few.
Yet the Constitution is also cautious about the sovereign people exercising power directly. That is because a majority can also be just as tyrannical as a king. As Thomas Jefferson wryly observed, “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”
So the Constitution checks majority tyranny in various ways, including by separating the sovereign (the people) from the government (the people’s agents). Among other things, this separation also allows the people to not have to spend their time running a government. Imagine having to make sure the kids get to school on time, the bills are paid and your boss is happy, while also having to read the latest proposed legislation to prepare for a vote the next day.
So our Constitution frees the sovereign from the day-to-day details, but not from the duty of oversight and not from the duty of exercising the undelegated portion of our sovereign power. And one of the primary ways we flex our sovereign muscle is through selecting those to whom we then delegate our remaining power.
In other words, if those in government, as our agents, are failing us, well, we put them there in the first place (or we put those who put others there, such as judges). And if we are dissatisfied with how our agents, the sovereign’s servants, are doing in their performance, the power is left with us to remove them through elections and use reason to persuade our fellow citizens to do likewise.
Being the sovereign means we do not have to wait for a dictator to die or foment a revolution. We can vote. We can select our government servants. We control our nation’s destiny. Is that not cause for optimism?
Unfortunately, while people are often dissatisfied with the candidates selected by the major political parties, participation in primaries and caucuses is meager. Take midterm elections, where one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives is up for election. Over the past dozen years, eligible voter turnout in midterm primaries and caucuses ranges from 6.5% to 9.9% for Democrats and 7.2% to 10.6% for Republicans. Presidential election year primaries fare only slightly better, ranging from about 21% to 37% of registered voters since 2000. Who wins might look significantly different if these percentages substantially increased.
Granted, participating in primaries and caucuses is not always easy or convenient. It takes time and effort, not just to cast a vote, but to cast an informed vote. And even when we work hard to do just that, we have no say over the similar choices of millions around us. (Though that is the natural consequence of all being equal and means that merely voting is not the only duty of sovereignty.)
There are also practical challenges, like differing and sometimes complex participation rules by state and party. And gerrymandering can cause voting to feel futile.
But the fact is these duties of sovereignty that delve on each of us do require enduring some difficulty. One cannot have self-governance without some self.
All of this “We the People” talk is not pie-in-the-sky optimism. Our constitutional democratic republic faces daunting challenges. But as a wise person once observed, there is no use worrying about what cannot be changed. And worrying is misdirected time and energy for that which can be changed.
We are the sovereign — not the president, not Congress, not the court. As sovereign, We the People should not wring our hands, we should do that which is in our power. And for that reason, 2024, and beyond, is up to us. That is cause for optimism.
James C. Phillips is the director of the Constitutional Government Initiative and an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute. He has published dozens of academic articles and worked on over 30 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court focusing on issues related to the Constitution and constitutional interpretation.
Editor’s note: For years, the Deseret News’ editorial page carried the epigraph: “We stand for the Constitution of the United States as having been divinely inspired.” This article is part of an ongoing collaborative series by the Deseret News and individuals affiliated with the Constitutional Government Initiative of Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute.