OPINION PIECE by Dr Keith Pochick, M.D. Follow him on Twitter: @keith_pochick
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…” – The Declaration of Independence
Consider the mood of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Certainly there was joy – the joy of proving Independence. No doubt the attendees also felt justification for a bloody, at times seemingly hopeless, fight. I’m sure however, that the exhilaration was tempered with a quiet sense of duty. The Founding Fathers had just waged an incredibly expensive, devastating, seven-year war to rid themselves of a totalitarian dictator. In attempts to discourage the rise of future authoritarians and avoid another terrible but necessary revolution, they painstakingly drew up a set of sacred laws. These laws would protect the citizens’ ability to dissent against the government, even alter it. Free speech, a free press, and the rights to assemble and petition were the very things forbidden by 18th Century dictators. The right to a fair trial, due process, and the right to bear arms were intended as safeguards to protect all the others. The Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting or keeping the family safe.
Consent and dissent are central themes to both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in particular. Re-read Jefferson’s passage from the Declaration at the top of this essay and recognize its boldness. The consent of the people is the sole reason for a government’s power. If the people do not agree to the policies and practices of their government, it is not only their right to ‘alter or abolish it,’ it is the Founding Fathers’ expectation that they do so. As I understand the structure of our government, voting acts as a surrogate for consent. We elect officials for finite terms because we agree with them enough to ‘consent’ to their tending of the government machinery. If we are unhappy with the way they tend to it, we replace them in the next election. The ‘consent of the governed’ implies a right to freely dissent against the government. Without freedom to dissent, consent is impossible.
Dissent is an active form of disagreement, and a concept uniformly embraced by the Founding Fathers. It provides a way to challenge the policies and actions of a leader without getting one’s head cut off or being thrown into prison. Dissent and discourse were the very foundations of the Ancient Democracies romanticized by our Constitutional framers. The Founding Fathers knew that in order to establish a government which espouses Democratic ideals, the right to freely dissent against the majority or leaders must be fiercely guarded.
When a President eschews, lambasts, and bans his critics in the press, he is attacking American fundamentals. When he insists that religious ideology is a factor deciding who gets to become American or even visit America, his policy flies in the face of the Constitution. When he fires all in the Judicial Branch who challenge or oppose him, he tests the integrity of our system of checks and balances. When he appoints Cabinet members who wish to emasculate the very Departments they lead, he aims to concentrate his own power. When he shifts funding for government science agencies to the Defense sector, he eliminates truth-seekers able to form and voice dissenting opinions, and gains more ‘order followers.’ While none of us is truly sure how deeply the connections run between our current administration and Russia, Trump has made it abundantly clear that he admires Vladimir Putin. There is no debating that Putin’s country is a black hole for dissent against the government. I admittedly do not have a history degree, but I don’t think one is necessary to recognize what President Trump’s intentions are.
When a party in power adopts policies which limit voting rights or otherwise enacts measures to reduce voting access, those policies never favor the citizens who wish to dissent. Voter suppression measures aim to suppress dissent, pure and simple. An assault on voting rights is coming, and we would do well to recognize and fight it. People in power do not voluntarily relinquish it out of the kindness of their hearts. Once the ability to dissent is gone, it takes a revolution to win it back.
Those who oppose a would-be American totalitarian regime need a clear, simple goal and purity of purpose. That goal should be to preserve the right of every American to dissent when he chooses. If we lose that, America itself is lost. Right now, it is easy to list the terrible concepts Trump’s opponents are fighting AGAINST. We fight against hatred, bigotry, and authoritarianism. Fighting against something is important, but it is much more vital to identify those beautiful principles we are fighting FOR. We fight for love, justice, equality, and the Democratic ideals upon which America was founded. How on Earth can we be defeated when we fight together for pure and noble causes like these?
When waves relentlessly pummel a beach over a period of years, the entire coastline can be transformed, even unrecognizable to those who knew it well in previous decades. Perhaps the most devastating aspect of beach erosion is the protracted pace at which it occurs. It happens so slowly, observers don’t notice it taking place. Our American rights won’t be washed away in a single tsunami. A shrewd authoritarian knows that a strategy more akin to beach erosion will be most effective in bringing him absolute and unquestioned power. Assail the credibility of dissenters and systematically dismantle the means to dissent, then crush the peoples’ courage to dissent, and before long the citizens no longer possess even the will to dissent.
History has seen the rise and fall of a few great Democracies and Republics. Most historians agree that their respective downfalls had common themes – corruption and complacency. We are witnessing the rise of the most kleptocratic and corrupt administration in United States history, elected largely due to the complacency of the populace.
Upon leaving Independence Hall after 1787’s Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
It may seem a strange concept to many, but America is not going to last forever. No Republic ever has. But if Americans can refocus on our founding principles, perhaps we can keep it for another two hundred and fifty years.
Keith Pochick, M.D.