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The Preamble’s Failed Promises

In 1787, the Founders of the United States of America created a Constitution whose essence is set forth in a 52-word Preamble, which enumerates five principal goals “to form a more perfect union”:

- Establish Justice

- Insure domestic tranquility

- Provide for the common defense

- Promote the general welfare

- Secure the blessings of liberty

How have we done in keeping those promises made 236 years ago?

Establish Justice

Despite the promise of “Equal Justice Under Law” as carved over the entrance to the Supreme Court, it is hard to argue that our governments, from state to federal, have achieved this goal. All the data we have tell us that some large segments of the population are far more likely than others to face arrest for similar activities, more likely to be imprisoned, more likely to serve longer prison terms. Our prisons, which contain a greater percentage of our population than any other country, are overpopulated, largely with people of color. The poor are less likely to have competent advocates in court, less likely to have access to non-prison alternatives. Their children are consigned to under-funded public schools and are priced out of the best-quality higher education. In short, with some notable but singular exceptions, we have failed to “Establish Justice.”

Insure domestic tranquility

In this year alone, there have been more mass shootings than days – nearly 200 according to the Gun Violence Archive. There were 647 in 2022 and 690 in 2021, nearly two a day. For the first time in our history, the principal cause of death for young men, ages 15-19, is gun violence. Random shootings have taken the lives of the “God-fearing” in their places of worship, of children in their schools, of shoppers in grocery stores and malls, of parade onlookers and concert goers, of freeway drivers and party celebrants. As gun laws are loosened – with no requirement for training, for permits, for background checks or waiting periods – gun violence predictably becomes more and more normalized; we’ve come to expect it. We no longer feel safe anywhere. Even without reference to the assault on the Capitol in 2021, it’s clear that we have failed to “Insure domestic tranquility.”

Provide for the common defense

With our government spending more on national defense than England, Germany, France, China South Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India combined – $766 billion in 2022 – this promise is the closest to being realized. And yet, with tens of thousands of immigrants ready to pour across our southern border in the absence of any comprehensive legislation that might effectively provide order in immigration, many Americans cite this as a failure to “Provide for the common defense.” Nevertheless, this is a Preamble promise largely kept.

Promote the general welfare

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more than half a million people living in this country with no home to go home to – more than 30% of them families with children. In California alone, there were more than 170,000 homeless men, women and children on our streets last year. And while governments at all levels continue to commit both resources and rhetoric to the problem, it only grows worse. While more and more families and individuals are homeless, the top 1% of our population earns more than $1.3 million a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, while the average income for the rest of us, the other 99%, is just over $50,000 a year. Among industrialized countries, like those in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and others, our level of income inequality is the greatest. Clearly, except for those at the very top, the government’s efforts to “Promote the general welfare,” must be counted a failure.

Secure the blessings of liberty

Securing the blessings of liberty is enshrined in a Founding Document that predates the Preamble by more than a decade, the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While “the blessings of liberty” – the “pursuit of happiness” – were expanded in the decades following World War II, we have seen a plethora of statewide laws limiting the human rights of women to control their own medical decisions in the area of reproductive rights, as well as laws preventing access to certain medical procedures and prescriptions for young trans people. In some states, one cannot read about or even speak about these issues in schools. The United Nations “Independent Expert to protect against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the United States,” has stated that the “rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse (LGBT) people are being deliberately undermined by some state governments…” (For them), “equality is not within reach, and often not even within sight.” When politicians pursue their own happiness by denying that pursuit to others, it ceases to exist, except as one more failure in that list of promises in the Preamble.

The “more perfect union” promised to us in the Preamble, still remains beyond our reach.

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