by Bob Carlson
Many Americans today, no matter what part of the political spectrum they occupy, believe American values face historic threats.
We do face challenges as a nation. At times, it seems that compromise is beyond reach, and our great experiment in democracy could falter.
But at times like this, it is important to remember that the powerful institutions of our democracy—an independent judiciary, the rule of law, free speech and a free press—have helped us weather political scandal and extremism that tested the central philosophies and traditions of America’s society.
From the xenophobic 19th century Know-Nothing Party; the corruption of Reconstruction, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; McCarthyism; the Watergate scandal and many other challenges—our institutions have been tested and strained. In the end, the rule of law prevailed. Our system of checks and balances held. When some checks failed to work, others ensured that our democracy was protected.
Our institutions are indeed strong, but they are not invincible. They still require the support and protection of the people to endure. As lawyers, we are required to be well-versed in civics and knowledgeable about the Constitution. Given this grounding in the Constitution and our duty to defend it, we have a special obligation to get involved and ensure that our institutions and rights emerge from the current challenges intact and unscathed.
This is especially important today, when our democratic institutions are attacked by some government officials and others who look to disrupt and mislead.
Our independent judiciary is one institution under assault. Yes, clashes between presidents and the judiciary have been a tradition in this country. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, through to Barack Obama, presidents have expressed dismay with court rulings. But these were battles between government branches fought mainly on constitutional grounds, not personal terms.
Disparaging judges with personal rhetoric has no place in our society and will only serve to erode the public’s confidence and trust in an institution that is a critical pillar of our democracy.
Attacks on free speech and a free press also have no place in our society. Criticism of citizens for exercising their right to dissent or be heard and calling the press the “enemy of the people” cannot be tolerated.
It is impossible to imagine our country without a free press and the right to speak freely. Even as technology has reshaped how these freedoms are exercised, these rights have proven to be resilient.
Both free speech and free press will be the theme of Law Day next May as we explore these freedoms’ importance and consider their future.
Another powerful institution of our democracy is free and fair elections. This month, we will go to the polls, where all eligible voters can express their voice to their representatives. But this institution also faces tests as foreign powers attempt to meddle in our elections and influence our choices.
All Americans have the responsibility to exercise their rights to speak out and to vote. Democracy is not served when the people do not participate. In the past 20 years, midterm election turnout has averaged under 39 percent, and we, as a nation, simply can and must do better.
If things sometimes seem hopeless, do not despair but act instead. As lawyers, we can accomplish this by teaching civics in schools, contributing pro bono time to support access to justice, defending our judges and institutions at the local level from political attack, and keeping elections honest and untainted.
Our country will endure, because citizens will continue to put in the work to sustain the institutions that uphold us. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “It is with your aid, as the people, that I think we shall be able to preserve—not the country, for the country will preserve itself, but the institutions of the country—those institutions which have made us free, intelligent and happy—the most free ... people on the globe.”
This President's Message was published in the November 2018 ABA Journal.