February 3, 2017
The United States Constitution is a figment of our imagination.
Let that sink in. Just like the rest of our laws, our money, and indeed our country itself, the Constitution does not exist independently of the imaginations of hundreds of millions of people. It continues to have effect because we continue to see it in our minds and put our trust in its entirely made-up power.
Yuval Noah Harari, in his exquisite book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes things like nations, currency, corporations, and constitutions as fictions. He cites the human ability to concoct and believe in the power of fiction as a driving force of our ascendance and adaptiveness as a species. He explains that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.” He continues,
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination….States are rooted in common national myths….Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths….Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no…nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings….[An] imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world….Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly….
It’s time for us all to start thinking of the United States Constitution in this way. We need to consider the fundamentally fictitious nature of our country’s guiding legal and governmental document because, as Harari says, “under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly.” The myths, in other words, are fragile. And circumstances are indeed currently changing rapidly. A handful of people with a great deal of power understand that fictions such as laws—not to mention rights, branches of government, and checks and balances—exist only so long as people believe in them.
Let me be explicit. Regardless of whether President Trump has the nuanced intellectual ability to fully comprehend such concepts, Steve Bannon and others pulling our government’s strings do. I say we need to contemplate the fictitious nature of our Constitution not because we should question its existence. Just the opposite. It exists in our minds, and we must keep it there. The manipulators who have grabbed power in Washington and in state capitols around the country are working non-stop every day to change our minds. They are dead set on insidiously eroding our imaginations. They seek to fracture our collective belief in the myths—the powerful, lasting myths—that have brought our country so much stability and prosperity over more than 227 years.
I really don’t mean to terrify you. I simply want all of us to be aware that something deeper is at stake right now than whether Roe v. Wade and the Endangered Species Act remain in effect. These two issues, and a thousand more, are absolutely critical to maintaining a modern secular state based on at least a modicum of reason, compassion, fairness, and stewardship. However, there is something more fundamental at stake that dwarfs issues such as these that are so immediate and close to our hearts. Whereas George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of that crew were ideologues bent on making the Constitution and the country work in their favor, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Mitch McConnell, and many others want to destroy the working fictions sustaining our American republic. They would then, presumably, offer new fictions such as corporate hegemony or theocracy as replacements.
Over the last few years, the movement to destroy our belief in the Constitution has gained momentum, with voter suppression, Citizen’s United, congressional Republicans shutting down the government, their stonewalling of Merrick Garland, and Trump’s nefarious election, but it has picked up pace in the last month. Proposed bills or executive orders to allow protesters to be removed from roads by any means, to sell off public lands, to demolish the wall between church and state, etc.—not to mention Trump’s intweetidation of anyone in any branch of government or walk of life. This is a coordinated effort.
Every fiction faces tests. Some arise and disappear rapidly (see the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637), while others persist for thousands of years (see most world religions). Some fictions are destructive (NAZI ideology), while others have tremendous potential for good (our Bill of Rights). Our foundational fictions are currently facing their biggest challenge in many years. This could be a good thing, as we all know that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” If a fiction can survive a major challenge it is likely to last many more years, bolstered and refreshed. To be honest, our Constitution could use a little freshening up, so let’s hope that happens during this whole rocky process.
There are already positive signs that enough people share in the fiction of the Constitution to successfully fight back against the attackers. The court system has so far done its job of checking the executive branch as several federal judges have ordered a stay on the President’s executive order restricting entry for nationals from seven predominantly Muslin countries. The citizens of the U.S. have contacted their representatives in such an overwhelming way on some issues that sponsors of bills have rescinded them. There are rumblings in Congress about putting the President in his place on some of his most egregious proposals. Stay tuned to see how many people in Washington will fight to hold onto their imaginations.
This test faced by our Constitutional fiction is a momentous event in our nation’s history. If our communal beliefs waver, and the fiction dissolves, what replaces it is likely to be something far darker. So we must all fight, fight, fight for the survival of our sacred national fictions. They embody essential elements of our humanity and our collective intentions. We cannot continue the effort, however imperfect and slow it is, to make a better country and a better world without them. Hold onto your imagination of what our country’s blueprint is and could be—and help others, from your street to the nation’s capital, do so as well.